The joker

Al Sharpton's race-card politics have produced nothing but divisive melodrama for New Yorkers. Now he wants to run for president.


Jim Sleeper
February 28, 2002 6:12AM (UTC)

Editor Tina Brown wanted very badly to confirm that in 1964 Al Sharpton's father had impregnated his stepdaughter, who thereby presented 10-year-old Al with a brother and a nephew in one birth. Sharpton had confided this to me in November 1992, as we stood outside his imposing, 10-room former home in the leafy Hollis area of Queens, where the tragedy had unfolded, prompting his father's departure and the family's plunge into poverty.

Wanting his secret revealed not by a newspaper headline but in a long New Yorker profile, Sharpton told me how his brother/nephew, then 28 and living in Alabama, was "in and out of jail, and I identify with him, because he went through some of the same trials I did." Thereby hangs a tale, about Sharpton and his primal unease, but also about how he deploys it and how New York's high-end media present it. Now Sharpton is running for president, his career of race-baiting having yielded nothing but drama and disappointment for black New Yorkers, while his nemesis Rudy Giuliani revived the city and its spirits, before and after Sept. 11, and did more to improve the lives of blacks than any New York mayor in history. It seems time to set that record straight for the rest of the country, if not for New Yorkers.

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The New Yorker wouldn't publish what Sharpton told me unless we got confirmation from his father, who wouldn't return our calls. Public records I'd found were ambiguous. Sharpton promised us proof, either by coaxing his dad or by producing other records, and I spent the better part of a December afternoon awaiting his promised arrival at the magazine's offices to satisfy the fact-checkers and lawyers. Editorial director Hendrik Hertzberg, preternaturally wise and kind, with a trace of 1960s countercultural impishness beneath his vaguely mittel-European reserve, darted almost giddily in and out of people's offices, relishing the prospect of the Irreverend Al's disrupting the waiting-room-like tension in that aerie of eager, white writers sweating to be cool.

But Sharpton never showed up, and he ducked me for weeks, even though we'd known each other for years and I'd just spent several months with him almost full-time. Over my objections the profile ran (on Feb. 23, 1993) with a first-paragraph account of the aftermath of Sharpton's stabbing by a white man during a demonstration in 1991, which had prompted one of his many supposedly transforming epiphanies about leadership and his role in the world.

I kept his early family story to myself. It was Sharpton who revealed it three years later, in his autobiography, "Go and Tell Pharoah."

"I had to watch my mother, whom I loved more than anyone, live with the fact that her daughter had stolen her husband, and that the two of them had given life of a child, out of wedlock," he wrote -- disorienting those of us he'd told that it was Alfred Sr. who had stolen his wife's daughter. "To this day," Sharpton added in the book, "I don't know how [my mother] lived with the humiliation." But wasn't he compounding the humiliation by telling the world, with his quiet, faithful mom still very much alive?

Surely he compounded it yet again when he justified his impresario's role in the Tawana Brawley abduction/rape hoax, writing that at some point Brawley's case "stopped being Tawana, and started being me defending my mother and all the black women no one would fight for. I was not going to run away from her like my father had run away from my mother."

Forgive the intrusion, but it's hard for me to see how he helped his mother or any black women in America by slandering an assistant district attorney named Stephen Pagones (whom Brawley, Sharpton and others accused of raping her), by abusing the criminal justice system and obliterating the possibility of honest racial dialogue. Certainly the psychological resonances between Sharpton's story and Brawley's are deep: Like Sharpton's father, Tawana's father left her family when she was young, and the girl had reason to fear her stepfather, Ralph King, who had murdered his first wife while awaiting trial for stabbing her 14 times. He was out of prison and very much a presence in Tawana's home when she staged her hoax. The stepfather is not mentioned in Sharpton's book, but a boyfriend of Tawana's told Newsday that she'd admitted concocting her tale to keep the man from beating her for her four-day disappearance. She threw herself upon the public seeking rescue, as Sharpton the boy preacher had done, but she lacked his finesse and bravado.

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You would have to be a stone not to know why Sharpton found Brawley's story compelling and rushed to her aid, but you'd have to be a fool to trust him as a public tribune for letting his passions drive his judgment. No one can build a movement for justice on lies, grandiose distortions, vilification of innocent parties, intimidation of those who may have legitimate differences of opinion, and dehumanization of your political adversaries. (Sharpton was found guilty of defamation and was ordered to pay Pagones $65,000, which he never has.) To blame his own and Tawana's family dramas so directly on racism, to demand special black exemptions from truth-telling, was to condemn blacks to deepening isolation and impotence, here and around the world.

That is the problem with Sharpton's putative leadership. He is all about public psychodrama, a politics of racial paroxysm that traffics in archetypes of rape by white slave masters, taps vast reservoirs of white guilt and black rage and stages catharses that are neurotically inapt, a civic equivalent of the dry heaves. Nothing gets accomplished. The variety and complexity of black life, the joy and resilience, get lost in the cloud of melodrama Sharpton draws around himself, with the news media's shameful indulgence. Other blacks appear only as fellow-victims, followers and voters, no matter how much doctoring of the truth that requires. If Al Sharpton didn't exist, the right would have had to invent him, so ably does he subvert any possibility of cross-racial coalition. If you liked what Ralph Nader did to the Democrats and the left, you'll love Sharpton -- though it's possible he'll run as a Democrat, not an independent, pretending to reform but instead subverting the party and its chances of unseating President Bush.

Sharpton's reinventions appear to work well for him tactically. He's now a regular on Fox News, sparring with the house right wingers, which works well for them, too. More surprising was a recent bemused but indulgent New Yorker profile by Elizabeth Kolbert, which ran in the magazine last week, almost exactly nine years to the day after mine.

Kolbert's opening words encapsulate journalists' confusion about how to reckon with Sharpton. "The Reverend Al Sharpton knows that you do not take him seriously. Racism is like that. A man can win eighty per cent of the black vote, and still white people will question whether he really represents anyone. This is an outrage, and also a matter of no small personal satisfaction." Is Kolbert telling us something in her own voice here, or is she letting us inside Al Sharpton's worldview while maintaining a bemused detachment of her own? Sorry, but the language is a little too subtle for me to be sure, and, on the evidence of the rest of the profile, Kolbert isn't sure, either.

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Far from actively despising Sharpton as much as he (or she?) imagines, most New Yorkers of all colors are bored by him, although some still enjoy recycling his imagery, as editor Hertzberg did when Sharpton was to visit the New Yorker office. He has become the civic equivalent of a Halloween ghost, a frisson, not a challenge, to Condé Nast's liberal consumer capitalism which liberal New Yorker readers don't oppose but are not quite comfortable upholding. Sharpton doesn't threaten to bring masses of poor blacks inside the gates; their full inclusion would bring his own implosion as impresario of racial grievance. His unspoken motto: "I am excluded, therefore I am."

As the news media feed on such leadership in a perverse symbiosis, they inflate Sharpton's importance, sometimes hideously. The second paragraph of Kolbert's profile describes a nasty New York Post cartoon that found its way onto a campaign flier for Democratic mayoral front-runner Mark Green, showing "Sharpton presenting a blimp-sized rear end to [Bronx Borough President Fernando] Ferrer's puckered lips amid clouds of what can only be assumed to be flatulence. Chaos ensued." Democratic leaders, including former President Clinton, lined up to mollify Sharpton, and Kolbert tells us "The whole mess probably cost Green the mayoralty," recycling the conventional wisdom that angry blacks and Hispanics punished the insensitive white Democrat Mark Green by voting for Republican Michael Bloomberg. This is absurd to anyone who doesn't try to cover the city wholly from fluorescent-lit cubicles, telephones and computer screens. Did any of the bigfoot journalists and academics who concluded that Ferrer and Sharpton swung the election in retaliation for Green's anti-Sharpton flier actually visit relevant Bronx neighborhoods during the election? If they had, they'd have met hundreds of non-English-speaking Hispanics who had indeed been mobilized by Ferrer's organization to register and vote, for the first time in their lives, in his Democratic runoff with Green. But even if the Democrats' biggest bosses had tried again a few weeks later, they couldn't have stirred them to vote in a general election where no Hispanic was running. Not anger, but apathy, lowered Hispanic turnout that helped Bloomberg win. And Sharpton played absolutely no role in Hispanics' embracing Ferrer or ignoring Green.

Meanwhile, Green got 77 percent of a low black turnout to Bloomberg's 22 percent. That's hardly a sign of a Sharpton-inspired boycott -- even Giuliani got 20 percent of the black vote in 1997. And Sharpton's "80 per cent of the black vote" cited in Kolbert's lead paragraph came most recently and notably in that same year's Democratic mayoral primary, whose turnout was the lowest since before World War II -- around 18 percent, about half of that black -- meaning Sharpton was lucky to get 100,000 black votes. That certainly can count as a swing vote in any close race -- especially when Sharpton deploys it to aid Republicans, as he has several times: Kolbert notes that in the 2001 mayoral race he declared, "I'm not gonna be a battered wife for the Democratic Party." I recall him saying exactly that in 1994 at a big Harlem rally during the gubernatorial race between Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, and Pataki thanked him by making him one of the first people he received in the governor's mansion upon taking office. If that doesn't make Sharpton a power broker, his advocates would argue, what does?

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Here's something that does -- or did, in the bad old days of the 1950s, when New York City's blacks really did vote in large numbers because they had fewer alternative routes to money or power and developed electoral organizations to be reckoned with. That's how the black political leader of Harlem, J. Raymond Jones, became the leader of all Manhattan Democrats, white as well as black. In those days, when Democratic primary turnouts alone could run to 70 percent, he was no token; too much real power was at stake. At the party's national convention in 1960, Jones walked into a hotel room to see House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who was promoting fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson's presidential bid. Jones got Rayburn's promise to make the fiery Harlem minister and congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (in later years one of Al Sharpton's heroes and, he claims, a mentor) chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee in exchange for the Manhattan Democrats' support for Johnson on the first two convention ballots. Johnson lost to John F. Kennedy, but Jones and Rayburn kept their bargain, and Powell became chairman.

Where, really, has Sharpton even earned the title of leader? Kolbert mentions -- and the New York Times reverentially showcased -- the way he choreographed celebrity arrests and protests after the police killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999. But she doesn't note that the supposedly great movement against police brutality which the New York Times claimed was rising like a phoenix from Sharpton's demonstrations never materialized. And why would it? During Rudy Giuliani's then 7-year-old mayoralty, police had killed fewer than half as many New Yorkers as they did during David Dinkins' four years. And because the city's overall murder rate had been more than halved under Giuliani, literally thousands of blacks and Hispanics were alive who otherwise might have been killed, typically by other blacks and Hispanics. If you add these saved lives to the new black businesses started and the black children's services improved, not to mention modest improvements in new housing, and public order and cleanliness in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Giuliani was probably the best mayor black New Yorkers have had, which is one reason he was so loathed by Sharpton.

In today's political vacuum, however, there is a kind of strength in Sharpton's "racism forever" fatalism. It makes its bearers power spinners, if not power brokers. Sharpton's "battered spouse of the Democrats" rhetoric is part of the same "I am excluded, therefore I am" posture assumed by some other black leaders who try to preserve the advantages of victimhood even amid unrelenting white liberal solicitude. It serves a doctrine in which they have been catechizing young blacks for 20 years.

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As Sharpton summarized it at a rally Kolbert attended, "This ain't no part-time, do-it-when-you-like-it, I'm black today, having a black attack, then I'm going back to normal tomorrow." The deeper truth is that he is deriding what countless blacks actually want: to be able, for at least a few hours a day, to walk down a street or into a room or onto a job site fearing no undue white attention, whether in bigotry or in pious (or ideological) over-solicitude. Ralph Ellison wrote about that yearning long ago. Sharpton fears it. So he walks guilty white liberals through mock reckonings with their racism, replete with an agreeable frisson of the conviction of sin, a moment of atonement, and a conditional expiation. Nothing is allowed to come between such white liberals and the perverse satisfaction of submitting themselves to these empty rituals -- certainly not concern for the real prospects of blacks whom Sharpton is leading to nowhere: Like Jesse Jackson, he counts himself "a tree-shaker, not a jelly maker" in the white man's free-market jungle. But that is the rhetorical outer limit of his politics of moral posturing, and I have yet to see anything of use fall from the tree.

The saddest little secret in all his stagy reproaches -- one I learned in the many months I spent with him years ago and have seen confirmed many times since -- is that Al Sharpton craves certain white people's acceptance more than anything else. He is more than willing to let these whites off the hook after making them wriggle just enough to relieve their consciences. He wants reconciliation in the form of a series of special recognitions and exemptions he only half-deserves. He is even hip to both the allure and the futility of this game. But until his craving for recognition on his terms is satisfied, as it never will be, he will always try to find some way to implicate us all in the game.

Some whites who play do it almost as well as the master. When I was writing about Sharpton as a columnist for the New York Daily News in the mid-1990s, Mortimer Zuckerman, the paper's publisher, had a meeting with Sharpton whose decorous conclusion caught a lot of what I'd learned about him better than anything else I can describe. Sharpton had been out in front of the Daily News for two days with his megaphone and his sad stragglers, chanting about racism for some reason or other, and it was time for the ritual extortion meeting, at which the beleaguered CEO learns what it will take to get rid of the annoyance. Zuckerman, along with a black News executive assistant named Delbert Sperlock, and some editors, had a sit-down with Sharpton, Hazel Dukes, and other frozen-in-time protesters. More instructive than the substance of the negotiation, which I honestly don't recall, was the way the meeting ended.

"I'd like to ask that we all hold hands, close our eyes, and pray," said Sharpton, careening gently into a holy roll. Imagine Mort Zuckerman and eight or 10 others sitting in a circle with Sharpton, hands joined, heads bowed. "Oh Lord," Sharpton intoned, after a minute of similarly pointed pieties, "we pray that you will help your servant Mortimer Zuckerman to create a more diverse, inclusionary Daily News. Amen."

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"Excuse me, Reverend Sharpton," Zuckerman said as all present opened their eyes; "I'd like to address a few words to the Lord, too, if I may." So all held hands closed eyes again.

"Oh Lord," Zuckerman prayed, "we ask that you will protect and prosper our honored guests, and that you will help them to understand that, with your guidance, I, as the proprietor of the Daily News, I will do with it what I think best. Amen."

As they opened their eyes again, Sharpton raised an eyebrow at Zuckerman and, with a mischievous, connoisseur's smile, stage-whispered, "Nice!"

Tina Brown would have loved it. I would love to think that her retirement from the glossy magazine world, thanks to the demise of Talk, is a symptom of cultural fatigue with the politics of racial psychodrama produced by charming rogues, a sign that the media is hungry for a whole new story line. But Al Sharpton remains driven by his sad past and its primal pain to draw us all into stale morality plays that bring no justice, no peace. And his dance partners in the news media seem intent on helping him take his show to a national stage after pretending it hasn't bombed in New York. From the New Yorker and the New York Times on down, it seems they can't help themselves any more than he can.

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Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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