Brothers under the skin

Like his nemesis Al Sharpton, David Horowitz seems more interested in inflaming racial tensions than resolving them.

Published March 15, 2001 8:47PM (EST)

Poor David Horowitz! He's been thrown against the barricades once again for standing up to the "racial arsonists" who advocate reparations for slavery. Or that's what he wants everyone to believe. Perhaps he even believes it himself.

But he shouldn't be able to shrug off the "racial provocateur" label so easily. He's spent years earning it. He's done more than his share to lower the level of discourse on racial issues in Salon's pages, and his recent self-defense was no exception. Rhetorically, Horowitz has much more in common with rabble-rouser Al Sharpton than he cares to admit.

Both are unreasonably preoccupied with race. Both represent themselves as guardians of equality, and call anyone who attacks their arguments an undercover tool of the thought police. Both have a taste for political public relations stunts -- like Horowitz's anti-reparations ad push. Both would rather cherry-pick the most shrill remarks of their most unreasonable critics and use them to claim ideological martyrdom than defend their own words and actions.

For both men, somewhere, beneath the heaping load of self-serving hyperbole, there's a morsel of truth in what they say -- but good luck finding it.

Horowitz insists that there's only one moral to the story of race in America: that the effects of racism in the black community are minimal, and have been blown way out of proportion by a cadre of power-hungry black leaders, who are meanwhile ignoring the moral and social failings that are the real reason blacks lag behind whites in almost every measure of well-being, from family income to educational attainment to life expectancy. His own words in the 1999 column "Guns don't kill black people, other blacks do" provide a window on his mind-set:

The myth of racial oppression, invoked to explain every social deficit of blacks, is an exercise in psychological denial. Crying racism deflects attention from the actual causes of the problems that afflict African-American communities. Its net result is to deprive people and communities who could help themselves of the power to change their fate.

In Horowitz's world, this is the subtext of every topic that touches on race. White racism doesn't exist except among the KKK set (an assumption that betrays a bit of bicoastal, cultural elite bias) while black racism is overlooked and accommodated everywhere, particularly in the halls of power. And every liberal black leader he attacks, of course, is a money-grubbing cheat:

The reparations claim itself is the work of racial provocateurs -- people who want to put race at the center of every political conflict and reveal it as the source of every problem afflicting African-Americans in order to shake out the loot on the back end.

Typically, Horowitz doesn't name which racial provocateur specifically made this claim; he often fails to distinguish between the actions or motivations of different black leaders. Reparations advocate Randall Robinson, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume, Jesse Jackson and Sharpton -- for Horowitz's purposes, they could all be the same guy. And, for that matter, slave reparations, crusades against police brutality, support of affirmative action and concern about the Confederate flag could all be the same issue.

Like the most incendiary, anti-white black nationalists, Horowitz and his flailings suck the oxygen out of honest debates about race. Name-calling rarely encourages dialogue; it thwarts the inclination and maybe even the ability of people to have an open exchange. Horowitz can surely grasp that a black leader who recklessly labels as a racist any white person he disagrees with ends the chances for a dialogue with that person or his supporters. He seems blind to the way his own writing works similar wonders in the black community.

The real shame is that many people who might benefit from his thinking, expressed with less invective, have just stopped listening to Horowitz, dismissing everything he says as racist ranting. Certainly, head-in-the-sand white liberals and radicals -- which Horowitz used to be -- who see black people as little more than symbols of suffering, could benefit from his bracing no-guilt attitude on race. To some, Horowitz might be a needed wake-up call -- but he'll never reach them. Even within the black community there's debate and disagreement about reparations; Horowitz isn't all wrong. But his ad stunt wasn't designed to produce honest discussion. Right now the only ones tuning in to Horowitz are his own tribe of dittoheads, plus his substantial anti-fan base, who are just looking for new reasons to hate him.

Horowitz also fails to see how he's carried some of his white liberal bad habits into his new incarnation as a raging conservative. For example, he still resorts to the patronizing "some of my best friends are black" rhetoric that conservatives had once rightly criticized the left for. He regularly tells us that his daughter-in-law is black, to prove that the bigotry charges against him are bogus. In his latest column, he cites his meeting with a trio of black community leaders as more proof that he's no racial provocateur. Extending Horowitz's statements -- particularly the one about his meeting with black community activists -- to their logical conclusion, even Louis Farrakhan could argue that his willingness to meet with Orthodox Jew Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., during the presidential campaign absolved him of past anti-Semitism.

Most frequently, however, Horowitz harks back to his past affiliation with the Black Panther Party to prove his special expertise on race. He worked for the group in the 1970s, romanticized their rhetoric about racial oppression and encouraged his friend Betty Van Patter to work for the movement. Van Patter, who kept the Panthers' books, uncovered crimes that the group was involved with and was brutally murdered as a result. Ever since, Horowitz has repented his liberal ways, and dropped his liberal white guilt with a resounding thud.

It's wrong to minimize what happened to Van Patter, or to disregard what a terrible burden Horowitz must have been carrying all these years as a consequence. And if Horowitz's present-day politics are a reaction to this murder, he would not be unlike many survivors of violent crime who want to transform a senseless death into a meaningful event. If the tragedy helped Horowitz move beyond his view of blacks as sinless, suffering creatures who need white society's rescue, good for him.

But now Horowitz needs to give up his own victim myth, the equally wrongheaded belief that the whole of black America somehow forced him to hang out with the Panthers, romanticize their thuggery or accept every word from any self-appointed black leader as gospel. Maybe then, Horowitz will be able to discern the difference between reasonable concerns about the lingering effects of racism and the scams of political charlatans. And if his detractors among blacks and liberals followed that example, maybe we could all move from shouting about racial problems to solving them.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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