The Rev in the Race

The big man is punctual. He rolls into a room accompanied by a blaxploitation soundtrack that only he can hear. This fall there are eight Democrats imagining strains of "Hail to the Chief" when they enter a venue, but only Al Sharpton is listening for Impeach the President.

To the skeptical world, Sharpton may be tilting at his own lofty set of windmills, but for his target audience he is the first legitimate black populist of the new millennium. Sleep if you want to, but beneath the comic appearance, the self-deprecating one-liners -- "I understand deficit spending. I was born in deficit spending" -- and the deliberately Ebonic diction is a political rationality that Sharpton has parlayed into his present standing as the most influential non-elected black Democrat in the party. Never mind the snickers of the wine 'n' cheese set, because Al Sharpton knows he can't win. He also knows he doesn't have to win -- all he needs to do is not lose.

Understanding Sharpton's standing as a reputed leader of the race requires understanding of recent history. Understanding Sharpton the Presidential candidate requires delving a bit farther into the past. Sharpton is a populist, and like most populists dating back to the turn-of-the-century Negrophobe Tom Watson, his approach to politics relies upon equal measures of demagogy and democracy. The Reverend who galvanized thousands to confront the near-fascism that was the Giuliani-era NYPD after the rape of Abner Louima and murder of Amadou Diallo is also the clergyman who decried the incursion of "white interlopers" in Harlem and rode the Tawana Brawley enigma to public prominence.

Having copped the elements of his style from James Brown, a Republican, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. -- quite possibly the two most flamboyant black men of the 20th century -- Sharpton fit right into the era that witnessed his political ascent. New York in the 1980s was the Wild West with a theater district, a town Ed Koch ruled with an aluminum fist. Beneath the veneer of cosmopolitan liberalism was a knotted skein of racial antagonisms. It was an era pock-marked by epidermal hostilities, crack wars and lawmen who were quick on the draw. Names from that time's headlines include Bernard Goetz, subway vigilante; Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman shot to death by NYC housing police; Michael Stewart, a black graffiti artist who was arrested for vandalism and died in police custody; Yusef Hawkins, a black teen gunned down on the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn for wandering into the wrong neighborhood. And then there was the mad Scottsboro saga of the "Central Park Jogger" rape case. The only thing missing was the tumbleweed.

Times were so hard back then that even a fat preacher with a perm, jogging suit and gold medallions could get a superhero's welcome. For better or worse, Sharpton parlayed his rapid racial response tactics into a position as unofficial kingmaker among New York Democrats -- the evidence being his non-endorsement of mayoral candidate Mark Green and Green's subsequent defeat by Michael Bloomberg in 2001.

Sharpton the Presidential candidate fits into a long historical tradition of symbolic black presidential campaigns. James Ford, a black Communist, was tapped as the Communist Party's vice presidential candidate in 1932 -- largely to underscore the CP's commitment to racial equality in the midst of its campaign to save the lives of the Scottsboro Boys. Charlotta Bass, the black radical and publisher of the California Eagle newspaper, ran for VP on the Progressive Party's 1952 ticket, just four years after the defeat of Henry Wallace and burgeoning winds of McCarthyism had relegated them to the sidelines of American politics. Brooklyn Congressional Representative Shirley Chisholm ran for President in 1972 in a campaign that rejected "soft money" decades before John McCain had ever heard of the term. Her campaign failed to win even the endorsement of the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus. Doug Wilder, the first black Governor since Reconstruction, spent a weekend in 1992 running for the High Office and Maryland conservative Alan Keyes threw his hat into the ring in an all but forgotten run in 2000. But the historical reminder that Sharpton wants to play up most explicitly is Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign.

Jesse's seven million votes didn't win him the Party's nomination, but the ripple effect figured into Wilder's election and Ron Brown's ascent to head the Democratic National Committee (and eventual stewardship of Bill Clinton into the Oval Office.) Sharpton's platform ranges from the idealistic: an Amendment guaranteeing the right to healthcare, to the unlikely: statehood for Washington, D.C. The first reason he cites for running is to "raise issues that would otherwise be overlooked -- for example affirmative action, anti-death penalty policy and African and Caribbean policy."

But the real ethos behind Sharpton's campaign is his desire to recreate the so-called "Jackson Effect." Al Sharpton wants to galvanize black voters into a bloc that can influence if not determine outright the direction of the Democratic Party. And, implicitly, extend his own influence inside the Party to the national level.

The main problem that confronts the Sharpton campaign is the fact that the Jesse model is ready for retirement. Jesse's "effect" notwithstanding, the DP has become consistently more conservative (or in their terms "centrist") in the 15 years since his last campaign. Plus, Sharpton has no hope of garnering even a handful of the votes Jesse received from gays or hard-pressed middle-American farmers. Jackson's Civil Rights Movement pedigree helped him finesse the transition from protest politics to the electoral kind, but it's doubtful that model can work for another generation of black leadership.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s recent endorsement of Howard Dean might signify that the handwriting is on the wall for Sharpton. His decision to lash out at Dean -- declaring him "anti-black" for his positions on the death penalty, affirmative action and gun control -- was simply bad politics, an echo of Sharpton's "white interloper" days. While Sharpton hopes to build a bloc within the Party, there's reason to believe that black people's best hope for furthering their interests within the Democratic Party is to organize outside of it -- as evidenced by the thousands of young black people registering as independents.

Jesse Sr. famously divided black leadership into "tree-shakers" who stir up social tension and inspire action and "jelly-makers" who carry out the nuts-and-bolts work of daily organizing. Given his preferences, Al Sharpton would like to shake the hell out of the Democratic Party Tree -- which might serve some purpose, provided the rest of us don't end up in a jam.

William Jelani Cobb is a professor of history at Spelman College.

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