Victim Blaming and Patriarchy

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Adolph Reed

ADOLPH REED IS a professor of political science at Northwestern University. He is well-known as a trenchant social and political commentator. David Finkel of the ATC editorial board interviewed him by phone.

Against the Current: What did you see as the impact of the Million Man March, both on people at the event itself and on those in the African-American community who didn’t attend but watched on TV?

Adolph Reed: There are a number of possibilities. One is that it won’t actually have any effect, at least in terms of mobilizing people to do anything or challenge anything or to organize in a grassroots way.

I say that because of skepticism about the way these things go. The call for the March wasn’t concrete, except insofar as it was around the victim-blaming rhetoric of “atonement” and the particular call for men to assert pride of place in the Black community.

At the same time there are other possibilities. The ones I find most disturbing are the enthusiasm and elan of this March giving a boost to the resurgent patriarchy in Black politics.

It’s happening already–some of the women who made critical public statements, Angela Davis, Julianne Malveaux and others, have taken a heck of a lot of heat. Angela Davis was viciously attacked on WBAI (Pacifica radio in New York City) in a way that you would have expected more from WLIB (the nationalist-oriented Black station–ed.).

There’s that sense of people trying to make this a kind of litmus test for legitimacy and authority in Black politics.

The most dangerous possibility is that this could strengthen Farrakhan’s hand, not so much inside Black politics as pushing him to legitimacy or acceptability in the eyes of the white elites who, in the end, confer “Black leader” status.

The reason for this concern is that the fundamentally conservative and quietistic, as well as victim-blaming message resonates comfortably with the new bipartisan consensus to retreat from social justice and racial equality.

ATC: Why was this March so successful at this point in history? Was it because of the role played by Louis Farrakhan, or in spite of it? Maybe partly both?

AR: I think it speaks to political desperation–and in a way that actually hit the political concerns of a large chunk of petit-bourgeois Black men at the moment.

I think the mainstream media also had a lot to do with making it successful, largely because of the seamless shift from the OJ trial verdict coverage to ultimately pushing the March. I know that even here in Chicago there hadn’t been that much visible mobilization for the March until it started getting that heavy coverage.

ATC: It does seem that there was considerable advance organizing through the churches. Certainly that was true in Detroit.

AR: Yes, that might have been going on in a lot of places too. But I suspect that the difference between a turnout of 60- 100,000 people and what they eventually ended up with had a lot to do with the media circus . . .

ATC: Do you think that the raw white backlash against the OJ verdict spurred more people to attend the March?

AR: I wouldn’t doubt that had something to do with it. It’s hard to say about these things, because when you have a lot of people–especially for an event that doesn’t itself have a program–they’ll give a lot of reasons for being there.

ATC: Was the March really about self-help and “atonement”? Or did you see it as having a political character, even though it raised no demands on the government?

AR: I think that’s wishful thinking. Clearly, it was about the self-help and atonement thing, with the veneer of a couple of references to voter registration, thrown in as a garnish.

People at the March kept saying it wasn’t a protest; and the spin that all the national elites have put on this thing is the self-help, latter-day Jim Crow kind of line that Black people have to straighten out the pathologies in their community, and on and on.

In that sense, this event–as it struck me watching Farrakhan’s speech–is a parallel to Booker T. Washington’s 1895 self-help address (notable for its conservative political orientation and acceptance of segregation–ed.).

ATC: Is this conscious on Farrakhan’s part, as you read it?

AR: Well, I don’t know if it even needs to be conscious. At one point Farrakhan seemed to be quoting from Washington’s speech. But there’s a straight line that runs from Booker T. Washington through Marcus Garvey to the Nation of Islam.

I don’t know if the affirmation of Washington is conscious; I do know that Farrakhan has been saying for some time that he’d like to be put in charge of a seg<->ment of the Black population, to straighten out their pathologies.

ATC: Put in charge by whom?

AR: Well, by white elites–the only people who have the ability to confer that kind of power on anyone. The way he puts it is a call for letting Blacks come together, under his leadership.

ATC: What about the relationship between Chavis and Farrakhan? As I understand it, it was Chavis who initially had the idea for the march but took it to Farrakhan because of his own lack of an organization.

AR: Chavis was trying to legitimize himself, especially on the heels of his tenure at the NAACP. I’ve been watching his career, since we both came out of the movement in North Carolina together.

But there’s been a problem with Chavis’ politics all along–he’s never really had any politics. So for him, organizing a demonstration or calling a rally or announcing the formation of an organization is the substance of political action.

In that sense his role here is consistent with a line of behavior two decades old. But I frankly don’t understand what Chavis is up to. I thought he might go to work for one of the energy companies (corporate polluters from whom Chavis sought contributions during his leadership of the NAACP–ed.).

But you’re right, he didn’t have an organization or a base, and he’s obviously not a foe of patriarchy. I heard that Chavis came up with the idea of a big march, Farrakhan said it should be a men’s march, and Chavis said sure, why not.

The critical intelligence behind this event, besides Farrakhan, are the midwest Black Nationalist forces. I noticed the preponderance of speakers on the po<->dium like Ron Karenga, Haki Madhubuti, who’s been credited by Farrakhan for being his first intermediary with Betty Shabazz–I thought that was interesting–and Conrad Worrell.

ATC: What other observations do you think are important to include?

AR: Two points to make. First, people haven’t talked much about the class character of the attendees, or the class vision and perspective embodied in this rhetoric of atonement and responsibility and the rest. Even among people who say they want to “separate the message from the messenger,” as the cliche goes, the message is basically one of victim-blaming.

I think this an instance in which the “I” and the “we” are collapsed into each other. So people piously gather to demonstrate that they are indeed not conforming to negative stereotypes, and to exhort men who do to stop doing so.

Second is the way the critique of gender politics around this event has been articulated. Especially in the mainstream media frenzy and the little pro-forma debates they try to generate, the issue was collapsed entirely into the rightness of inclusion or exclusion of women from the March. This deflected debate away from the deeper patriarchal structure that undergirds this notion of the need for men to take their rightful position of leadership, the vision that view stems from, and the forces allied to it in Black politics.

You mentioned the churches. For all the talk about the churches being the wellspring of opposition for the Black community, there are deeply conservative elements in the Black church, as in all churches. And we are seeing an alliance between these elements in the Black church and the Moral Majority.

Here in Chicago, the director of Operation Push was finally forced out for his connections with right-wing Republican interests. We’ve been seeing clearer and more direct association between Black conservative-religious initiatives and the white ones.

For instance, there was the case in Jackson, Mississippi a couple of years ago where a Black junior high school principal unilaterally interpreted a lower court ruling to indicate that it was OK for him to organize student-led prayer at the beginning of each class period. It turns out that this guy was in part a scope for the Moral Majority, and the recipient of a lot of support from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their crowd.

Robertson talks about operating in the Black churches–about sending the white holy rollers into the Republican conventions and the Black holy rollers into the Democratic conventions.

There’s an autonomous conservative force, which is anchored ultimately in the church in Black politics, that also overlaps and reinforces this rhetoric of male priority, self-help and so forth.

ATC 60, January-February 1996