"IT'S GOING TO BE A ROUGH RIDE, BUDDY!"
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF THE COLLISION BETWEEN "HATE SPEECH" AND
FREE EXPRESSION IN STUDENTS' EXPERIENCES OF THE KHALLID MUHAMMAD
Department of Communication
Utah State University
Logan, UT 84322-4605
Submitted to the Qualitative Studies Division of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication for
presentation at the national convention, Washington, D.C., August 1995
"IT'S GOING TO BE A ROUGH RIDE, BUDDY!"
A PHENOMENOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF THE COLLISION BETWEEN "HATE SPEECH" AND
FREE EXPRESSION IN STUDENTS' EXPERIENCES OF THE KHALLID MUHAMMAD
A phenomenological analysis of Kean College students' experiences of
Khallid Abdul Muhammad's speech, "The Secret Relationship Between
and Jews," reveals contradictory signification processes for
terms of race, but similar signification processes for
sex. While white and Hispanic students overwhelmingly interpret
Muhammad's message as evidence of his racist attitudes, African American
students interpret his speech in terms of their marginalized status
white society; white and Hispanic students fail to make this
Submitted to the Qualitative Studies Division of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
for presentation at the national convention,
Washington, D.C., August 1995
To the whites in the audience, let me say to you before we even get
started--it's going to be a rough ride, buddy! I didn't come to
College to tiptoe through the tulips. I didn't come to Kean
pussyfoot. I didn't come to Kean College to dilly-dally or
the bush. I didn't come to Kean College to pin the tail on the
I came to pin the tail on the honky. (Muhammad, 1993, November
With this introduction to the small crowd attending Khallid Abdul Muhammad's
lecture on the Kean College of New Jersey campus, one of the
controversies surrounding the Nation of Islam began. On that night in 1993,
Muhammad, the "national spokesman" for Nation of Islam leader Louis
Farrakhan, went on to deride and attack whites and blacks, Christians and
Jews, and a wide variety of other targets. For example, here's
the Bible: "King James version--here's a sissy, and you name a
the Bible after a screaming sissy...God does not name holy books
homosexuals" (p. 15); on Pope John Paul II: "You know that
cracker...somebody need to raise that dress up and see what's really
there" (p. 18); on Jesus Christ: "that blond-haired, blue-eyed,
pale-skinned, buttermilk-complexion, peckerwood, cracker Christ" (p. 16); on
celebrities and politicians: "So don't you give me no Cleopatra
get Elizabeth Taylor, some whore from Hollywood screwing everything
ain't screwed down" (p. 26); "It was the so-called Jews that financed
Lee.... Bubble-eyed, pigeon-toed, Jimmy-the-cricket,
Spook Lee" (pp. 49-50); "When stinkin' David Dinkins ran for mayor...he
a yarmulke on his head, bootlickin' for the so-called Jew" (pp.
Most of Muhammad's attacks were directed at whites, and Jews in particular:
"They're the bloodsuckers of the black nation and the black
bagel-eating, lox-eating, impostor-perpetrating a fraud,
just crawled out of the caves and hills of Europe, wannabe Jew"
1993, pp. 41, 51). Muhammad also called Nelson Mandela a "fool" (p.
endorsed murdering the whites in South Africa: "We'll give them 24
get out of town by sundown. That's right. If he ain't out of town
sundown, we kill everything white that ain't right that's in sight in
Africa. We kill the women, we kill the children, we kill the
kill the blind, we kill the cripple, we kill--we kill them all. We
faggot, we kill the lesbian, we kill them all" (p. 59).
The students and faculty at Kean College are demographically diverse: in
1994, 16 percent of undergraduate students were African American,
were Hispanic, and 5.4 percent represented other minority
including Native American and Asian; among the faculty, 10 percent were
African American, 7.2 percent were Hispanic, and 4.5 percent were Asian
Native American. Few Kean College students or faculty, however,
attended Muhammad's 1993 speech, which was an internal controversy
administration and faculty until a few weeks later, when the
League of B'nai B'rith placed a full-page advertisement in The New
("Minister," 1994, January 16) and in The Chronicle of Higher
("Minister," 1994, February 9) (see appendix A). The advertisement
13 incendiary excerpts from Muhammad's speech, some of which are
above. With this public denouncement, Muhammad, the Nation of Islam and
College became the focus of a very public media circus.
In the aftermath, Kean President Elsa Gomez, the first Hispanic woman
President at a U. S. college, resigned. Although a student
invited Muhammad to speak and paid his fee of $2,650, it was the
administration that came under fire ("Report renews," 1995, February
Kean College faculty were polarized. Speakers were invited to campus
counter Muhammad's words, including a Jewish rabbi and actor Danny
New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman persuaded Steven Spielberg to
copy of his just-released film, "Schindler's List," to show free of
students at other New Jersey colleges where Muhammad had been
speak. The Rev. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, waived
typical $20,000 fee to come to speak at Kean College. A consulting
by the Kean administration to conduct workshops to improve the
campus suggested that the college's board of trustees held Jewish
their responses to the speech responsible for making it difficult to
minority students to Kean ("Report renews").
Although few Kean College students had actually attended the speech, the
furor in its highly publicized aftermath affected the entire campus;
were confused, outraged, inspired, or ambivalent, some praising
others condemning him. Such conflicting responses to Khallid
speech raised some interesting questions. For example, students and
seemed divided as to whether Muhammad and his type of speech
Amendment protection. As a faculty member at Kean College during
the time of
the controversy, I wanted to understand more fully the students'
experiences of the speech. Operating from these preliminary
the research problem is: Will students' experiences of Khallid Abdul
Muhammad's speech, "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," and
his right to free speech cluster along racial lines?
Researchers have used a variety of methods in their attempts to understand
the relationship between a text and the receivers' interpretation
Crow (1981) argues that phenomenological analysis offers a more
for explicating the intersubjective aspects of a person's
processes than more traditional approaches. With phenomenological
people are observed while receiving and/or discussing texts in
situations rather than in controlled laboratory experiments that
the audience experience. In contrast to inferring effects of a
text from observing individuals' behaviors, a phenomenological
understanding the signification processes permits individuals to
themselves the text's effects.
Although Crow is referring specifically to the signification processes
viewers experience with films, his arguments are valid for any kind of
analysis that seeks to explicate how people assign meanings to the
they receive. For example, Nelson (1987) also argues that a
perspective is advantageous to researching media or any other
experience of people because the focus of the data analysis is the "lived
meanings as they are experienced by persons ... rather than
escribed behavior and abstractions" (p. 315). In other words, the
the research shifts from the researcher's interpretation of a text's
for receivers to an emphasis on understanding the receivers' own
and interpretation of a text: "Phenomenology can lead us back to
experience in which meanings and values are experienced as
phenomenon rather than as objects for scrutiny" (Nelson, 1987, p. 313).
Phenomenology rejects the referential, ideational and behavioral views of
meaning acquisition that separate experiences from language.
Phenomenological methods are grounded in the assumption that meaning
constituted during language interactions and, therefore, the research
to explicate how these representational views are themselves
(Deetz, 1973). Thus, phenomenology is concerned with understanding the
direct language experience, which Heidegger refers to as understanding
constitutive experience of language (cited in Deetz). In this sense,
most basic role of language is to understand the various "purpose
possibilities" of an object (Deetz, p. 45): "To name a thing is to
illuminate, it in a certain light, in a certain World with
possibilities. Naming is not letting a word stand for some thing but
achieving a stance as to how something is understood" (Deetz, p. 46). When
we name an object, we understand that object within a certain
that includes specific "action possibilities" (Deetz, p. 46)
do not respond directly to an object, but to our experience with
Thus, one goal of phenomenological research is to examine the
"pre-experience, pre-predictive experience" that precedes each
experience of people (Deetz, p. 42).
An underlying assumption of phenomenology is that all knowledge is conscious
knowledge; how we understand an object or event is through our
experience with it. Consciousness in this sense refers to the "direction,
intention, or mode of doing in a world" (Deetz, 1973, p. 42);
is thus an action taken in response to a situation. Conscious
therefore, is an interpretative process that occurs through our
"phenomenological reflection on an already lived experience" (Crow,
6). Further, all conscious knowledge is assumed to exist within
In other words, our perceptions and thoughts are brought to present
consciousness in words (Deetz, 1973):
There is a "languagely" meaning of language which affects the mediation
between my as yet unspeaking intention and words, and in such a
my spoken words surprise me myself and teach me my thought.
(Merleau-Ponty, cited in Deetz. p. 44).
Hence, consciousness is negotiated through language. In terms of textual
experience, the relationship between source and receiver is
which the receiver is the "individual and creative user" of the
(Nelson, 1986, p. 13). Thus, another goal of phenomenological research
understand the nature, the "how of intentionality" (Deetz, 1973;
1987, p. 314).
Giorgi (cited in Crow, 1981) articulates four of the major epistemological
assumptions underlying phenomenological research. First,
meaning of a phenomenon is not the same as measuring a phenomenon.
phenomenology rejects the idea of a passive person responding to
instead recognizes the intentionality inherent in a person's
"an identical environment in no way implies identical replication of
phenomenon" (Giorgi, cited in Crow, p. 7). Third, the goal of
phenomenological research is to explicate essential themes of a
phenomenon rather than discovering universal themes applicable to all
phenomenon. Finally, phenomenology rejects the idea of researcher
objectivity and argues instead that the researchers' roles are not invisible;
they affect the phenomenon under investigation. From this
researcher becomes a participant observer who "assumes the
standpoint" of the
co-researchers and "tries to account for their meanings by
the intersubjective construction of those meanings" (Crow, p. 7).
advantage of assuming the role of a participant observer is that
categories and themes are derived from the phenomenon as experienced
co-researchers, rather than applying a priori categories to the
that in effect, ignore the "density of meaning" of the
and reflect instead, the pre-suppositions of the researchers (Delia
Grossberg, 1977, p. 37). Further, a priori categories and themes
researchers to accept a simplified view of the phenomenon of
As a philosophy, phenomenology is concerned with the life-world of people; as
a methodology, phenomenology is used to describe, define, and
meanings of this everyday life world (Nelson, 1986). Thus, as a
of "conscious experience," phenomenological studies are grounded in
to explicate phenomenon of experience as it "occurs existentially
directly for us and be-fore us" (Nelson, 1986, p. 15). As a methodology,
phenomenological research is a reflective procedure that attempts to
"dis-cover and re-animate the taken-for-granted phenomena of existence" and
thus requires the use of interpretive techniques that allow the
and understanding of emerging experiences (Nelson, p. 15).
A phenomenological method is particularly appropriate to explicating how
women and men of different racial backgrounds experience Khallid
speech because, as a philosophy, phenomenology assumes that an
environment in no way implies identical replication of the phenomenon"
(Giorgi, cited in Crow, 1981, p. 7). For example, although many
and faculty members at Kean College heard or read Muhammad's speech
afterwards, they did not have the same reactions to Muhammad's words. Thus,
the goal of my study is to provide more data to increase
peoples' experiences of controversial texts.
After reading excerpts of Khallid Abdul Muhammad's speech, 105 college
students (48 women, 57 men; 29 African American, 15 Hispanic, and 61
enrolled in undergraduate courses at Kean College of New Jersey were
express their reactions to the excerpts from the speech carried in
York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education as part of in-class
assignments2 (see appendix B). Following Peterson's (1987) method of
open-ended, self-report essays from students, I selected written
to generate capta for the "phenomenological description." As a
technique, the essays express the "conscious experience of a
event" and, as such, allow co-researchers (the term to be used for
respondents)3 to "describe the context of their experience in terms
affective, cognitive, and intersubjective dimensions that may or may not
readily apparent in observable behavior" (Nelson, 1989, p. 389;
314-315). Hence, my analysis of self-report essays functions as a
"second-level reduction operation" (Crow, 1981, p. 8), attempting to
understand the process of message signification through an explication of
essential structures of the process as it occurred in the
reflection on the text experience.
I attempted to "bracket" my own presuppositions (i.e., phenomenological
epoche) concerning both the speech and my co-researchers in two ways.
in order to avoid imposing my presuppositions on the co-researchers'
experiences of the speech, I asked them to respond to the speech excerpts
before discussing the issues surrounding Khallid Muhammad's appearance
Kean College campus in our classes. Second, in the instructions for
essays, I asked my co-researchers to respond to general, open-ended
ements. This type of questioning reflects the open-ended interview
approach discussed by Patton (1980), an approach that is particularly
for phenomenological investigations because it allows co-researchers
their own terms to express their experiences of events (Nelson,
390). Third, I deleted the title included in the advertisement in
excerpts appeared and all references to the Anti-Defamation League
biasing co-researchers' responses.2
My analysis of the essays is adapted from Crow's (1981) study of film
signification, in which he articulates a propositional model of film
signification that provides a procedure for analyzing the ways in which
people construct their meanings of films intersubjectively through
essays and conversations about their "experiences of films" (Crow, p.
For his unit of phenomenological analysis, Crow developed the
act, which he defines as "a discrete unit of discourse which is used
sense out of a particular phenomenon" (p. 10). Further, a
represents a validity claim made by people about a specific
phenomenon in an
attempt to assign a meaning to that phenomenon. Crow's study thus
deconstructs film experience in terms of signification acts, with the parts
of each act "constituting phenomenological essences of particular
signification experiences" (Nelson, 1986, p. 16).
For the purpose of this study, I adapted Crow's (1981) phenomenological
procedure of film signification to an examination of the
processes of written text messages as follows:
During the descriptive phase, all statements that were "significant to
contributing to the understanding" (Crow, 1981, p. 12) of the speech
identified and clustered into similar groups according to the type of
statements (e.g., interpretation of First Amendment freedoms) or type of
content discussed in the statements (e.g., racist speech is not
speech). Description procedures constitute a systemic comprehension
phenomenon under investigation (Peterson, 1987).
The types of statements and the types of content of the statement clusters
were reduced to one-sentence propositions that define the
between the two categories. The purpose of the propositional statements
to describe the meaning "given with the signification act but not
such in it" (Crow, 1981, p, 13). For example, one signification
explicated concerns a particular character's lack of realism, a
of content statement that resulted in the proposition, "The realism
character is criticized" (p. 13). In my study, one signification act
Muhammad's words to First Amendment rights, resulting in the
"The Constitutional rights of an American citizen are interpreted."
Each signification act requires both a signifier that carries the meaning,
and a signified, the meaning that is carried by the signifier.
propositional statements are thus explications of the underlying processes
used by receivers to construct their meanings in their experiences of
(Nelson, 1987, p. 314).
In order to allow the relevant propositions to emerge from the personal
narratives of the co-researchers and not from my own preconceived
important categories, I began this stage of the analysis without
any a priori propositions or categories that I would attempt to
"fit" to the
narratives. In other words, I "bracketed" my presuppositions in
"specify the structure ... the pre-reflective form of lived reality"
co-researchers (Peterson, 1987, p. 41).
The propositions were categorized according to what was being signified
(e.g., rights, symbolism, motives) in order to unite the descriptions
definitions articulated and, in turn, to explicate how the
processes of interpretation created their experiences of the text.
goal is to "specify the meaning of conscious experience, i.e., the
relationship uniting description and reduction" (Nelson, 1986, p. 16).
My goal in analyzing these essays written by students attending Kean College
when Muhammad spoke on campus is to understand any gender and
differences and similarities in the meanings that emerge during their
experiences of his speech, "The Hidden Relationship Between Blacks and
By analyzing the co-researchers' essays, I was able to compare the public
narrative of the speech with the private narratives of receivers, in
further explicate the signification processes used by people to
their meanings to controversial messages.
In order to identify the statements abstracted from the essays of the
co-researchers as well as to distinguish between the responses of women
men and their respective races, essays are labeled with numbers
each co-researchers' sex and race 4 (e.g., African American women's
are labeled 1-14 and African American men's are labeled 15-29). The
significant types of statements and contents discussed in the
essays cluster into five types: interpretation of First Amendment
interpretation of the speech's message, interpretations of Muhammad's
personality characteristics and motives, and expressions of perceived
discrimination and perceived racial tension on the Kean College
first cluster type focuses on assigning meaning to the limits and
protections of free speech, the second and third clusters of statements
interpretations of Muhammad, his speech and its underlying motives,
final two clusters of statements represent opinions concerning the
co-researchers' perceptions of racial tensions and discrimination at Kean.
In the classifications listed below, the headings represent the type
statement (e.g., interpretation of First Amendment rights), and examples
provided under each heading represent the types of content in the
5 (e.g., racist speech is not protected speech).
1. Interpretation of First Amendment rights of free expression. Content
statements in this cluster focus on interpreting the limits and
of free speech, in light of the specific narratives within
The majority of the co-researchers interpret the First Amendment in terms of
its limits: in this case, if the words spoken endorse killing or
or if they encourage racism and hatred. The First Amendment limits
interpreted by the co-researchers' within the specific context of the
Some typical examples of specific descriptions of the limits on free speech
if it promotes violence include: "While I do agree with freedom of
for everyone, there is a point where this goes too far--advocating
Jews and whites again and again" (5); "His words could only cause
which may lead to violence" (95); "The man specified types of murder
used for Christ's sake....If the guy says someone else should be
view should be prohibited" (96); and, "I believe speakers cross the
it comes down to talking about killing certain races of people"
Co-researchers also describe limits to free expression if the words encourage
hatred and racism. Again, their descriptions are primarily
statements related to free speech as it applies to Muhammad's remarks.
examples of specific statements of First Amendment limits if the
promote hatred or racism are: "I don't believe that a person should make
speech so full of hate against anybody" (35); "Hate is being
free speech" (46); "Freedom of speech does not mean that one person
come up to a public place and insult other races" (61); "Our laws
free speech, but at what costs? There is no harm in speaking your
no matter how wrong. But there is no way we can reach racial
hate mongers feeding the flames of fire" (66); "Anything as insulting
disgusting as racism should be prohibited" (100); "The bastard should
have been allowed on campus.... People should not be teaching hate
We are not trying to breed new Hitlers" (98); "He [Muhammad] deserves no
constitutional rights, for he is a racist, bigot and he promotes
(80); and, "He has violated my rights with his garbage" (103).
Although most co-researchers describe what they think are appropriate limits
to free expression in their descriptions of First Amendment
rights, a second
type of statements in this cluster focuses on the rights to
of expression. Here the co-researchers' descriptions of unlimited
speech rights fit into three categories: constitutional guarantees,
to listen, and a category that might be labeled as "an eye for an
eye. " The
first group of statements describe Muhammad's right to express his
terms of his constitutional rights to free speech. For example:
have the right to express his feelings. Hey, that's America--you
good with the bad" (43); "It's one man voicing his racist
freedom of speech" (16); "I am Jewish. I feel that Muhammad has every
to say the things he did" (72); "As far as the requesting of killing
people in regards to their race, of course it's insane and morally
but I would defend his right to say it" (73); "I don't agree with
he's said, or probably anything he will ever say.... However, I also
that no matter what he stands for, he has a right to voice it" (81);
his speech was disgusting. But I believe the man has the right to
whatever the hell he chooses even if it might be cynical and deadly"
"The guy was racist, but so am I.... If we stopped people from saying
don't like to hear, everyone would have to be silent" (92); and, "He
right to speak his mind and it we don't allow him to then we are
the hands of time to a time of dictators" (83);
The second category of statements describes unlimited free expression rights
in terms of individual choice. Here the co-researchers focus not
only on the
right of people to express their opinions, but the right of
chose not to listen to speech they find offensive. As with the
examples, the co-researchers' statements relate specifically to
in the following: "If everyone is so upset about his
don't have to sit there and listen" (51); "Mr. Muhammad is entitled
opinion. It is our choice if we would like to hear it" (99);
to have the opportunity to express themselves, their ideas and
decide what they want to hear" (54); "The audience is not forced to
follow his footsteps" (69); and, "The public can ignore him" (81).
The third category of statements under the cluster of unlimited free speech,
coming solely by African American co-researchers, describe
to free expression in terms of "an eye for an eye." In these
co-researchers rationalize that since white Americans have tolerated
condoned racism against the black population for centuries, they now
be willing to allow African Americans to express similar kinds of
toward the white population: "You got angry when he said to kill
They have been killing us for thousands of years and now you want me to be
sympathetic because he said something to enlighten what you should
know. Shame on you." (6); "The KKK did say what they felt and killed
people in the South and you're going to take what one man said and
problems with it, but the KKK has said and killed for many years.
difference?" (1); "I feel that if it was a white person saying that
speech, there would not have been any controversy" (15); "The major
[for the controversy] was because he was black, and talking about
whites. If it was the other way around, I bet nobody would have
and, "If Muhammad is not allowed to speak, they'll just be silencing
as they always try to do.... What about the Klan and skinheads? I
anyone trying to silence them. You people are so funny" (22).
2. Interpretations of Khallid Muhammad's speech. Here the focus of the
co-researchers' comments results in two contradictory
Muhammad's speech--as either racist or as non-racist. The
majority of the white and Hispanic co-researchers describe the
racist, while black co-researchers are more likely to describe
Muhammad's words as non-racist. Some example of co-researchers'
statements that describe the speech as racist are illustrated the
following examples: "The speech was nothing but a black man's version
of a KKK meeting" (42); "He is spreading more hate" (45); "I think
wants black people and white people to kill each other.... he wants
everybody to hate each other" (60); "He says Hitler's evil, but did
killing 6 million Jews" (89); and, "It's a very racist speech, that
doesn't stand for how every black man in America feels or how every
Muslim in America feels" (16).
African Americans who describe Muhammad's speech as non-racist focus on
what they see as the "truth" in Muhammad's message: "I guess one
narrow-minded would view Bro. Muhammad's speech as racist and
anti-Semitic hate speech. But let us bear in mind that there are truths
in the message he delivered" (6); "The things he spoke of were real
do exist today...[his comments] wouldn't be offensive if there was
truth behind what is being said" (11); "I believe he was actually
enlightening African Americans of his interpretation of how Jews have
been sympathized [with] for centuries and still are. And yet they
the power players, the controllers, the hand that undermined African
Americans and helped to enslave us into the sinkhole we are in today"
(17); "Well, I have to agree with Khallid Muhammad because he spoke
truth...the so-called Jews do run the country. I like when he said
whites are evil.... It's true white people are evil. Look at what they
have done" (19); and, "Read the Bible. Who were the original chosen
people? And who were the settlers that stole the land and rewrote the
book to suit their purposes? Christian groups teach lies" (22).
3. Expression of Khallid Muhammad's motives and personality characteristics.
This cluster also resulted in conflicting statements among the
co-researchers. African American co-researchers' predominately describe both
Khallid Muhammad and his motives behind his words as neutral or
empowering for the black race. In contrast, the white and Hispanic
almost without exception write negative statements in their
Muhammad and his behavior. Some examples from the non-African
co-researchers are: "He is just crazy...speaks garbage" (84);
bad things in their heads [African American students], we don't need
of speech in this society" (86); "He blames the white man for his
That is a lot of crap.... If you're not strong enough or smart
enough to fend
for yourself, then you should blame yourself....The whites aren't
'black community' down, they hold themselves down" (90); "The man
sense of morals" (93); and, "If he hates us 'crackers' so much then get
of our free country and convert to your own private black Islamic,
or Socialist party before you become another Malcom X--dead!" (70).
In contrast, most of the African American co-researchers describe
Muhammad in positive terms: "Muhammad's speech was very powerful"
"He had the guts to publicly denounce this country's treatment of
blacks" (5); and, "I think it [speech] was pro-black. I believe he was
actually enlightening African Americans.... Overall he suggest [sic]
that it is the black race that should be sympathetized [sic] and given
back what was rightly theirs" (17).
4. Expressions of perceived "reverse" discrimination. This was a
cluster only for white and Hispanic co-researchers, all male with the
exception of one white woman. Here, the co-researchers express the
of reverse racism and discrimination against the white population in
America. Consider the following examples: "If a white speaker said
kill all blacks, I think there would have been heavy violence on
(46); "If a white would have said that about blacks then that would
created more of a controversy because the blacks for some reason
that they deserve special treatment and can have black Miss America,
black TV shows, black magazines, etc., but if there was only a white
Miss America or the advancement for white people, that could not
(69); "If it was the other way around and the whites had the KKK
and give a speech, there would have been hell to pay, and without a
doubt, a riot" (78); "Sure it is fine for the people who support such
idiots to say he deserved the right to speak. I very much doubt that
these same people would think nothing of having David Duke of the KKK
come to speak" (79); "The minority students [at Kean] get away with
murder.... [Kean] caters to the black and Hispanic students and if
you're white, you better just watch your back" (82); "The blacks are the
ones who make most of the trouble in society. You don't see a white
Jewish guy standing in front of the college saying 'Kill the blacks.
They are no good' " (84); and, "The government gives them so much
support it's sickening, yet they still cry for more. It kills me that
the NAACP can force companies to hire someone for their color and
their ability to do a job" (90).
5. Expressions of perceived racial tension on Kean College campus.
This was a minor cluster for all of the co-researchers. Here, some
the co-researchers of each race and sex write statements describing
worsened racial tensions at Kean College in the aftermath the Muhammad
speech: "Now some white people think just because your [sic] black
automatically think like Khallid Muhammad" (23); "I think people are
afraid to discuss the issue" (11); "I think it made whites and Jews a
bit anxious and fearful, while inspiring some blacks" (17); "I live
campus and every night I am afraid to walk through campus because of
blacks yelling 'kill whites.' It really sucks" (36); "I feel it is
slime like him [Muhammad] that contribute to the tension...his hatred,
bigotry and stupidity cause so many problems" (90); and, "I know I
more tense" (33).
In order to reduce redundancy and allow the clusters that best represent
the ways in which the co-researchers typically made sense of "The
Relationship Between Blacks and Jews" speech, I first eliminated the
minor clusters and clusters that were not significant in contributing
the co-researchers' understanding of the speech excerpts. Then, I
reduced the types of statements and the types of content statements in
the remaining clusters to one-sentence propositions that define the
relationship between the two categories. The propositional statements
describe the "signification act being performed by a student or a
of statements" with the clusters (Crow, 1981, p. 13). This
resulted in three propositional statements each operating on two
conflicting levels of meaning.
1. (A) The constitutional rights of an American citizen are interpreted
after the speech, leading to a rejection of the First Amendment
free speech; and (B) The constitutional rights of an American
are interpreted after the speech, leading to an appreciation for the
First Amendment right to free speech.
The majority of white and Hispanic co-researchers, both women and men, reject
the notion of unlimited free speech. Despite recognition of the
constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment, these co-researchers
express their concerns regarding speech that endorses violence, and/or
promotes racist attitudes. These concerns articulated in their
result in both an explicit and implicit endorsement of censorship:
believe in free speech, but not when it's like this. He should have his
mouth washed out with soap" (49); "He should not have the right, but
(101); "Anything as disgusting and insulting as racism should be
(100); "Although this country allows freedom of speech, I think that
has the right to speak hate against any person or nationality" (58);
"When our founding fathers described 'freedom' in this country, they
say freedom to say or do anything that is morally correct and of
offense to anyone or any group" (94).
While the white and Hispanic co-researchers overwhelming support limits on
free expression, the African American students are more likely to
support for unlimited free expression. Often the co-researchers who
unlimited free speech, regardless of their ethnicity, write that
objections to the attacks on whites and Jews in Muhammad's speech, they
recognize that the right to free speech does not come without a cost:
stopped people from saying what we don't like to hear, everyone
would have to
be silent" (92); "If we try to quiet those individuals who don't see
world through our eyes, how can we justify being any different from him
[Muhammad]" (33); "Everyone is entitled to say what they please" (1);
to me some of his statements may have been harsh, but this is
America and we
do have freedom of speech" (21).
2. (A) The symbolism of the message in Khallid Muhammad's speech is
interpreted literally, leading to a negative attitude; and (B) The
symbolism of the message in Khallid Muhammad's speech is interpreted
intersubjectively, leading to a positive attitude.
As with the previous propositional statements, the interpretations the
co-researchers assign to Khallid Muhammad's speech break down
racial lines. While the majority of the African American
describe the speech as non-racist, nearly all of the white and
students interpret it as racist. For the co-researchers who say the
message is racist, the primary reason stated for this belief is that
Muhammad's words promote hatred toward whites and Jews, an attitude
find unacceptable: "Freedom of speech does not mean that one person
just come up to a public place and insult other races" (61). For
co-researchers, at issue is the explicit, literal interpretation of
Muhammad's words. These co-researchers see little meaning beyond the
words themselves, for example, how Muhammad's speech may have been
empowering for blacks.
In contrast, the main argument given by African American co-researchers
to support their position that Muhammad's message is not racist
idea that speaking the truth, regardless of how unpleasant that
may be, does not constitute a racist message: "Sometimes the truth
hurts" (23). Here the co-researchers relate Muhammad's words to the
history of black oppression in America, allowing them to articulate
belief that Muhammad's verbal attacks on white and Jewish
are justified; they argue that whites and Jews persecuted blacks for
centuries, which is essentially Muhammad's justification for his calls
for black separatism. Significantly, black co-researchers don't
Muhammad's right to utter racist epithets. Rather, for them the
of the right to express opinion regardless of who is offended is
secondary to the argument that Muhammad's words do not constitute racist
remarks. Here, defending the First Amendment takes a back seat to
defending Khallid Abdul Muhammad.
3. (A) The motives of Khallid Abdul Muhammad are evaluated after the
speech, leading to an impression of Muhammad as an opportunistic
radical; and (B) The motives of Khallid Abdul Muhammad are evaluated
intersubjectively, leading to an impression of Muhammad as a champion
African American rights. Whites and Hispanics overwhelming describe
Muhammad as an unprincipled troublemaker, a racist who is out of touch
with the reality of today's world: "I feel sad for African
who went to this speech to hear a great speaker and instead heard
from a man who is an embarrassment.... What a sick man" (41); "His
method reminds me of school children whining and complaining because
Bobby or Susie did this or that. Grow up...life is what you make it
right now you are painting life as a very dark, violent, and
place for many of your 'African-Americans' who may fall into your
of lies" (47); "He is nothing but a racist black pig, who should be
shot and blown off the earth" (68); "Anyone who actually took this
speech seriously has some problems. Khallid Abdul Muhammad is a
crackpot" (72); "I think the Nation of Islam preys on young blacks,
especially young black males who don't have a sense of guidance or
direction" (73); and, "If you can't see what's wrong here, then you're
just as fucked up in the head as he is" (75).
Only a few African American co-researchers, however, describe Muhammad's
motives as negative. Instead, the statements from the blacks
participating in this study represent a more positive impression of
Muhammad, a sense that what he is saying may be necessary to empower
unite blacks: "I think the speech was more pro-black" (17); and, "I
guess one who is narrow minded would view Bro. Muhammad's speech as
racist and anti-Semitic hate speech.... He had the guts to publicly
denounce this country's treatment of blacks" (6).
Crow (1981) states that the categories of each signification act (e.g.,
symbolism of Muhammad's message) constitute the phenomenological
essences of a specific signification experience. Thus, during the final
stage of the analysis, I categorized each propositional statement
according to what was signified in the statement in order to allow the
phenomenological essences (i.e., signified categories) to emerge
the propositional statements, resulting in three essences with two
contradictory levels of meaning: First Amendment rights of free
expression, the symbolism of Muhammad's message, and the perceived
motives underlying Muhammad's words. Then, I explicated the differences
between the experiences of the co-researchers in terms of their
The first essence, the rights (signified) of the First Amendment
(signifier), results in contradictory signification processes for the
co-researchers based on race. In this instance, most of the Hispanic
and white co-researchers support limits on free expression, while
African American students are more likely to support unlimited free
speech. We can try to understand these differences through
both the pre-conscious and conscious reflections of the
At a pre-conscious level, American citizens are taught to accept the
idea that speech is protected, that one of the fundamental principles
our democracy is the right to free expression. Upon conscious
reflection, however, this ideal is questioned, and the acceptance of
unlimited free speech--for example, if I don't agree with you or if
you're attacking me--starts to crumble. Indeed, the primary reason
cited by the white and Hispanic co-researchers for limiting free speech
is that racist speech should not be protected, but for the most
they fail to articulate what constitutes racist speech (as the
Court once acknowledged, I can't define obscenity, but I know it
see it). In this case, the co-researchers are simply defining
words as the words spoken by Muhammad against whites, Jews and the
It is entirely plausible that these co-researchers may have interpreted
Muhammad's speech very differently if he had targeted different
or groups or a different religious leader (the communities around
College have a high Catholic population). Indeed, this is a claim
several black co-researchers make: "The major reason [for the
controversy] is because he was black, and talking about Jews and whites.
If it was the other way around, I bet nobody would have cared" (21);
and, "I feel that if it was a white person saying that type of
there would not have been any controversy" (15). Interestingly,
white men make a similar argument regarding Muhammad's speech, but
the mirror-image perspective: "If a white would have said that
blacks, then that would have created more of a controversy..." (69);
and, "If it was the other way around and the whites had the KKK come
give a speech, there would have been hell to pay, and without a
It is interesting to note that despite these differing perceptions
expressed by the co-researchers, the conscious reflection of African
Americans, in this study at least, seem to recognize more readily the
problems if free speech is limited. This is not surprising when we
consider that the history of African Americans in America is one of
abuses to their First Amendment rights, both in terms of not being able
to voice their views, but also in terms of having to tolerate
discrimination. Perhaps people who have had their rights violated, or
seen the rights of their race violated, are more likely to support
unlimited free expression precisely because of these violations.
Further, the statements from the non-African American co-researchers
seem to indicate that many start from a pre-conscious perspective that
includes the notion that racial slurs against blacks are "no big
The second essence, the symbolism (signified) of the speech message
(signifier) also reflects conflicting signification processes in
of race. These differences in the signification processes can
be explained by the pre-conscious perceptions of the co-researchers.
Khallid Muhammad's words are very polarizing--you're either with us
against us. Hence, the co-researchers may have felt compelled to
sides. One result of this polarization is that Hispanic
seem to identify more strongly with whites than with the African
Americans, as illustrated in this statement from a Hispanic woman: "I'm
not Jewish, but these remarks hit me hard" (62). Muhammad's
about Pope John Paul II (e.g., "...the old, no-good Pope, you know
cracker. Somebody need to raise that dress up and see what's really
under there," Muhammad, 1993, p.18) may have functioned to align the
Hispanic co-researchers in this study, all who were Catholic, with
For their part, blacks may have seen taking a position against Muhammad
as having to take a position against their own race. This is not
concern for African Americans. Many black women and men were
to voice opposition to Clarence Thomas (Painton, 1991, October 28);
leaders of the NAACP kept quiet about misused funds rather than risk
public exposure (White, 1995, February 13); when Mike Tyson was
with rape, his accuser was criticized for trying to bring down one
her own (Goodman, 1992, February 14); and O.J. Simpson's attorneys
wanted as many blacks on the jury as possible because they felt it would
be more difficult for African Americans than for whites to render a
guilty verdict (Gibbs, 1994, June 27). Understandably, African A
mericans have tended to defend fiercely any black who rises to a
position of power in society precisely because so few have risen to
power. Thus, it would be more difficult for the black co-researchers
accept that Muhammad's words are racist, because such an
could be seen as taking sides against their own people.
The co-researchers participating in this study all lived near Kean
College, an urban area a few miles south of Newark, New Jersey. The
area has all of the problems associated with urban life in America,
this is perhaps even more pronounced for the black students. For
students who truly live the daily lives of a marginalized,
group, opposing a black man with the prestige accorded leaders of
Nation of Islam might have been more difficult than it would have
for black students living in less starkly segregated situations.
Indeed, one of Muhammad's primary messages to his predominately black
audience at Kean College was that the reason blacks are
the reason blacks live in poverty, is that blacks continue to be o
ppressed by whites, and in particular, by Jews: "Who are the slum lords
in the black community? The so-called Jew.... They're the
of the black nation and the black community" (Muhammad, 1993, p.
This is a message that may resonate with urban blacks, may make them
feel empowered, as two African Americans write in these statements:
believe there are times when we must offend to make a point. I
Muhammad was not trying to invite violence or cause fear in any other
race.... The speech was more pro-black...it inspired some blacks"
and, "Muhammad's tongue is like a sharp sword--it has pierced the
of many who stand behind it and honor it" (3).
In this case, the non-African American co-researchers may have
interpreted the speech from a pre-conscious perspective that expects
blacks and other racial and ethnic groups not to have the same power
respect in American society as whites, and, thus, they did not
or could not relate to Muhammad's emphasis on the oppression of
Americans and their continuing marginalized status in society. As
(1988, p. 86) reflects: "A fish would be the last creature to
water, because it is surrounded by water throughout its life."
Similarly, as long as a society is dominated by the white population,
perhaps it will be difficult for whites to notice inequalities in the
system for non-whites. This attitude is evidenced in the following
atement from a white male co-researcher: "I don't know why anybody
would want to go listen to him speak" (40).
As with the previous two essences, the third essence--the motives
(signified) of Khallid Abdul Muhammad (signifier)--has two
signification processes for the African American and non-African
American co-researchers. We can once again examine the pre-conscious
perspectives and conscious reflections of the co-researchers to
understand these differing processes of signification. The
pre-conscious perspectives of the non-African American co-researchers do
not include a perceptual frame that allows then to identify easily
a black man, especially a loud, proud, unapologetic black man.
this is precisely the stereotype of black men many whites have been
taught to fear. One is reminded of the reactions of the white
population to Muhammad Ali in the early 1960s; whites were offended and
even frightened by a black men who not only seemed proud of his
blackness, but who did not seem to fear whites. In his Senate
confirmation hearings, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas charged
that he was being attacked for being an "uppity black" (Rowley, 1991,
October 12, p. A1). Similarly, Khallid Muhammad and his
style feed into some of the inner fears whites may hold toward
Further, because the pre-conscious perspectives of the non-African
American co-researchers may tend to include fear or suspicions of a
powerful black man, this perspective necessarily negates any
identification with Muhammad for non-African Americans. Consider the
following examples: "I feel sad for African Americans who went to
speech to hear a great speaker and instead heard trash from a man
an embarrassment" (41); "...you [Muhammad] are painting life as a
dark, violent, and hopeless place for many your 'African-Americans'
may fall into your trap of lies" (47); "For him to even consider
a religious man is incomprehensable [sic]" (51); "He is really a
person" (56); "Muhammad and the whole Nation of Islam is [sic]
(59); "What he is saying is so stupid and crazy" (60); "Muhammad is
nut" (67); "He is nothing but a racist black pig..." (68); "Khallid
Abdul Muhammad is a crack-pot" (72); "I think the Nation of Islam preys
on young blacks..." (73); "I could care less about what he says
he has no actual authority in the minds of most sane people" (75);
"The guy has no bearing in my life whatsoever" (81);
In contrast, the pre-conscious perspectives and reflections of the
African American co-researchers may include an opposite perception of
powerful blacks. Rather than feeling fear, anger or frustration, the
African Americans seem to have a perceptual frame that appreciates
welcomes black people with power, even if they don't necessarily
with or endorse the views of this man: "Muhammad's speech was very
powerful" (3); "He had the guts to publicly denounce this country's
treatment of blacks" (5); and "I believe he was actually enlightening
African Americans.... Overall he suggest [sic] that it is the black
that should be sympathetized [sic] and given back what was rightly
theirs" (17). When we consider the overall message Muhammad conveys to
blacks--that they are God's chosen people, not Jews, that Christ was
black not white, that they are not responsible for their oppressed
conditions: whites and Jews are--a black response to Muhammad of
appreciation and pride is easier to understand. Indeed, this message to
African Americans is not new, but was promoted by early civil rights
leaders such as Malcom X, who said: "We are brutalized because we are
black people living in America. We are not Americans. We were
kidnapped and brought to America" (Brokaw, NBC Evening News, 1995,
These findings regarding the signification processes of the African
American co-researchers are consistent with a Time poll of blacks
Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Of the 503 African
adults questioned, only 34 percent reported they believe Farrakhan
his message are racist, while 63 percent said Farrakhan "speaks the
truth" (Henry, 1994, February 28, p. 22). Similarly, while 80 percent
of the white population believed the Nation of Islam has too much
only 2 percent of African Americans shared that belief (Henry).
I don't think we differ much from the crowd that accepted
slavery 150 years ago. (Co-researcher 67)
There are significant racial differences in the signification processes
of the co-researchers. The signification processes of the
American co-researchers seem to allow them to identify more easily with
the symbolism of Khallid Abdul Muhammad's message and the societal
biases represented in it than do the signification processes of the
non-African American co-researchers.
There are, however, very few gender differences among the
co-researchers' signification processes. The only gender difference is
among the black co-researchers; although African Americans overall
not describe Muhammad's speech as racist, black women are almost
as likely to interpret his words as constituting racism than the
men. Perhaps this gender difference may be explained by the
organizational structure of the Nation of Islam, where women do not
leadership positions, and are relegated to housework and child
If Nation of Islam religious services are overcrowded and seating is
limited, women are expected to give their seats to men (Henry, 1994,
February 28), and Farrakhan often gives lectures that are limited to
("One-gender," 1995, February 18). In light of such institutional
attitudes within the Nation of Islam that relegate women to secondary
status, it is reasonable to assume that African American men are more
inclined to identify with Muhammad and the Nation of Islam than are
black women and, in turn, are less likely to question Muhammad or his
It is disturbing that many of the statements of the non-African American
co-researchers reflect an acceptance of the belief that improvised and
marginalized groups of people are responsible for their own
state. This attitude is reflected in the following statements from
white and Hispanic co-researchers: "It is my opinion and others, that
the white man has more than paid up his so-called debt to the
(103); "What happened a long time ago and the people who did it are
dead, so why can't they forget it, we--the living--did nothing wrong"
(69); "I've often had to hear professor drone on and on about the
of Afro-Americans and how they were wronged. My opinion is, live
it" (76); "He [Muhammad] blames the white man for his troubles.
a lot of crap.... If you're not strong enough or smart enough to
for yourself, then you should blame yourself.... The whites aren't
holding the 'black community' down, they hold themselves down. The
government gives them so much support it's sickening, yet they still
for more" (90). By accepting the ideal--if you just work hard
you can achieve the American dream--the white population can deny any
responsibility, personally and societally, for the inferior life
experiences and opportunities of marginalized classes.
No phenomenological research claims to offer generalizability in its
results. This study is no exception. Although the sex and racial
composition of the co-researchers is diverse, 1 the co-researchers were
all undergraduate students enrolled in communication courses, most
years old. Like most of Kean College, none of the co-researchers
actually attended the speech on November 29, 1993. In fact, most
students did not know anything about Khallid Muhammad's controversial
speech until after the Anti-Defamation League published the excerpts
The New York Times. The co-researchers' reactions to Muhammad's
message in this study are based primarily on reading the excerpts
printed in the Times and what they subsequently heard about the speech
from secondary sources. Three months had elapsed between the
speech and the time I asked my students to write their essays; 6
that time, not only had the speech been placed on the national media
agenda, but many Kean College professors had discussed the issues
surrounding the speech with their classes. Even Kean's president, Elsa
Gomez, felt obligated to send letters to all students enrolled at
college apologizing for Muhammad's words and his appearance on
Muhammad's speech was over two hours long, resulting in a 127-page
transcript. Thus, it was not feasible to have students read and respond
to the speech in its entirety.
Such limitations, however, do not automatically constitute weaknesses
(Crow, 1981). The purpose of my study is not to predict how all
will respond to Muhammad's words, but to explicate receivers'
in a particular situation. The goal of phenomenological research is
explicate essential themes of a specific phenomenon rather than
discovering universal themes applicable to all similar material (Giorgi,
cited in Crow). The data from this study thus provide further
of the "decoding processes audience members routinely employ" (Lull,
1987, p. 321) to construct their meanings of texts, in this instance,
Khallid Abdul Muhammad's speech was explosive, pushing the questions of
what is acceptable speech to extremes and recasting the question
kinds of expressions of anger are socially acceptable--for some, the
Muhammad speech is a reversal of an unhappy era of U. S. history when
whites could without impunity say the same kinds of things about
that Muhammad did about whites. For the co-researchers, such a
reversal of the societal norm was provocative, and seen as either
threatening or inspirational, depending on their pre-conscious
reflective states. Whites tend to find the speech threatening, but for
many African Americans, Khallid Muhammad and his controversial words
represent an affirmation of strength and character in their lives
non-African Americans may find unsettling. Consider that when
visited New York City, 30,000 African Americans filled the Javits
Convention Center. And when Farrakhan spoke in Atlanta in 1992, more
African Americans attended his lecture than the total number of fans
attended the World Series (Henry, 1994, February 28). As Henry
out, many African Americans see a very different man and message in
Louis Farrakhan and his aides than those that white Americans see.7
1 A total of 105 essays were collected from the co-researchers. The
breakdown of race and sex is: 48 women (14 African Americans, 12
and 22 white); 57 men (15 African American, 3 Hispanic and 39 white).
2 Only copies of the excerpts were given to the co-researchers. The title of
the advertisement and all references to the Anti-Defamation
deleted to avoid biasing the responses of the co-researchers.
3 Students participating in this research were not merely survey ciphers, but
true "co-researchers" in the process of understanding their
Khallid Abdul Muhammad's "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and
4 Essays were labeled as follows:
1-14 African American women
15-29 African American men
30-51 White women
52-63 Hispanic women
64-101 White men
102-104 Hispanic men
5 Statements from the co-researchers have not been altered; no corrections
to grammar, etc. were made. These kinds of errors are noted by
6 Essays were collected during the first three weeks of March 1994, prior to
Louis Farrakhan's appearance on March 28, 1994.
7This study in no way attempts to justify or endorse the remarks made by
Khallid Abdul Muhammad in his speech at Kean College of New
elsewhere. The goal of my study was simply to explicate the
signification processes used by Kean College students to make sense
the speech and in turn, offer explanations to understand the
experiences and subsequent interpretations of Muhammad's speech.
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In-class reaction paper
After reading the excerpts from Khallid Muhammad's speech given at Kean
College, please write your reactions to his message. There are
or wrong answers for this assignment. I simply want to hear your
reactions to his speech.
Gender: ___M ___F
Race/ethnicity: ___African-American ___Hispanic
___Asian ___White ___Other (__________)
Student status: ___full-time __part-time
___Senior ___Junior ___Soph. ___Freshman
Age: ___ 18-25 years___ 26-30___ 31-40___ 41 or older