the surface, Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton’s
shoot-from-the-lip quip that Howard Dean is anti-black, and
his strong implication that Jesse Jackson Jr. and other black
leaders who endorse a white Democrat are Uncle Toms, are ridiculous
even by his loose standard. Jackson is not the first prominent
black Democrat to endorse one of the top white Democratic
presidential contenders. Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford
Jr., New York Congressman Charles Rangel, South Carolina Congressman
Jim Clyburn and legions of state and local black Democratic
politicians have endorsed or strongly lean toward backing
one of the top white Democratic contenders.
And just what did Dean say or do to punch Sharpton’s hot button
and brand him anti-black? Some years ago as Vermont governor
Dean said that affirmative action should be based on class
But many blacks have said the same thing. That would have
stripped the bitter racial rancor out of the affirmative-action
debate. In any case, Dean has reversed himself and unequivocally
backs affirmative action. Sharpton also beat up on Dean for
saying that Democrats must try to wean the white guys who
drive pick-ups and sport the Confederate flag away from Bush
if they want to snatch the White House in 2004. What’s wrong
with that? In his winning presidential campaigns, Clinton
refused to racially pander, and went after disaffected working-
and middle-class whites. Yet the majority of blacks still
hail him as their “honorary black president.” Incidentally,
Dean called the Confederate flag a racist symbol.
Sharpton’s tirade is also based on the commonplace notion
that whites will only vote for white candidates, and that
blacks must counter that by voting for blacks. It’s a wrongheaded
notion. In countless municipal, state and congressional elections—even
a gubernatorial election—in nonmajority black cities and districts
where blacks have gone head-to-head with white candidates,
blacks have won election with substantial white support, and
that even includes some districts in the South.
The far more troubling part of Sharpton’s diktat is that blacks
should reflexively vote for a black candidate merely because
the candidate is black. There is racial idealism, then opportunism,
to this. Though Sharpton dons conservative business suits
and occasionally sounds like a thoughtful Democrat on some
issues, he simply carries too much racial baggage to dissuade
most whites that he is anything other than a racial rabble-rouser.
It would be racial sacrilege for them to even think of voting
There are also a lot of blacks that have deep misgivings about
Sharpton and his candidacy. In a survey done in 2000 by the
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington,
D.C., public-policy think tank, nearly 30 percent of blacks
had an unfavorable impression of him. In contrast, the elder
Jesse Jackson had a 90-percent-favorable rating among blacks
during his two presidential runs in the 1980s. Jackson has
yet to endorse any Democrat and the betting odds are that
if and when he does, it won’t be Sharpton.
Still, if large numbers of blacks back him out of misguided
racial guilt or naiveté, he could score big in the early primaries
in Washington, D.C., to be held in January, and South Carolina
and Michigan in February and March, where the black vote is
of crucial importance. This would virtually compel whichever
white Democrat finally emerges from the pack to genuflect
at his feet to get the black votes that are absolutely vital
in the final showdown with President Bush.
But Sharpton’s political ploy is fraught with much danger.
When the mantle of black leadership is wrapped tightly around
one man, the presumption is that he or she speaks for all
blacks. In the 1980s, when Jackson talked about building an
independent black political organization, blacks were attacked
as separatists. When he talked about boycotting corporations
and baseball leagues that racially discriminate in hiring
and promotion, blacks were attacked as disruptive. When he
called New York “hymietown,” blacks were attacked as anti-Semitic.
The same prevails with Sharpton. When he was under heavy fire
for the Tawana Brawley rape controversy, for the burning down
of a Jewish-owned store in Harlem that he had endorsed picketing,
and for his penchant for inflammatory statements, so were
blacks. They were forced to defend him publicly from the attacks,
while privately grousing that he made them look like idiots.
Sharpton says that he wants to break up the chummy good ole’
white guys presidential club and goad the Democrats to take
strong positions on civil rights and poverty issues. It’s
a good aim, but name-calling Dean, and saber- rattling other
blacks to back him though he doesn’t have a ghost of a chance
of bagging the presidential nomination, makes him, not Dean,
appear to be anti-black.