Al Sharpton, shakedown artist extraordinaire, never has lacked energy in advancing the profile of his New York-based nonprofit, National Action Network (NAN). Thanks to corporations and unions, he isn’t lacking cash either. Last week, during April 13-16, NAN held its annual convention at the Sheraton Times Square Hotel in Manhattan. The fundraising event, featuring speeches by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, plus nearly 30 panel discussions, gave attendees what they came for: a mix of black grievance politics and socialist economics. If Sharpton’s corporate donors ever take time off from Celebrating Diversity, they might reconsider this odd partnership.
National Legal and Policy Center over the years repeatedly has emphasized that Reverend Al Sharpton’s ascension to the status of the nation’s most influential civil rights leader is the product of image self-reinvention. During the Eighties and Nineties, he was perceived – and rightly so – as a boorish, reckless inciter of mass intimidation on behalf of aggrieved black families toward guilty white “racists.” Though to this day he justifies his campaigns as embodying the highest ideals of justice, the consequences were toxic and at times tragic. My recent book, Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise, examines these campaigns in detail. Sharpton, now 61, is still focused on racial payback. But his operating style has changed. Beginning with his own presidential campaign over a dozen years ago, he has projected an image of a pragmatic, “healing” force. He turns down the volume when the situation calls for it. He has slimmed down. He long ago replaced his track suits and medallions with power suits and ties. Respected newspapers and magazines, from the Wall Street Journal to Newsweek to Vanity Fair, immersed in wishful thinking, have praised the new, “mature” Reverend Al. But Sharpton, as he himself readily admits, has not changed his views. He still operates on the premise that whites “owe” a huge debt to blacks and that it’s high time to pay up. The difference is that he realizes that street rallies alone won’t shift public debate in his direction. What will is an adroit use of politics and law.
Sharpton’s makeover has been instrumental in propelling National Action Network, now with at least 70 chapters nationwide, to top-tier status in the world of nonprofit organizations. He founded the Harlem-based NAN in 1991, incorporating it as a nonprofit in 1999. As NAN president, he addresses a wide range of public policy issues, but always from a core conviction that the American way of life is rigged against blacks. He means to transform, not just reform – to cleanse our country, once and for all, of its pervasive “systemic” racism. In this sense, he is a radical rather than a liberal. And he shouldn’t be underestimated. His views are wrong, and usually dangerously wrong. Yet those views resonate with his large and predominantly black audience. A February 2013 Zogby Analytics poll conducted a detailed survey of slightly over a thousand blacks across America. One of the questions read: “Which of the following speaks for you most often?” Fully 24 percent of the respondents cited Al Sharpton. The runners-up were Jesse Jackson, Rep. Maxine Waters and then-NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, respectively, at 11 percent, 9 percent and 8 percent. Sharpton has a special admirer in President Barack Obama. The two have met often at the White House. And his Washington presence isn’t going to end after Obama leaves office. National Action Network last summer, in fact, established what amounts to a Capitol Hill lobbying operation. He means for Congress to come around.
It takes lots of money for anyone, especially someone with a long track record of demagoguery, to occupy an exalted position in public life. But Al Sharpton, aided by an outside fundraiser, has a special talent for raising money. According to National Action Network’s IRS Form 990 statement for calendar year 2014, the group took in nearly $7 million. That was up from $4.9 million just one year earlier. NAN has built a reliable donor base whose primary benefactors are labor unions and corporations. Unions, especially those representing public employees, share the same views as the hard Left. As such, they don’t need much coaxing to open their checkbooks. Yet corporations, presumably a good deal more conservative, also have been generous. The most plausible explanations are: 1) a desire to avoid bad publicity; and 2) an acquired conviction on part of their executives that “diversity” – i.e., a preference for hiring, retaining and promoting nonwhites over whites – is good for company morale and profitability. National Action Network benefits either way.
That brings us to the organizations and individuals whose funds made possible last week’s convention and “Keepers of the Dream” banquet celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of NAN. A number of donors did more than donate; they took out full-page ads in the program brochure. Home Depot, a longtime benefactor, declared: “It takes diversity to build a community. The Home Depot is a proud supporter of diversity among our Associates, our customers, and our communities.” Another veteran donor, Walmart, proclaimed: “Walmart is proud to sponsor the National Action Network 2016 Keepers of the Dream Conference. Thank you for all you do to promote one standard of justice and equal opportunities for all people. Together, we can help people live better.” Relative newcomer Airbnb made this pitch: “Airbnb is proud to partner with the National Action Network to strengthen and empower communities, create new economic opportunities, and fight for justice.” That’s a whole lot of misplaced pride.
Here is the full list of sponsors, a list that seems to get longer with each year:
32BJ SEIU (Service Employees International Union)
A+E Networks, History and A+E Studios
Advent Capital Management, LLC
AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees)
AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal
AIDS Healthcare Foundation
Amalgamated Transit Union
American Federation of Teachers
Barnes & Noble
Barneys New York
Davidoff Hutcher & Citron
Davis Polk & Wardell LLP
Eli Lilly and Company
Emmis Communications, Inc.
Erica Munro Kennerly, Esq.
Essence Communications, Inc.
Forest City Ratner Companies
GE Asset Management
Light of the World Christian Church
MacAndrews & Forbes
Magic Johnson Enterprises
Melissa E. James
Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church
National Association of Investment Companies
New York State Nurses Association
Parsons Family Foundation
Perennial Strategy Group
Rev. David Jefferson
RJ Reynolds RAI
Robert Frederick Smith
Ronald O. Perelman
Siebert Brandford Shank & Co.
Skywalker Properties Limited
Time Warner Cable
University of Phoenix
That’s an impressive list. The Reverend Al and his associates at NAN aren’t likely to be hurting for money anytime soon. What these donations bought, however, isn’t likely to make the country better off. The event – I attended many speeches and panels – was a celebration of blackness and a warning to those who stand in its way. White cops, especially those defending themselves from black attackers (e.g., Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin), did not come off too well.
The panel presentations were not so much discussions as echo chambers for National Action Network. The predominantly black participants did what they came to do. One panel, “The State of Criminal Justice Reform in 2016,” was especially representative. The intersection of race and criminal justice is dangerous territory, indeed as dangerous as ever. Many blacks in the U.S. really do believe they are targeted by authorities for arrest, incarceration and death. That blacks commit felonies at far higher rates than whites apparently is an unmentionable fact. Playing to this view, the panelists ritualistically denounced the “school to prison pipeline,” placing the onus of youth crime on schools rather than on youths who turn out to be criminals. The defining presentation came from a white public official, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Congratulating National Action Network for 25 years of beneficial work, Schneiderman called upon government leaders everywhere to transform the criminal justice system. Among other things, he bemoaned the fate of women whose children have been “lost to police violence” and called upon all states to ban employers from inquiring, verbally or in writing, about a job applicant’s prior criminal history. Another white speaker, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, termed America “the incarceration nation.” She noted that 78 percent of the people in prison are “people of color,” needless to say, without once raising the issue of the things these people did that landed them in prison. After delivering a few more clichés, she announced that she had to leave to attend a demonstration to shut down the city jail at Riker’s Island. Black speakers also gave the audience what it wanted. Angel Harris, senior counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, denounced the death penalty as “racist, classist, unjust and geographically disparate.” She also advocated running district attorneys out of office who pursue the death penalty and restoring the right to vote for convicted felons. Worst of all was Rashad Robinson, executive director for an online activist group, ColorofChange.org. The youthful, stentorian-voiced Robinson urged the audience to wage campaigns to throw out “racist” public office holders. He also boasted of getting Fox television to cancel its long-running ride-along reality show, “Cops” (on a happier note, Spike TV has picked up the program). And he pointed to a study by his group purportedly showing anti-black bias in crime coverage by local New York City news stations.
As for presentations by Obama administration officials, there was no shortage. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro provided moral ammunition for the crowd. Typifying the tone was Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator for the Small Business Administration. “I’m honored to call Al Sharpton my friend,” she said. “We were on Wall Street to promote small business.” Ms. Contreras-Sweet called upon banks to make more SBA loans in low-income communities. She proudly announced that she has instituted a 2-for-1 dollar match for approved black applicants. And she stated her intention to fight for a small business chapter in the proposed Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement. Also speaking was U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Murthy vigorously defended the Affordable Care Act, saying that the 2010 law has created health insurance coverage for 20 million Americans. “Nobody can be denied care because of a preexisting condition,” he emphasized. “Health equity is a civil rights issue.” As Sharpton from the start has been a shadow Obama cabinet member, none of this should be surprising.
The two marquee events were plenary addresses, respectively, on Wednesday and Thursday, by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Mrs. Clinton was in full race-pandering mode. “If we’re gonna ask African-Americans to vote for us, we cannot take you or your vote for granted,” declared the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. “We can’t just show up at election time and say the right things and think that’s enough. We can’t start building relationships a few weeks before a vote.” Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, may have been worse. He’d spoken at last year’s NAN convention, but this time he had an extra urgency. “I have a history of being blunt,” he began. “So let’s be blunt today.” He made good on his word. “The foundation of our democracy is being undermined by campaign finance laws and Republican billionaires,” he thundered. GOP governors “are trying to bring back Jim Crow laws.” Schools are nothing more than “dropout factories.” The U.S. economy is “rigged,” and requires antidotes such as a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, gender-based comparable worth legislation, and a trade policy that punishes corporations that don’t invest in America. “It is criminal,” Sanders shouted, “to pay people a part-time wage for a full-time job.” He stated, without attribution, that cities across America have poisoned water systems, not just Flint. Police departments must become more “diverse” if we are to stop killings of “unarmed” blacks. Corporations must disengage from prison and detention center management. We need universal payer (i.e., government-run) health care, huge increases in federal spending on jobs, infrastructure, mass transit and housing, and for the sake our young people, free college education. When Bernie Sanders says he’s a socialist…well, you can believe him.
This, in a nutshell, is what donations to National Action Network bought. One can understand union generosity here, given that organized labor and radical civil rights activism long have been intertwined. But why are corporations bankrolling NAN? How are their interests being served? The answer: Their interests aren’t being served, certainly not in the long run. Buying off one’s accusers to ward off a boycott, a negative public relations campaign or a spurious anti-discrimination lawsuit is not a reason to donate. Such capitulation merely invites more shakedowns later on. Al Sharpton and his top aides aren’t about to change their views or their sense of mission. They are innately hostile toward this country’s white majority and its business culture. The NAN conference agenda and presentations reflected that resentment. While National Action Network has a right to solicit donations, corporations should feel no moral obligation to give.