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Al for President?

When the mantle of black leadership is wrapped tightly around one man, the presumption is that he or she speaks for all blacks.
 
 
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The Reverend Al Sharpton has finally made it official. He will run for president. The good reverend has done much in recent months to convince everyone that he's not just a noisy protest candidate who'll say and do anything to snatch more media attention, but a credible candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He has donned conservative business suits, trimmed down, and carefully coifed his gray-specked pompadour trademark hairstyle. He even sounds like a thoughtful Democrat on issues such as education, farm policy, missile defense, social security, health care, and the war on terrorism. But does this mean that Sharpton can or even should be considered a serious presidential candidate?

For the legions of skeptics, Sharpton points to the energizing 1980's presidential campaigns of black America's other top mouthpiece, Jesse Jackson, to prove that an African-American candidate can be a real political threat. But the comparison to Jackson falls flat. Where Jackson once excelled at getting the attention of policy makers, Sharpton has yet to tell what, if any, plan he has to bridge the racial divide. City and state trotting to lead street demonstrations and protests, and deliver scorching rhetoric over police abuse is no substitute for a coherent program. In fact, this kind of talk further convinces many whites (and some blacks) that he is still at heart a racial rabble-rouser.

Also, Jackson once had solid standing in the Democratic Party, a much admired track record of civil rights activism, an established national organization in his Rainbow Coalition, and good support among labor, environmentalist, and women's groups. Though Jackson did not get the Democratic Party nod, and Ronald Reagan trounced Michael Dukakis, he was credited with registering thousands of black voters for the Democrats. Their votes helped deliver the White House to Bill Clinton in 1992.

Democrats will try to use the black vote to partially off set the lop-sided white male vote that Bush almost certainly has in the bag in 2004. But they don't need Sharpton to get that vote as they did Jackson a decade ago. The Democrat presidential candidate in 2004 already has an ironclad lock on their votes. Even though Bush has won plaudits from many blacks for waging the war on terrorism, mention Florida and many blacks still reflexively froth at him and the Republicans for disenfranchising them and stealing the White House.

His glacially slow repudiation of Trent Lott, and his opposition to race-based affirmative action programs further reinforce the deep suspicion of blacks that he and the Republicans are closet bigots. The top Democratic presidential candidates quickly went for Bush's racial jugular. On the Martin Luther King holiday, they scurried to any King event they could find to slam Bush and tout their credentials as civil rights fighters.

Even as a presumptive presidential candidate, Sharpton unabashedly says that he hopes to get enough black support in the early primary states of South Carolina and Michigan to make him a real player among Democratic presidential contenders. And this is the big danger in Sharpton's presidential bid for blacks: 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 first talked about forming the Rainbow Coalition, blacks were attacked as radicals.

When he 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. When he talked about leading a national crusade to save affirmative action, blacks were attacked as wanting quotas and special preferences for the unqualified.

It's the same with Sharpton. While he took much heat for the Tawana Brawley rape controversy, the burning down of a Jewish-owned store in Harlem after picketing that he endorsed, and his penchant for shoot-from-the-lip inflammatory statements, so did blacks. They were forced to publicly defend him from the attacks while privately grousing that he made them look like idiots.

He shouts that he is the only top Democrat who opposes war on Iraq, the death penalty, and tax cuts. Multitudes of Americans also take these positions. But that message, no matter how valid or how many support it, gets hacked up, lost, distorted, or ignored when the messenger is perceived as irresponsible, opportunistic, or both.

Sharpton deserves credit for trying to crash the clubby ol' white male club of Democratic presidential contenders, and trying to prod mainstream Democrats to do and say more on race and poverty issues in 2004. But given the heavy load of racial baggage he still carries, Americans won't rush to punch Al's name on a presidential ballot.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: www.thehutchinsonreport.com. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).