Facebook finally has made the long anticipated move of banning hate speech. With the click of a button, the social-media giant silenced Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan along with right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and other political and cultural extremists.
Their offense, according to Facebook: being “dangerous individuals and organizations” that engage in violence or have an ideology that attacks individuals based on race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
As a private company, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has the right to decide which content to allow on its platforms. But what many folks are talking about, albeit quietly, is why Farrakhan is on that list. Lots of African-Americans don’t think he belongs in that group of “dangerous individuals.”
For the record, I am not one of them. If you are going to ban people for hate speech, Farrakhan’s history of spewing anti-Semitic, homophobic and other bigoted rhetoric makes him a prime contender. There has never been an appropriate place for that in America, but it is especially dangerous in our current political, hate-filled climate.
If Facebook had been around in the 1990s, though, the company never could have gotten away with banning Farrakhan. African-Americans would not have stood for it. But over the years, society has succeeded in marginalizing Farrakhan in the public domain.
While rapper Snoop Dogg posted a couple of expletive-filled videos on Instagram suggesting that users might consider banning Facebook and Instagram, other high-profile celebrities, for the most part, have been quiet.
Twenty years ago, a call to stand with Farrakhan would have immediately gained traction among athletes, entertainers, activists and others. In 1995, Farrakhan, who turns 86 in a few days, wielded enough power to draw hundreds of thousands of black men to the National Mall in Washington for the Million Man March to rally against economic and social disparities.
He no longer has that kind of pull. Many young black people probably didn’t even know he was on Facebook. Some don’t even know who he is.
I have listened to many of Farrakhan’s speeches over the years. Some of what he says is valuable, but his message often is laced with hurtful language. What is most dangerous about his speeches is that he eloquently cloaks his message in phrases that can be left to interpretation.
He does not tell blacks to go out and kill whites, and indeed that is not something blacks tend to do any more than whites kill blacks. He says the “mind of white supremacy has to be destroyed.” He does not say that all Jews are his enemy. He says “powerful Jews” in Hollywood are the enemy for making movies that distort black life.
Regardless of how he puts it, it is still hate talk. And most African-Americans don’t agree with it.
It is difficult to talk about Farrakhan without offending the many African-Americans who still consider him a vital leader and, at the same time, be sensitive and respectful to Jewish people, gays and lesbians.
Perhaps it is impossible. But it is worth a try.
White people have never fully understood Farrakhan’s appeal to African-Americans. Though some blacks might never consider joining the Nation of Islam, they are able to look beyond the bigotry and see a redeeming message in Farrakhan’s teachings.
He implores African-Americans to reconnect with their heritage, using the atrocious period of slavery 400 years ago as a bridge to understanding the present. That is more germane to their own lives, to their daily experiences, than anti-Semitism and homophobia. Though they might deplore all forms of bigotry, they allow themselves to be the priority.
He tells black people not to keep beating themselves up over their imperfect lives because they did not arrive where they are alone. He explains in detail how slavery and systemic racism plays a huge role in their inability to break free of the chains. He talks about the value of family, health and looking out for each other.
He insists that black people have the power to chart their own course, by investing in their own community and believing in themselves. America constantly sends the message to black people who are poor, have been in prison or are hooked on drugs, that they are worthless. Farrakhan tells them they have value, and helps them find work.
The issue with Farrakhan’s message, though, is that it is geared directly at black people. It is not sugarcoated to be pleasant to white people’s ears. White people don’t understand it. Their attention immediately goes to the troublesome things he says. That’s exactly what Farrakhan wants.
But his delivery is flawed. It is divisive and detrimental. I won’t try to evaluate the legitimacy of anyone’s religion, but I can speak to how we must interact with each other as Americans. It is wrong to talk about people of different ethnicities and religions in a way that we would not want others to talk about us. There is also another, more practical reality.
Black people don’t live isolated in America. It is a capitalistic country influenced by wealth and power — things that always have been controlled by white people. To achieve equity, white people have to share.
That doesn’t mean blacks have to sit and wait patiently for them to hand it over. Nor does it mean blacks have to try to overpower them and take it. What is means is that everyone who believes in fairness must speak out about injustice until our voices grow hoarse. Everyone who believes in equality must work to ensure that everyone’s rights are upheld in the voting booth, the political system and the courts.
That is the only recourse, and black people cannot do it alone. We cannot look at everybody and decide that they are our enemies. We needed the help of white people who are willing to stand with us.
Great leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that. He recognized that black people could demand equality, but the power to implement it rested with white people. The fight against segregation included people from all religions and racial backgrounds, but passing a law against it was in the hands of white president and a white-controlled Congress.
It is ridiculous, however, to think that banning Farrakhan from Facebook will silence him. Thousands trek to Chicago each year for Saviours’ Day. He can be heard on the radio, webcasts and YouTube.
His message will continue to flow. As one supporter put it, “Facebook doesn’t make you a minister any more than Instagram makes you a model.”