by Rasul Miller
The tendency to pathologize Black people has a long history. Particularly here in the West, people of African descent have been imagined to be abnormal and unhealthy in their behavior since the beginning of the modern era. This history has, of course, impacted Black Muslims in the US in a myriad of ways. Just over a month ago, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf made some now infamous remarks at the Reviving Islamic Spirit conference, and an apology the following night during which he contended that the “most damage to Black people in America” was brought about not by racism, but rather by the “breakdown of the Black family.” What I found most interesting about the ensuing controversy was the responses made by prominent Black Muslim religious leaders, activists, and intellectuals. Many of these responses left unchallenged Sheikh Hamza’s association between failing Black family structures and the sociopolitical problems that Black people in the US face. In other words, many Black Muslims took issue with what he said because he is white, not because they disagreed with the idea that the breakdown of the Black family contributes to Black peoples’ hardships. Such sentiments have proven common among Americans — Black, white or otherwise. To explain this, one must reflect on their historical development.
Black Pathology: A Dual Genealogy
The idea that Black Americans’ actions, including their failure to maintain traditional family structures, is the reason for their material problems (i.e. poverty, police brutality, political disenfranchisement, etc.) is often associated with the rhetoric of ‘personal responsibility.’ This belief, that such socioeconomic problems are primarily caused by poor choices rather than systemic oppression, has been invoked by political conservatives arguing against policies like affirmative action and the expansion of the welfare state. White liberal intellectuals and elected officials have employed this kind of reasoning as well. For them, Black pathology constitutes an aspect of a ‘ghetto culture’ produced by generations of Black oppression. In other words, Black folks are pathological but it is not their fault. The natural conclusion of this view is that the way to address the undesirable material conditions of Black people in the US is to ‘fix’ them by teaching them to behave better (i.e. to stop having single parent families, stop spending their money extravagantly, work harder, value education more, etc.). Of course, ‘fixing’ them does not mean paying them for generations of slave labor or providing redress for employment discrimination, redlining, predatory lending, and other policies that have made it virtually impossible for Black people to accumulate wealth. That many white Americans would find such arguments compelling is not terribly surprising.
What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that notions of Black pathology are popular among Black people too. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the phrase ‘politics of respectability’ in reference to the Black Christian women’s strategies during the early twentieth century to counter perceptions of Black moral inferiority through their embodiment of conservative, middle-class values.1 She explains that in crafting their “religious-political message”, these faith based activists utilized, among other things, “biblical teachings, the philosophy of racial self-help, [and] Victorian ideology.” In this manner, they drew upon a number of discourses, including some that were racist and patriarchal, to argue for their equality and challenge the status quo. This tactic was common among Black political reformers, many of whom grounded their movements within their religious traditions. Most Black Muslim groups followed the same trajectory. For example, the Nation of Islam embraced certain conservative, Victorian values.2 And the philosophy of racial self-help has been a mainstay among Black orthodox Muslims across the political spectrum.3 Often, such ideas were coupled with critiques of white supremacy and Black political and economic disenfranchisement. Such an approach allowed Black Muslims, and Black folks in general, to maintain a strong sense of agency and empowerment in crafting responses to the systems of oppression they faced, while not letting white America off the hook.
The embrace of a politics of respectability has, at times, served as a powerful rhetorical strategy for Black activists. However, as historians like Frederick Harris have pointed out, it came with a political price. It has allowed Black elites to police the Black poor, using the behavior of impoverished Black communities as a scapegoat for patterns of racial inequality (think Bill Cosby’s poundcake speech). In this regard, it resembles the white liberal version of the rhetoric of personal responsibility. Indeed, as Harris points out in his discussion of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Black respectability politics have served as a de-radicalizing mechanism, undermining Black activists’ calls for economic justice. As he writes, “the rhetoric of respectability helped Obama capture the support of white working-class voters and moderate voters who needed assurance that the candidate would not support policies aimed toward the (black) poor.”4 Taking into account its many liabilities, Black people’s embrace of the politics of Black respectability has demonstrated the truth of Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted observation that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Black Muslims and the Failure of Black Respectability
At various moments throughout America’s history, Black Muslims have offered some of the most radical and instructive analyses of white supremacy, Eurocentricity, and racial capitalism. During the antebellum period, enslaved African Muslims challenged the notion that Black Americans’ history began with American slavery. Noble Drew Ali and others carried this challenge into the twentieth century. Black orthodox Muslims like Shaykh Daoud and Mother Khadijah Faisal identified white supremacy as a psycho-spiritual sickness and sought to unite Black Americans with Black and Brown Muslims from the Third World. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad aptly identified white practitioners of anti-Black violence as devils, and Malcolm X affirmed that Black people were justified in defending themselves from the economic, political, and physical ravages of white racism by any means. These are just a few examples drawn from the exceedingly long list of Black Muslims one could site. Despite this, the politics of respectability is still popular among many Bla
ck Muslim leaders and community members. Sheikh Hamza’s aforementioned comments could have just as easily come from one of his Black counterparts. While several Black Muslims have pointed out the problem with a prominent white religious leader voicing such views, fewer have made mention of the underlined problem with his logic.
With this in mind, we might consider rethinking our responses to the marginalization of Black people in America. As the rhetorical force of religiously grounded arguments wains, perhaps it is time we reconsider our appraisal of the causes of Black suffering. This need not mean that we no longer value morality and strong families. But does their absence really explain the deplorable conditions that so many Black people must endure? When compared with immigrant communities, white Americans exhibit high rates of divorce, and incidents of white, single-parent families are increasing. Yet this has not resulted in their being economically disadvantaged, nor their being made victims of extrajudicial killings by law enforcement. On the contrary, rich and powerful white people — corporate executives, elected officials, heads of state — are quite often marred by scandal. Perhaps this is why attempts to explain Black suffering as the result of moral depravity, divine wrath, or a culture of poverty are becoming less palatable to a younger generation of activists. Similarly, while we may view Black self-determination as a worthwhile and even necessary goal, it is no longer sufficient to explain Black disempowerment with simple retorts like ‘Black folks just can’t stick together.’ While moral reform and increased unity can serve as solutions to the problems that Black people face, their absence simply does not tell us how we arrived at our current situation.
- Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993)
- Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim, Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam 2, 8, 12
Zain Abdullah, “Narrating Muslim Masculinities: The Fruit of Islam and the Quest for Black Redemption” in Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 141-177
Examples range from the more radical calls for community policing advocated by Muslim leaders like Imam Jamil Al-Amin to the comparably conservative direction of Imam W. D. Muhammad who encouraged his followers achieve social mobility through education and entrepreneurialism.
Fredrick Harris, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) xiv
Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.