Reverend Sharpton Hides Behind H.R. 40

While we are sympathetic for his having endured an unprecedented grilling from Meet The Press host, Tim Russert, on yesterday's segment of the Sunday morning talk show, we were disappointed by the manner in which Rev. Al Sharpton handled the subject of reparations. In a very direct manner, Mr. Russert asked Rev. Sharpton whether or not he supported reparations, and unlike in the past where Rev. Sharpton has made clear statements expressing his uncompromised solidarity with the cause of reparations, the civil rights leader gave a response that veiled his support of the issue in a deliberate manner aimed at making his "possible" run for the office of President more palatable to White America. Here is the question and answer as recorded in the Meet The Press transcripts.

We have, in parentheses, corrected the transcript's incorrect spellings.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me move to the issue of slave reparations. Minister Farrakhan was in Washington for that particular conference and rally. Jesse Jackson, and yourself, were not here. This was last week. Brent Staples wrote this editorial in The New York Times. Let me read it to you and our viewers: "...the sweeping notion that individual black Americans are owed a 'debt' for slavery is a bridge too far. Black families have made and lost fortunes just as white families have. There is in addition no provable connection between 19th-century bondage and specific cases of 21st-century destitution. blaming history alone for modern-day social ills like poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, reparations advocates are unwittingly saying that these problems are so deeply rooted as to be unsolvable. They are also subverting the true story of black people in the United States. This story is one of extraordinary achievement in the face of gargantuan obstacles."

Are you in favor of black slave reparations?

REV. SHARPTON: I'm in favor of reparations, and I'm in favor of it in the context of I support the bill HR-40, proposed by Congressman John Conti (Conyers), the leading Democrat in the House Judiciary Committee, and if the Democrats retake the House, he would be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. And his bill basically calls for a study on this and to see that (what) can be done to repair damage done in American history. Dr. Charles Hogeltree(Ogeltree)of Harvard University, who was part of a group that formed the exploratory committee on my presidential run, if I make it, has done a lot of scholarly work in that are, and I have been in consultation with him around this. I unequivocally support HR-40 by Congressman John Conti(Conyers).

Rev. Sharpton's answer embraces a technique that has often been used with great skill and success by White politicians who seek to skirt the reparations issue without alienating their Black constituents or coalition partners. The technique is simple: support the Conyers bill, H.R. 40, "to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes", while avoiding an outright commitment to a reparations policy based upon your own principles and values, and even, past statements.

Yesterday, Rev. Sharpton did quickly mention his support of the issue, but he then spent the rest of his answer placing that support in the context of H.R. 40. It was clever. So clever and expedient a technique, that another person with a first name of Al used it, in the year 2000, that Al, of course, would be none other than Al Gore, who very quietly told select Black audiences and reporters that he supported H.R.40, while doing nothing to promote the issue of reparations. Of course, Vice-President Gore, in 2000, like Rev. Al Sharpton, yesterday, was careful to emphasize the study-only aspects of the bill.

To be certain, we too support H.R. 40. But we are, by now, experienced enough to see that the bill, which has yet to get out of committee, is often used as a shield by Democrats - White and Black alike - in order to avoid expressing direct, non-contextual, and unqualified support of the issue, in front of White Americans. In 2000, in an exercise approaching the height of partisan extremism, we saw H.R. 40's father, Mr. John Conyers, in the context of a campaign race, sharply shout down the only major presidential candidate who supported the issue of reparations, free of the aforementioned qualifications, Mr. Ralph Nader. The issue, which prior to the 2000 elections was at its white-hot peak, significantly lost steam as a result of some of its leading Democratic advocates and sympathizers, like Rep. Conyers, agreeing to be team players for the Democratic Party establishment -executing a partisan blueprint - rather than advance the hottest and arguably most important issue in Black America.

Reparations supporters have long supported H.R. 40, and the contribution that Mr. Conyers has made to the reparations movement but many are growing tired of the manner in which this piece of legislation is increasingly being used by ambitious politicians seeking to walk a racial tightrope designed to win new White voters to their column, while watering down the aspirations and grievances of Black America. Instead of furthering the cause of reparations, as some argue, this narrow use of H.R. 40 by politicians whose unbridled ambition places party loyalty and superficial coalition-building over the formulation and advancement of a Black agenda, only delays the day that this country comes to terms with the legacy of slavery and the methods of true repair.

Rev. Sharpton was certainly accurate yesterday when he stated, "If I run, I'll be running for president of the United States, not president of black America." But does that mean that Black America should rightfully expect little better advocacy than it received from Al Gore, on Black issues, when he ran for President two years ago?

At a certain point in the program the following exchange took place:

MR. RUSSERT: The Democratic Party's moved too much to the center. You want to push it - What? - back to the left?

REV. SHARPTON: No, you said center. I said right, nor did I say that I'm trying to move it to the left. I would argue that I would try to move it to the center. I think that where I am many Americans are; and I would argue most Democrats are.

While Rev. Sharpton correctly argues that the Democratic Party is moving to the right of its base, we wonder how far Rev. Sharpton is willing to move to the right of his. We hope the skillful watering down of his support of reparations is not a sign of things to come.

Monday, August 26, 2002