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Sharpton’s Follies

On 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 not race.

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 for him.

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.

—Earl Ofari Hutchinson 


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