One of the many letters responding to my Salon News column aboutblack racism and denial was from an angry Chicago reader named Alice Huber, who introduced herself as an African-American woman married to a white man.
According to Huber, I was indeed a “bigot,” as columnist Jack White had labeled me, slanderously, in Time magazine. Moreover, I was “the worst kind.” I had earned the sobriquet “racist” by suggesting that blacks might no longer be “oppressed” as a group in America, by questioning whether white racism was the immediate or principal cause of problems afflicting black youth like violence and educational failure.
Almost as damning in Huber’s mind was my claim to solidarity in the struggle for equal rights. “Horowitz says he earned the right to talk to blacks ‘honestly,’” Huber wrote, “because of the ’60s. Personally, I don’t care how many marches he went to, how much money he dropped in a civil rights bucket, how many times he sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ with guest celebrities; Horowitz is not black, and he has no right to tell me or any other person of color how to pursue issues pertaining to our communities.”
This attitude is not original with Huber but will be familiar to anyone who has engaged black Americans over issues of race in recent decades. “If you don’t walk in my shoes, you can’t feel my pain.” The conclusion that is supposed to follow from this observation is usually presented as self-evident: “If you can’t feel my pain, you can’t tell me how I should deal with it.”
This was indeed the text of many a political sermon when objections were raised to the “Million Man March” because it was organized and led by the blatant anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
“Don’t tell us what leaders to choose or what marches to join,” was the response of many otherwise sensible black commentators. It was a “black thing.” A matter of community pride. “We’re not listening when white people tell us what to do anymore — we’re not letting you choose our leaders.”
Indeed, marching behind an unpalatable figure like Farrakhan was seen in and of itself as a way of emphasizing black independence.
A similar attitude was apparent during the O.J. Simpson affair, when black leaders showed not the slightest embarrassment at the fact that African-American communities all over the nation, in a demonstration of striking insensitivity, cheered Simpson’s acquittal.
Imagine the reaction of black leaders if white communities had cheered the release of a white defendant accused of murdering his black wife and a black stranger, particularly if the white defendant was confronted by overwhelming circumstantial and DNA evidence, and had a record of beating his black spouse prior to her death.
A triumphal response to the acquittal in such a case would have been taken as evidence of racism. But in the Simpson affair the response of the African-American community was: We don’t care what you think or what you feel. We know what we feel and that is all that matters. If our response is insensitive, so what? We are going to be the judges of what is right or wrong for us, and no one — least of all any white — is going to tell us how to behave.
Imagine if the colors had been reversed!
This cold-hearted calculus is a central theme of what is now generously described as “black separatism.” It is an attitude that is already widespread in the African-American community, and is apparently on the rise.