Just as the outcry concerning Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s visit to campus betrayed UC Berkeley’s tradition of enlightened discourse, so too did parts of the minister’s speech here on March 10. Nothing should have prevented this controversial figure from speaking at a conference hosted by the Black Student Union this past weekend. No excuses exist, however, for the disrespectful, hateful and uninformed words he spoke there.
Let Farrakhan’s appearance serve as a reminder of the most blatant kind: No matter how inspiring, endearing or even true a leader’s overall message is, it should not be accepted without serious critical consideration. Every member of the campus community would do well to remember this, not just when faced with a divisive speaker like Farrakhan but for all people from whom they seek knowledge.
By injecting intolerance into a speech that was otherwise uplifting for the black campus community, Farrakhan’s hate overshadowed the substance of his empowering intent. More than that, Farrakhan’s hate overshadowed every other speaker and event at the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference. No amount of high-minded objectivity or patience can excuse fleeting moments of bigotry.
Indeed, the argument that Farrakhan’s detractors focus only on a few decontextualized sentences is completely true. But these are the consequences of his outrageous words. The minister’s statements at UC Berkeley, specifically concerning Jews and Asians, ranged from deeply misguided to absolute falsity, and that is what draws the most attention and ire.
Many expected Farrakhan to make racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic remarks during his visit, but none could have predicted the extent of his ignorance. In the East Bay, for example, we do not need to imagine Asians standing alongside blacks at the picket line, as Farrakhan suggested. No, we remember local Asian Americans like Cal alum Richard Aoki, who is counted among the first members of the Black Panther Party.
One group’s social ascension must never come at the cost of another’s. While our campus climate is far from fragile, each community ought to build alliances and work together. An empowering act loses legitimacy when it imposes similar prejudices that it sought to eliminate. The BSU, rather than emphasizing the minister’s good, should directly address the controversy so inherently wrapped in his ability to uplift.
No, Farrakhan should not have practiced his free speech someplace else. He had every right to come to UC Berkeley, and the BSU had every right to host him. Still, there are few greater disappointments than to see supposed champions of empowerment perpetuate the very rhetoric they seek to destroy.