THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN varieties of Islam play a role in the black community that's not unlike that which the nationality parishes played for Catholic immigrants early in this century.
They provide a sheltered environment with strong community support in which members can acculturate into the ways of middle-class American life while protected from the negative effects of racism and the unstable elements in their own community.
In one of the first studies of the so-called "Black Muslims," T. Eric Lincoln emphasized this role of creating sober, responsible, respectable middle-class norms in a protected environment for blacks who wanted to break out of the street culture.
Members of the Nation of Islam do not use drugs, drink, smoke, abuse women or engage in drive-by shootings. They take care of their families, are faithful to their spouses, do not permit their children to join gangs and help their kids to do well in school. It would be hard to find better middle-class white Americans than the Black Muslims.
Minister Louis Farrakhan demanded those same ideals of the participants in the Million Man March on Oct. 16. I know he did because I heard him on television. I would never have read those ideals in the press because most reporters seemed to not find them of interest.
He also insisted that all the marchers return home and join a church or mosque. That didn't make the papers either.
The controversy about how many men actually came to Washington and about Mr. Farrakhan's anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic ramblings drowned out his message completely.
He isn't the first African-American leader to suffer the same fate for his fundamental message. Rev. Jesse Jackson has been saying similar things for years, but that message somehow isn't heard by whites.
Mr. Jackson preaches the importance of sober, responsible middle-class respectability to his congregations and yet he somehow emerges as a radical in his image among American whites. Somehow the important themes of these leaders get filtered out, perhaps because they are somehow not scary and hence not entertainment.
I make no case for anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism. I have experienced enough of the latter from white academics to know just how ugly that kind of bigotry can be. Jews have every right to be angry at and worried about Mr. Farrakhan's anti-Semitism.
Nor can I approve the second-class role that is imposed on women.
Yet resentment at Mr. Farrakhan's ravings should not blind us to the importance of what he stands for inside the African-American population and what his organization has accomplished for many, many men and women who are climbing up out of the streets. If a majority of African-Americans were members of the Nation of Islam (or any African-American church), our national gang and drug problems would be well on the way to a solution.
Does Mr. Farrakhan need enemies to support his strategy of pursuing respectability and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps?
Community loyalty may well require some kind of enemy to fight against. Immigrants in the ethnic parishes were determined to show Anglo-Saxon Protestants that they could be as respectable and hard-working and sober as those who came before them.
But they had another enemy -- the Irish. Not only must the worth of Polish culture be demonstrated to Protestant Americans, but it also must especially be proved to the Irish who were running the Catholic Church.
As I have discovered more of the history of the conflicts between Irish clergy and bishops and the more recent immigrants, I have concluded that they had every reason to dislike us and even hate us. Proving to the Irish that Poles were as good as they were meant the same thing as proving to the "Yankees" that the Irish were as good as them.
Someone to rave against
It may well be that protected acculturation to the American middle class requires some sort of opposition group against whom one can rave.
Mr. Farrakhan has gone over the top in attacking other groups. Yet there is nothing wrong with the pride in one's self and one's community. Even if African-Americans -- like the Poles in the first half of this century -- go so far as to think they are as good as, even better than the Irish.
Better that than drive-by shootings, drugs, gangs and welfare families.
Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, novelist and sociologist.