Is Reverend Al Sharpton giving up confrontation for pragmatism? An article appearing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday suggests the media-hungry civil-rights leader, with a long history of intimidation and demagoguery, has become a beacon of political moderation in his advancing years. The article, authored by Peter Wallsten, “Obama’s New Partner: Al Sharpton,” notes that President Obama, stung by criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus and other sources of black political opinion, has turned to the New York-based activist and radio talk-show host for advice. The piece is informative and well-researched. Yet it can’t come to grips with the fact that the “new” Sharpton isn’t really different from the old.
The truth about Sharpton can be found in my 2009 special report titled Mainstreaming Demagoguery: Al Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability. Click here or on the cover above to download a 50-page pdf version. Thoroughly up to date, it reveals how Reverend Sharpton’s occasional bows to conciliation are borne far more of strategy than of principle. That some blacks see “the Rev” as an establishment lackey says much about their own political infirmities.
It’s undeniable that a growing number of blacks in this country, initially elated by the election of the nation’s first black (actually half-black) president, have begun to sour. They had thought Barack Obama would go the extra mile on their behalf. But an increasing number have come to believe he’s only half-hearted about serving his people. There’s a real chance many will sit out this fall’s elections. But as blacks are only one-eighth of the U.S. population, it’s dawned on at least a few black leaders that the President has to deal with reality: Singling blacks out for favorable treatment will alienate the other seven-eighths of the country. Reverend Sharpton, wisely having kept a distance from Obama (and vice versa) during the 2008 campaign, has become a political broker in the face of this. The Wall Street Journal observes:
Mr. Sharpton has emerged as an important part of the White House response. On his national radio program, he is directly rebutting the president’s critics, arguing that Mr. Obama is right to craft policies aimed at uplifting all Americans rather than specifically targeting blacks…Mr. Sharpton has been to the White House five times since Mr. Obama took office, most recently this month as part of a small group meeting with economics advisor Lawrence Summers.
Prominent among Sharpton’s critics is fellow black radio talk-show host Tavis Smiley. In a recent interview, the Journal notes, Smiley said it was hard for Mr. Sharpton “to speak truth to power about the suffering of black people on the one hand, and then to be running in and out of the Oval Office and trying to run the president’s agenda or express White House talking points.” Smiley speaks as if “suffering” were unique to blacks – as if millions of whites aren’t out of work, or that millions more face reverse discrimination that will keep them out of work or unable to receive a promotion. Sharpton responded that it was a “double standard” for Smiley to expect more from a black president than a white president.
Tavis Smiley makes a living trafficking in aggressive, accusatory rhetoric. But that hardly means Sharpton, whose long pattern of exploits was chronicled last year in my special report, should be praised for “moderation.” All extremists appear moderate when they win concessions or appear on the verge of winning. Sharpton is no exception. Wallsten cites as an example of Sharpton’s newfound reasonableness his allowing of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to take credit for the recent out-of-court $1.25 billion settlement with black farmers who had sued the government for alleged acts of discrimination dating back to the early 1980s. But the two lawsuits that brought about this result, as NLPC noted this month, were part of a calculated politicized shakedown. If Sharpton were a true moderate, he would have denounced the legal actions themselves rather than step back and let a white Agriculture Secretary play the noble crusader.
Predictably, the Wall Street Journal sees Sharpton as having joined a new, pragmatic, post-racial generation of black leaders that has eclipsed an “angry” civil-rights generation stuck in the Sixties. Obama’s election, the article opines, has changed the rules of the game:
Well before Mr. Obama’s victory, black leaders began to debate the limits of protest politics, a tradition steeped in the civil rights movement and aimed at highlighting the needs of African-Americans to white political leaders. A generation of fiery candidates, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Mr. Sharpton later, was giving way to black politicians eager to build support beyond the African-American community and for whom the injustices that stoked the civil rights movement weren’t as formative. The new generation included candidates such as Mr. Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who aimed for wide support and focused on broad remedies to social problems, rather than a race-based approach.
Let us translate: Shrewd black politicians realize that guile works better than confrontation. It’s interesting that the two supposed exemplars of sensible moderation here, Barack Obama and Deval Patrick, happen to be two of the most Left-leaning politicians in the country of any race – and are losing popularity fast. That they seek to cultivate close relations with white progressives or occasionally reach across the aisle to Republicans speaks of a difference of style rather than viewpoints with their “fiery” elders; their goals are virtually indistinguishable. For good measure, the article quotes Eugene F. Rivers, a senior policy advisor to the Church of God in Christ, a major black Pentecostal denomination: “There’s a philosophical power struggle going on in black America between the old-school protestors and the post-ideological pragmatists. Al Sharpton learned more quickly than many others that the ascension of Obama meant the end of protest politics. Al Sharpton has grown from the premier politician of protest to the ultimate political pragmatist.”
It’s hard to determine which is more insufferable, Rivers or the article quoting him. Let it be said: Al Sharpton has become a “pragmatist” because it serves his interests. Throughout the last decade, especially during his presidential run for 2004, he was adamant about articulating black grievances, real or imagined (all too often the latter), while expanding the coalition of progressive true believers. The differences between him and erstwhile mentor Jesse Jackson are about personality, tactics and strategy, not beliefs. Sharpton remains vocally supportive of affirmative action, slavery reparations and welfare-state expansion to benefit blacks. He remains explicitly unapologetic to this day about the menacing mass protests he organized on behalf of blacks with questionable if not imaginary grievances, most of all, “rape victim” Tawana Brawley. In the haste to rhapsodize over the “new” Sharpton, the Wall Street Journal hasn’t looked beneath the surface.