Soundings

Tamar Jacoby
Defining Bigotry Down
Autumn 1998

In a way, the so-called Million Youth March succeeded beyond organizer Khalid Abdul Muhammad's wildest dreams. Though only 6,000 people showed up, weeks later New Yorkers still were arguing over whom to blame for the melee that ended the demonstration—Khalid Muhammad or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The hate-spewing Muhammad won a notoriety previously unimaginable, and, fulfilling what was surely one of his aims, the march and its aftermath drove a poisoned wedge between black New Yorkers and the mayor. But almost no one, black or white, had given any serious thought to Harlem's at-risk youth—the ostensible reason for the rally.

Many of the Harlemites who showed up did seem drawn, at least in part, by concern for their community. Some brought children; others carried placards: "We love our youth." Still, a strange emotional disconnection existed between the crowd and the various speakers. Asked if they thought the rally was a hate march, many said no. "It's what you take away from it that counts," one earnest woman told me, as speaker after speaker lashed out at "bastard cops," "bloodsucker Jews," and "boot-licking" black elected officials. "I haven't heard any hate up there," another listener declared and added, "I haven't heard any anti-Semitism." Racial "unity" or divisive hatred: the sad truth is, many in the crowd couldn't tell the difference.

Harlem cries out for attention. But though outsiders might help the neighborhood's failing schools, many of its problems only Harlemites themselves can fix: children having children, deadbeat dads, able-bodied labor-force dropouts, the still-virulent drug trade, the persisting menace of crime. Yet neither Khalid Muhammad nor the other speakers had anything to say about these scourges; instead, they inflamed the crowd with lurid fantasies of a Jim Crow police state.

One speaker told listeners not to inoculate their children, since the white man's vaccines might contain the AIDS virus; another compared the federal government to Pharaoh, killing the black community's first-born male children. As for remedies, the idea of self-help cropped up, but mostly as another form of angry defiance—joining "self-defense" and resisting "our enemy," the police. Thc impressionable audience listened raptly and chanted on cue: "Black Power," "Fight Back," and—Al Sharpton's trademark phrase—"No Justice, No Peace!" The demonstrators came to help their children and left in hate—thanks to Khalid Muhammad, yes, but thanks also to a political culture in which the stress on group difference has defined bigotry down.

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