What Tamika Mallory Could Learn from Being Called a Bigot

Tamika Mallory (center) with Linda Sarsour at a protest in Washington, D.C., July 14, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
And other lessons from Adam Serwer’s essay

Adam Serwer has penned a valuable essay in The Atlantic that seeks to explain “why Tamika Mallory won’t condemn [Louis] Farrakhan.” Mallory, an activist and top organizer of the women’s march, has recently come under fire for her association with the Nation of Islam — specifically for her refusal to disavow recent remarks made by Farrakhan, the Nation’s leader and a notorious anti-Semite. To Serwer’s credit, I came away from the essay knowing more than I did before. He explains that African Americans have a complicated relationship with the Nation, which works to curb violence in poor communities beset by it and is a rare source of social capital for formerly incarcerated African Americans. But I think there’s an unintended lesson contained in the piece as well, one that can be gleaned both from Mallory’s defense of herself and from Serwer’s approach to his subject.

Mallory attended the Nation’s “Savior’s Day” event, at which Farrakhan made a number of anti-Semitic remarks (including the downright Alex Jonesian suggestion that Jews are poisoning black people and turning them gay). She also promoted her attendance on social media. For this, she was roundly criticized, and her dismissal of the initial criticism begot allegations that she was a bigot herself. Mallory is clearly scandalized that anyone would accuse her of bigotry: “There were people speaking to me as if I was anything other than my mother’s child,” she tells Serwer. “The language that was being used, the way I was called an anti-Semite,” she says, is “vile.” As for Farrakhan’s words, Mallory says: “That’s not my language. That’s not something I do. I don’t speak in that way.”

Her response to the charge of anti-Semitism essentially reduces to this: You don’t know me. You don’t know what my motivations are. How can you judge my character when you don’t know anything about it?

Indeed, Mallory is so confident in her anti-racist bona fides that she finds the charge of anti-Semitism, when leveled against her, to be a slight worth pushing back against. When Mallory asked a Jewish colleague to help her with a financial problem on the predicate that Jews were good with money, the colleague said she was being anti-Semitic. Mallory’s response was to defend herself by explaining her ignorance: “I asked her, ‘Could it possibly be ignorant language?’ I know that it’s ignorant to say that,” she said, but “it sounds really bad” to be accused of anti-Semitism. She continued to Serwer: “When you are labeled an anti-Semite, what follows can be very, very devastating for black leaders. To have someone say that about you, it almost immediately creates a feeling of defensiveness because you know the outcome.”

To be accused of anti-Semitism is to play soccer uphill, Mallory suggests, and it’s not worth engaging when the playing field is so uneven. What might seem bigoted might not always be, and if her accusers want to have a productive conversation with her, they should try to understand her before assuming the worst.

So Mallory thinks those accusing her of bigotry are failing to make an accurate judgment about her character, she says the accusations are grave enough to confer a responsibility on her accusers to be more judicious, and she hesitates to take such accusations seriously because they cast her in a bad light. All of this should sound familiar to anyone who pays attention to American politics. They are the exact arguments conservatives rejoin with when they are accused of racism by people to their left. When Republican politicians, conservative journalists, or marginally heterodox professors are accused of racism, their responses generally are similar to Mallory’s: You don’t know me. You should save that term for real racists. I’m just going to tune you out.

Sometimes, those responses are little more than cheap rhetoric. But other times they are true. Of course Mallory should condemn Farrakhan, and I can’t say whether she shares Farrakhan’s antipathy towards Jews or not. What I do know, however, is that Mallory has made a living on the notion that bigotry is more than just an individual trait. To her and her fellow travelers, it is a structure coloring social relations that requires active resistance lest one become an unwilling yet complicit participant. Except when it comes to her. Perhaps this apparent contradiction flows from a deeply considered belief of Mallory’s that anti-black racism is structural, but anti-Jewish prejudice is just a collection of individual actions; more likely, she fails to perceive the hypocrisy in switching between the two definitions and so is choosing the less extravagant, more intuitive explanation that she can’t be a bigot because she doesn’t think she’s a bigot. Hopefully her wish to be charitably understood as an individual by her accusers will convince her to be more charitable and understanding toward those to her political right.

Mallory has made a living on the notion that bigotry is more than just an individual trait. To her and her fellow travelers, it is a structure that requires active resistance lest one become complicit.

What about the charity Serwer displays toward the African-American community that finds itself in a complicated relationship with the Nation of Islam? Serwer, a biracial black and Jewish man who concludes that Farrakhan cannot be worth the loyalty Mallory is showing him, is not extending charity to those who don’t deserve it. Instead, he takes pains to understand the underprivileged African Americans who express qualified support for the group that is headed by a virulent bigot. He cites professors, experts, activists; he explains the attraction to the group without justifying it; he leaves his readers better informed. Certainly, Serwer would take issue with the writer, who, while criticizing people who gravitated toward a nationalist movement during a time of economic strife, glibly declared: “Suffering alone doesn’t impel such choices; what does is how the causes of such hardship are understood.” Things are more complicated than that: Farrakhan blames Jews for hurting black Americans, but not all of his black followers agree.

But those are the words of Serwer, who also happens to be among the most trenchant critics of white Americans who voted for Donald Trump. In a long essay last November, he argued that the proximate cause of Trump’s election was simply a resurgence of white identity, and assailed those who see it as a combination of several factors — among them the oft-derided “economic anxiety.” Serwer builds an empirical case (though not a dispositive one) that Trump did not benefit from a swell of working-class support. The thrust of his article, however, is a sweeping claim about the reason Trump resonated: “The specific dissonance of Trumpism — advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated — provides the emotional core of its appeal,” Serwer writes.

In this case, Serwer rejects the possibility that some people might have legitimate, or at least non-racist, reasons for latching onto Donald Trump.  He simply imputes the flaws of the man to his followers. The presidency of the United States and the presidency of the Nation of Islam cannot be compared, but the people occupying those offices — and the supporters of their movements — certainly can. If Donald Trump is a bigot advocating bigoted policies, and if followers of Donald Trump are white nationalists who blame other races for their plight, then what is Louis Farrakhan? Who are his followers?

Yes, many black Americans face hardship that is far greater and sometimes different in kind from that which working-class whites face. And surely some Trump voters cast their lot with the man because he gave their latent racism an outlet. But Serwer treats one group of people as a category with a single mind, and another as a collection of individuals who have complicated sets of motivations. As he unintentionally demonstrates, the latter approach works better. More people should try it.