If Al Sharpton was radioactive to future President Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, he’s become a shadow member of Obama’s cabinet. The working relationship between the radical black civil rights leader and the administration was very much in evidence last week at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers where Sharpton’s nonprofit group, National Action Network (NAN), held its 12th annual convention. Three cabinet members – Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Housing & Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan – spoke at the corporate-bankrolled four-day event, which featured top-echelon personalities from politics, business, labor, clergy, philanthropy and entertainment. The administration believes Reverend Al’s newfound “pragmatism” is a political asset. Yet the older, incendiary Sharpton remains just beneath the surface.
Al Sharpton is now arguably the nation’s number-one black political activist, even more influential than his one-time mentor, Jesse Jackson. And like Jackson, as I discussed at length in last year’s NLPC Special Report, Mainstreaming Demagoguery: Al Sharpton’s Rise to Respectability, Sharpton has a long history of incitement in the service of social justice. An all-too-familiar racially-charged egalitarianism often couched in religious language, permeates his mission. America, in his mind, remains a land permeated by white racism and hate crimes. As much as ever, blacks are the victims. Social inequality is the product of white America’s incapacity for self-redemption without moral guidance. That’s why no matter how reckless his public behavior is, Sharpton sees his presence as healing rather than divisive, an overdue effort to transcend stereotypes and foster a national conversation on race.
Flowing from this assumption is a familiar double standard whenever a crime with racial implications erupts onto national headlines. If a white person is accused of committing a crime against a black person, one can be sure that Sharpton, through radio broadcasts, speeches or mass demonstrations, will demand a presumption of guilt. Even if the action is committed in self-defense (as in the case of Bernhard Goetz, the so-called ‘subway vigilante’) or not committed at all (as in the case of the ‘rape’ and ‘assault’ of Tawana Brawley), whites are presumed guilty. But let the tables be turned – i.e., a black is charged with a crime against a white – then Sharpton will demand a presumption of innocence. Nor is this double standard something in the distant past, as his defenders often rationalize. During 2006-07, for example, he took center stage in transforming three white high school students in Jena, Louisiana into poster children for ‘hate crimes’ against blacks (they’d innocently hung a pair of nooses from a campus tree), while pulling out the stops to minimize the guilt of a half-dozen or more black students accused of viciously beating an innocent white classmate. In September 2007, he led up to 20,000 marchers through that town of 3,000 to protest the prosecution of the black assailants. That’s hardly ancient history. Neither is Sharpton’s flagrant federal and state tax evasion.
To those assembled at the Sheraton, however, such events might as well have been. Speeches, sermons, panel discussions and ceremonies were the order of the day. Actor-comedian Bill Cosby and Grammy Award-winning singers Mariah Carey and Wyclef Jean provided uplift at the “Keepers of the Dream” dinner. Sharpton throughout the proceedings emphasized his desire to build bridges, to develop constructive approaches to complex policy issues while avoiding inflammatory remarks. The old Al Sharpton, with trademark jump suits, gold medallions and loud confrontation, has undergone a metamorphosis, observed Krissah Thompson over the weekend in the Washington Post (“Activist Al Sharpton Takes on New Role as Administration Ally”). The article noted, rightly, that this transformation is the result of a deliberate image makeover strategy known at National Action Network headquarters in Harlem as “from the streets to the suites.” What the article downplayed, unfortunately, is that all extremists by nature appear reasonable when victory is at hand. Al Sharpton in particular has everything to gain by affecting a distinguished, statesmanlike mien.
President Obama, facing a large loss of Democrat-held congressional seats in November’s elections, sees this makeover as paying potential dividends with black voters, many of whom may stay at home this time around. That’s why he’s drawn closer. This is quite an about-face from two years ago, when Obama’s top campaign advisers, fearful of Sharpton’s reputation, informed the Reverend that his presence in his camp would be a distraction or worse. But with Obama as president, Sharpton in short order has become a de facto member of the White House brain trust. He was one of three civil rights leaders, for example, whom Obama invited to the White House to discuss black unemployment. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a speaker at the last two NAN conventions, says this of Sharpton: “He’s been an extraordinary partner. The fact that we’re working together has been great, but the level of his engagement, it’s been phenomenal.” Duncan, Sharpton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in a spirit of bipartisanship, last year toured schools in five U.S. cities. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, speaking at a Wednesday NAN policy forum on black health issues, vowed to establish a special office within her agency to address racial disparities in health. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan praised Sharpton as “bringing a moral voice” to civil rights, social and economic issues. And while President Obama was unable to attend the gala event, he offered this written note of congratulations on April 16 to Sharpton, which read in part:
Since its founding, the National Action Network has stood up for those without help and without hope. While many are talking about the need for transformational action, this organization is working to see it carried out. Today’s forum, “Measuring the Movement,” offers an opportunity to advance more solutions to the challenges we face as a nation.
We know that too many communities of color were living on the margins even before the recession hit. My Administration is dedicated to turning these great challenges into greater opportunities that significantly improve the lives of many throughout the country.
That’s real clout when the President of the United States writes a thank-you letter like that.
Sharpton, now 55, hastens to note his beliefs are the same, even as his style has evolved. “I haven’t worn a track suit in 20 years,” he says. “You have to understand – I grew and matured in public. Like Nelson Mandela said, you have to have core principles and everything else is a tactic.” Sharpton, for the time being, isn’t a rabble rouser for a simple reason: He doesn’t have to be. Administration officials regularly promote their policy initiatives on his daily syndicated three-hour radio talk show. He coaxes generous donations from such major corporations as Citigroup, Home Depot, Toyota and Wal-Mart. And while he remains on the Left end of the Democratic Party spectrum, he has courted friendships and even alliances with such prominent Republican conservatives as Newt Gingrich and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, the latter also a speaker at last week’s NAN confab in midtown Manhattan. He has won the profuse gratitude of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And he can call President Obama almost anytime and get an audience. That’s more power than he ever could wield through his street-hustler persona.
With invaluable help from his public relations consultant, Rachel Noerdlinger, Al Sharpton has undergone a successful image makeover. And people come far and wide to rub shoulders, shake hands, chat and party with him, happily ignoring his long track record of demagoguery, aggression and corruption. But it’s not just a track record; it’s the present tense. Underneath, he’s the same Reverend Al, exploiting every possible opportunity to put America (read: white America) on trial for “racism.” And he still knows how to win through intimidation. Just rub him the wrong way and see what happens.