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Politics Mondays: Civil Rights Leaders Quiver at Ideologically Pure Sharpton by Armstrong Williams

For months we've been saying Al Sharpton is little more than an east coast populist who stands little chance of ascending as a legitimate political candidate (i.e., a black candidate with white support).

That changed when, during the Iowa debate, Sharpton cornered Governor Howard Dean into admitting that he had never employed an ethnic minority on his cabinet or his reelection team. With that, Shaprton served notice that his presence should not be taken for granted.

Since then, the revelation about Dean's hiring practices has receded beneath the curiously insane howling sounds he made following the Iowa primary. Lacking a public stage to ham it up on, Sharpton has similarly receded from public view, raising serious questions about whether the lone remaining black American candidate is capable of thriving outside of the public debates. Noting Sharpton's teased hairdo and penchant for screaming racial hyperbole into a radio shack power horn, most critics remain skeptical of his ability to generate cross-over appeal. Then there are all the scandals: an FBI investigation, the Tawana Brawley fiasco, his 1993 conviction for tax evasion, his incitement of mob violence against a Jewish shopkeeper that resulted in the storekeeper's death. Sharpton still carries these scandals in tow. That doesn't play in the suburbs, where white voters can empathize with sexual indiscretions of the Jesse Jackson/Bill Clinton variety, but not with someone who stirs racial tensions for a living. In the cool suburban enclaves, Jackson remains the black leader of choice, a moderate who works for change from within the Democratic party. Shaprton, by contrast, remains the outsider who pumps his fist angrily at the (white) power structure and does little more than make noise that distracts us form the real solutions.

This impression couldn't be more wrong. Jackson has gotten the party's blessing because of his willingness to be bought off. Just back up a truck of money and dump it in Jackson's driveway, and he'll tote whatever tune the Democrats want. Opposition to school vouchers, opposition Bush's faith based outreach, fake charges of voter fraud in Florida, just hand Jackson a few stacks of cash and he'll offer an indictment straight from the pulpit. The party returns the favor with its support-with white support. This is the model that enabled Jackson to achieve cross over appeal in 1984 and 1988.

It's the same model that Carol Mosely Braun is currently lusting after. Having reestablished some credibility and name recognition with her presidential bid, Braun is now handing her single digit of black support over to Dean. In return, Dean is paying off her campaign debt and the party is welcoming her back into their ranks.

Sharpton isn't so willing to play lapdog. In the past, he's turned on the party and endorsed Republican candidates. Get it? Shaprton won't sell out his beliefs. Given the appalling lack of black senators and congressmen, that makes Sharpton black America's most viable mouthpiece.

Sadly, our civil rights leaders refuse to back him because they've been conditioned by Jackson's success to believe that a black candidate needs the party's blessing in order to be deemed legitimate. They refuse to endorse a more ideological pure leader like Shaprton, precisely because he is not so eager to placate the party (and also because they nurture their own dreams of currying favor with the party and supplanting Sharpton as the voice of black America).

If instead our civil rights leaders united behind Sharpton, they wouldn't have to prostrate themselves before the democratic party. They would have a unified enough following to force change-or at least a genuine give and take-on issues of real importance like school vouchers. Then Sharpton would be something rather extraordinary: a black leader who didn't have to sell himself out for white support.

Instead, ideologically pure candidates like Sharpton remains neutered by our civil rights leaders, who are too eager prostrating themselves before the Democratic party to see more than a few inches in front of their own noses.

Armstrong Williams can be contacted via e-mail at:

Monday, January 26, 2004

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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