On Monday, as 400,000 black men went to Washington to seek a better life in mainstream America with a man who preaches separatism, we had the simultaneous act of allegedly nonseparatist white Baltimore County officials seeking a better life by keeping certain black people away from them.
So the great news of the day is that white and black Americans have at least one thing in common: Our hypocrisy.
Hallelujah, we're all brothers, say Baltimore County Council members as they reach for the phone. They're looking for a lawyer. They want to find a legal way to keep 1,300 poor black families currently living in the city from moving to nonpoor, nonblack neighborhoods in the county.
Hallelujah, we're all brothers, say those who marched to Washington. Not to put too fine a point on this, but: Colorblind brotherhood is not the message of this Farrakhan who organized the march and spoke for its final 2 1/2 hours.
And now, on the radio, have you heard the talk shows? You listen to the voices of black people, and you hear those who are thrilled simply to have looked across a sea of faces and, for one of the few times in their lives, not felt alienated, not felt like outsiders in a nation dominated by whites.
But you listen to the voices of white people, and you hear the sound of anger. On a day of atonement, they ask, where was the atoning? They heard the sound of Jesse Jackson digging up every exhausted rhetorical tic of the last 20 years. They heard Benjamin Chavis asking for money. (Now there's a mind-boggler: Did nobody notice that, the last time this guy handled money, he practically wiped out the NAACP? Who could trust this man with bus fare now?)
And, most dramatically, they heard the sound of Farrakhan, who looks at the ruinous state of black America, who managed to gather 400,000 anxious black men before him plus a nation of television watchers, and here is what he talked about:
The 19 rays of the sun in the seal of the United States.
The 440 cycles of the musical scale, and how this relates to the ATONE.
The 555 feet of the Washington Monument which, if you added a "1" to it, you got 1555, "which was the year we arrived in Jamestown as slaves," Farrakhan declared, which is stunning news to everyone since Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement, wasn't founded until 1607 and the first slaves didn't arrive for years after that.
Be honest: If a guy walked up to you on the street and started talking this way, you'd think he was overmedicated. If any other political figure in America gave such a speech, his handlers would be all over the networks the next morning explaining, "He had a little too much wine with dinner last night. It won't happen again."
4 But we were talking about hypocrisy, not lunacy.
In Baltimore County, where no one says the "N" word because such things aren't said in polite society, officials declare an absence of malice. No, they have nothing against black people. Nor poor people. But the combination of poor and black and rent subsidies to help 1,342 public housing families move to predominantly white areas in the county -- this troubles them.
Naturally, though, they express this in the language of great civility. No "bloodsucker" or "gutter religion" language of Farrakhan for them. No, sir. They talk of creeping urbanization, of "aging" county neighborhoods that need assistance and add that an influx of poor blacks with their "special needs" would contribute dramatically to these problems.
And there is truth to that part of the argument, but every black person who hears it, and has a history of living in America, tTC declares in the spirit of this week's march: "See that? Farrakhan's not the only one calling for separatism."
To which those in Baltimore County, in the quiet of their offices and their homes, tell each other that it isn't race at all, it's the very pathology that sparked the Washington rally in the first place: crime and drug abuse and family breakdown, whose conditions nobody solves because we speak in the mutual language of hypocrisy. Thus:
Whites fear the influx of black people in white neighborhoods, but use the benign language of "aging neighborhoods" and "already existing problems" to make their case.
Blacks talk of a day of atonement in Washington, to address self-destructiveness, but instead embrace a daylong recitation of white oppression.
Whites talk about the racist Farrakhan and his separatist urgings, but reach for the subtler machinations of race that the lawyers and the mainstream politicians will bring to the argument in places like Baltimore County.
Blacks gather in Washington to talk about brothers -- and leave white brothers wondering if they're no longer in the extended family. Because Farrakhan's whole history claims we're not, and his is the voice we hear today.