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Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2000 /7 Shevat, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Racialism Run Amuck

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy means rejecting hatred, whatever its origins -- THE QUESTION of what Martin Luther King Jr. might be doing if he were alive today is a favorite intellectual parlor game played out every January as the holiday that honors the martyred civil rights leader’s begins approaching.

Whatever the motivations of those who successfully sought to make King’s birthday a Federal holiday, they have succeeded in making him an icon for all Americans. Having sacrificed his life in the name of righting America’s original sin of racial inequality, his legacy has been embraced by the entire political spectrum of mainstream America from left to right.

The problem for those who would wish to exploit the name of Dr. King to support a particular political point of view is that, as the years go by, his legacy has become more and more universal.

Thus, his immortal lines from his speech to the 1963 March on Washington, that he prayed for the day when his children, and all children, would be judged “by the content of their character” rather than “color of their skin,” is a rallying cry for all Americans, not just African Americans.

Indeed, this belief in the goal of making America a color-blind society has become a major embarrassment to those elements, in what now passes for the “civil rights community,” who have long since discarded that vision.

The irony is that many — though not all — African-American leaders and leading intellectuals have little use for Dr. King’s rhetoric of inclusion.

The age of civil rights struggle that King symbolizes has given way to an era where racialism — the espousal of a philosophy of never-ending struggle between oppressed minorities and a white power structure — became the conventional wisdom of the day. Ironically, the very philosophy put forward by Malcolm X, that derided the struggle for desegregation and peaceful change towards a color-blind society, and which King vehemently opposed, is now what passes for garden variety civil rights rhetoric.

In a civil rights universe defined by people like Harvard intellectual Cornell West and his street hustler counterpart, New York activist/politician Al Sharpton, the struggle for the rights of individuals is irrelevant.

Instead, a new battle against something they call “institutional racism” has given rise to a situation where civil rights law no longer embraces temporary affirmative action policies to correct past discrimination. In its place, permanently enshrined racial preferences became law.

As someone who has spent time serving on a state Commission on Human Rights that enforced affirmative action law in Connecticut, I can testify to the way in which this not-so-subtle change in the meaning of civil rights has corrupted that noble struggle. When equal opportunity becomes a racial quota (as affirmative action goals sooner or later become), the rights of the individual are inevitably crushed. In the long run, few gain from the process.

Racism and discrimination still exist but the flip side of the coin is that the sort of black racists that Martin Luther King Jr. despised and spent his life fighting against are no longer on the margins. They have gone mainstream. The Louis Farrakhans and their more presentable fellow travelers in racialist rhetoric like Jesse Jackson are now the main address of the civil rights movement.

No wonder then, that there is a constant stream of worry about the state of black-Jewish relations. A 1998 Anti-Defamation League survey of American anti-Semitism produced data that showed that the one sector of the American population which still showed a high “index of anti-Semitic belief” was among African Americans. Thirty-four percent of black Americans fit into the ADL’s category of most anti-Semitic, as compared to only 9 percent of the general population.

The problem here is not that the majority of blacks are anti-Semitic. They clearly are not. Rather, the problem is that the views of the haters are seeping their way from the lunatic fringe into the mainstream.

But calling that hate by its right name is a dangerous business. Witness the treatment of author David Horowitz and his recent book, Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes. Horowitz, a veteran of the New Left and Ramparts magazine, was once a close ally of the Black Panthers. After an associate was murdered by that gangster organization, Horowitz began to reassess his life and his beliefs. He ultimately wound up as one of the leading scourges of the left with best-selling books like his memoir Radical Son.

In Hating Whitey, a collection of Horowitz’s recent essays, he takes on the racism of some of the leading African-American intellectuals of our day and the intellectual dodges — such as their fixation on institutional racism — that have allowed them to get away with it. Horowitz has retained the gut-fighting instinct of a former Marxist, which values obliterating the foe rather than resorting to easy-going reasoned discourse. But, in actuality, all he does here is state the obvious. As such, it is a valuable counterpoint to much of the nonsense one reads on this subject.

But the reaction to this not terribly controversial slim volume was ferocious. Time magazine branded him a racist and some newspapers even refused advertising for the book. The penalty for the politically incorrect crime of labeling African-American haters as racists can sometimes be that the truth-teller is, in turn, labeled a racist by otherwise well-meaning liberals.

The saga of Horowitz and Hating Whitey proves the danger that the politics of race poses for a civil society intent on battling the real vestiges of racism in our country.

The good news is that there are mainstream black leaders who are attempting to focus their community away from scapegoats like the Jews and the dead-end obsession with the vestiges of white racism and onto the real problems of African-Americans.

In New York, former Congressman Floyd Flake (and possible candidate to succeed current New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani) has become a brilliant counterpoint to the Al Sharptons, speaking out for the sort of traditional values both blacks and Jews embrace and emphasizing personal responsibility. Flake is a major supporter of programs like school choice or vouchers, which provide hope for inner-city parents whose children are trapped in a failed public education system.

Here in Philadelphia, a city where black-Jewish relations have always been on a higher, less-confrontational plane, new Mayor John Street, an African-American Democrat who narrowly defeated an able and popular Jewish Republican Sam Katz in an an election where race was not an issue, holds out the promise of unity. His ability to reach out to the entire city has helped make the agenda of those who would divide us even more marginal.

Myths about the civil rights movement of the past aside, blacks and Jews don’t owe each other anything. Yet, all Americans owe the memory of Dr. King something. We owe him a common commitment to battle against poverty and hopelessness and for racial justice. But we must also remember that if we are to truly honor his legacy, we owe him a commitment to fight racism and race-based hatred, no matter who the haters turn out to be. That was his agenda 35 years ago.

It would have been his agenda today.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin