PARIS -- The black men's march on Washington last Monday was an astonishing initiative and, in its own terms, a great success. It was fully in the tradition of black activism in the United States. The ambivalence it provoked in America's black as well as white establishments -- which wanted to approve the march while disapproving of its sponsor -- was proof of its authenticity.
The establishments advocate integration. The ideology of the march was separatist, the doctrine of Louis Farrakhan, its initiator. The African-American community has repeatedly thrown up separatist movements even as it vainly pursued full integration into American society. Mr. Farrakhan is only the latest in a succession of preachers of separatism, interacting in tension with the great searchers for integration, in modern times Martin Luther King and his followers and successors.
Marcus Garvey preceded Mr. Farrakhan's Black Muslims, and the Black Panthers, founded in 1966, came after them. Mr. Garvey's black nationalism called for universal black solidarity and rejected integration, saying that blacks should return to Africa, as they could never be free in any country where they were a minority. Mr. Garvey became the most influential American black leader of the 1920s, with millions of followers.
The Black Muslims began (in 1930) by preaching separatism and self-improvement to the very poor and to prisoners. Mr. Farrakhan's Nation of Islam split off in 1975, a decade after the murder of Malcolm X, when the original group was moving toward integrationist ideas and alignment with the Islamic religion internationally.
Separatism is a natural and rational reaction by an oppressed minority which is struggling against the entrenched position of the majority. If you can't join the majority you can at least separate from it, so as to keep your self-respect. Or so the argument says.
In reality black separatism doesn't work because there is no place to go, either inside the United States or outside. Black Americans can't even go back to Africa. Some intellectuals and idealists went to newly decolonized Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. They found that to Africans they were just another version of Americans.
In a brilliant and heartbreaking "Farewell to Africa," published last March, the Washington Post's former Africa correspondent, Keith B. Richburg, wrote that after his African assignment he thanked God for the ancestor who, in irons and degradation, had endured that "horrific voyage" to slavery in America which allowed Mr. Richburg, today, not to be an African.
The search for African "roots," inspired by the novel and television drama of that title, has proved vain and sentimental nonsense. American blacks are not Africans. They are a New World amalgam of races, linguistic groups and cultures, including the white, and are as indelibly American as the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants whom Mr. Farrakhan damns (with the Jews) as the black man's ancient enemy.
Mr. Farrakhan's 10-point program, which demands an autonomous state for blacks, subsidized for the next 20 to 25 years by the United States, where schools will be sexually as well as racially segregated, and interracial marriage will be forbidden, is unachievable fantasy.
The black separatism which could happen in America would be composed of still more self-segregation by blacks, as in some universities and other institutional settings today, with even more self-segregation by whites -- moving not only to suburbs but also to guarded and walled residential compounds inside American towns and cities.
There could also be a still wider split between blacks who have succeeded and are committed to integration, and blacks who have failed and would obliterate that failure in the fantasy of a benign separation, while living the obscene realities of the segregated and heavily policed urban ghetto.
The men in Washington on Monday were not looking for escape but for self-respect, autonomy, the assumption of responsibility for their families and their communities -- which is the only possible way to go. To have traveled to Washington in the context of Mr. Farrakhan's rhetoric of separatism was politically dangerous. But nobody else had invited them.
The necessity of racism
Monday's men committed an act of hope, in defiance of the despair in black America. It is useless simply to rail against racism, as black and white liberals have done for years. Of course the U.S. has been profoundly racist. Slavery necessitated racism, since only a doctrine of black inferiority could justify slave-holding to people who otherwise considered themselves Christians and morally upright.
Lincoln said in 1854 that if the black man "was not a man, why in that case he who is a man may . . . do just as he pleases with him. But if the Negro is a man, is it not to that extent a total destruction of self-government to say that he too shall not govern himself?" To hold otherwise, he said, is despotism.
The racism essential to slavery provided the primal American crime -- and its tragedy, which may never be resolved. The civil-rights revolution of the 1960s, and the official measures of black advancement which have followed, constitute an imposing effort of atonement by white America -- but not a solution.
American politics are still dominated by the unspoken or unnamed issues of race. Presidential elections still turn on them. White discussion of the country's social crises more often than not is a coded debate over race. Louis Farrakhan's demand that black men save themselves, their families and their communities, is a fateful response to the fact that there is nothing else that will save them.
8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.