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It’s Black and White|
What’s with Al Sharpton?
Fox TV’s America’s Black Forum recently asked several commentators to assess the presidential candidacy of the Reverend Al Sharpton. Three of the four guests appeared to agree that Sharpton lacks credibility and hinted albeit euphemistically that the man is dishonest, irrelevant, and too inexperienced to be taken seriously. They argued that he is, at best, a demagogue who doesn’t really represent the black voters whom he claims as his main constituency.
The fourth commentator disagreed, arguing that regardless of what one thinks of the man, Sharpton managed through his candidacy to raise issues of unique importance to African-American voters. The others retorted that Sharpton is so flawed a spokesman that his presence in the race actually detracts from the substance of otherwise genuine concerns.
Now, all of this strikes me as fairly obvious to the non-black voters viewing his performance, and must be frustrating to the rest of African America. Indeed one suspects that many blacks must feel divided by the fact that Sharpton tries to claim their support in the name of racial solidarity when, in fact, they don’t really agree with him on all that much.
But the more important issue is why very few in the mainstream media seem willing to tackle the core question of Sharpton’s credibility and personal agenda. Black voters, no less than Latino or labor voters or foreign policy hawks or any other constituency are entitled to legitimate representatives for their views and concerns. Why does anyone in the old guard media want their readers or viewers to think Al Sharpton is a viable, legitimate candidate? Why didn’t any of the other candidates call Al Sharpton what he is: a self-aggrandizing fraud who has built a career cloaking himself in black victimhood and entitlement, and whose real agenda extends little further than himself?
The answer is that it is not politically correct to say such things even when they are patently obvious. Sharpton and his tiny band of followers would immediately brand these truths as "racist" and no one wants to be called that in our society, no matter how fallacious the accusation. It is apparently more acceptable to stoically tolerate a man like Sharpton than to confront him, and that is a shame. Unfortunately, this cowardice hurts blacks more than whites. By allowing Sharpton’s counterfeit representation to trivialize their legitimate needs and concerns, devalue their agenda, and prohibit legitimate spokesmen to emerge blacks continue to marginalize themselves.
The media is perfectly willing to delve into George W. Bush’s military record or John Kerry’s votes on national security issues, while simply ignoring the antics of a man any objective observer must quickly see as a charlatan. To ignore Sharpton’s past and his tactics isn’t just a disservice, it is criminal. The crime is against America’s black population as those who give him a pass on his conduct allow millions of Americans to conclude that he is a legitimate representative of the people he claims to champion and, thus makes it all too easy to ignore the very real problems facing black America. The concerns of successful, hardworking parents, civic leaders, and other black citizens have, during the current campaign, been forced to take a back seat as Sharpton hogs the political spotlight. He is a man who, at best, still lives in a world of segregated lunch counters and White’s Only restrooms. His views aren’t only antiquated, they are dishonest. Even he knows better.
As the primaries began there were those who thought that perhaps black voters would vote for Sharpton because he is black and that they would somehow be drawn to him for that reason alone. They weren’t, of course, demonstrating that they have a better fix on the man and where he’s coming from than most media analysts. What his candidacy has demonstrated is that black voters are more sophisticated than that and in today’s world respond not to simple racial messages, but to candidates who can address a wide variety of issues of concern to them. This may not be welcome news to Sharpton, but it is very good news for the black community and for the nation as a whole.
In actuality, much of the poll and election data that has been used over the last decade to suggest that black Americans vote simply as a bloc is misleading anyway. It is gleaned from election results in poor black precincts in large metropolitan areas where it does undoubtedly reflect the voting patterns of the people who live there. But millions of blacks no longer live in such areas; they have moved on and live in higher income mixed-race neighborhoods either within the city or in the suburbs.
It is much harder to figure out how these people vote though it is logical to assume that their concerns are both racial and non-racial. They may not behave exactly like their new neighbors, but they may not feel quite the same about issues, candidates and parties as those still living in the inner city who have yet to get their piece of the American Dream.
The only way to determine how this emerging middle and upper-middle class votes is through broad-based polls of blacks across the economic spectrum. Polling of this sort is very expensive and done less often than one might suspect. The poll results currently appearing in the media just can’t measure the increasing diversity within the black community. Polls showing a different black population than people like Sharpton claim might change black America’s view of itself.
At that point the single-minded and self-serving firebrands who disingenuously assert the mantle of black leadership might learn, to more than their chagrin, that those who speak for middle-class black America are not always black. The current black leadership—Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, Charlie Rangle, Maxine Waters, and others—who apparently aren’t much interested in the varied voting habits of actual black voters, might be forced to change because their politics and rhetoric are tied to a non-existent America and an imagined solid, deliverable bloc of voters responsive only to their message and skin color.
The question is what is black America to do? Will they continue to tolerate the self-aggrandizing depredations of those like Al Sharpton who practice the politics of victimization and entitlement, or stand up and demand leadership that represents the black America that wants to be recognized for its achievements and its potential? One thing is clear: if black Americans don’t demand more from their leaders or those who seek their votes no one else will.
Author Debra Dickerson, in her recently published The End of Blackness contends today’s high profile black ‘leaders’ are leading in the old way, where black life is defined in terms of a white world. She argues convincingly, I think, that the old methods are not just irrelevant but harmful to progress in the era in which we now live. Jesse Lee Peterson offers in Scam, How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America, an investigation of the methods and means of today’s black leaders, and issues a scathing indictment, and Star Parker in her book Uncle Sam’s Plantation brings to the discussion a rational assessment of the welfare prison. In reality the modern black experience is that of the Harlem restaurant called Amy Ruth’s, run successfully by a former disciple of Al Sharpton’s. The account, offered on a CBS program, of this black entrepreneur who in almost every utterance, offers business, social and racial truisms that are the antithesis of Sharpton’s hustle, is where the future of black opportunity and success lies.
It’s time for the media and serious candidates to tell the truth about all of this. Al Sharpton, and those like him, are a roadblock to black aspirations. Sharpton is feared because of his color, not his intellect, his agenda or his claim of moral superiority, and he will use his race for personal aggrandizement. Race is his first tool, and only tool. According to Time magazine, Sharpton sees the 2004 campaign as an opportunity for him to displace Jesse Jackson and "take on the mantle of black leadership in America." The primary election results demonstrate that most of the voters he hoped to help him know just what he’s all about. Now it is time for everyone else including America’s mainstream media to say this out loud.
This article first appeared in Conservative Battleline and was titled Was Sharpton a Serious Candidate?