Al Sharpton, Centrist

Al Sharpton, Centrist
Dr. Lenora B. Fulani

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. There, on national TV, was the Reverend Al Sharpton announcing that he is a centrist. Referring to the Democratic Party, Sharpton told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, “I would argue that I would try to move it to the center. I think that’s where I am, many Americans are and, I would argue, most Democrats are.”

Al Sharpton, centrist. Al Sharpton, overcome and over determined by the imperatives of Democratic Party politics. Al Sharpton, overwhelmed by the institutional game to which he swore he’d never succumb.

Watching Sharpton skillfully wend his way through Russert’s predictable questions (Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Tawana Brawley, reparations, anti-Semitism, i.e. “Black Issues for Dummies”), I remembered back to a community forum Sharpton and I did together in Brooklyn in the early 90’s when we were partnering on civil rights and racial justice campaigns. I hosted a public dialogue on Black-Jewish relations between Sharpton and my political mentor, Dr. Fred Newman, who is Jewish.

During the discussion section a young Black woman, obviously on the left, rose to respond to Sharpton’s narrative on the changing dynamics in Black leadership circles. (Dinkins was mayor. Sharpton was the not-so-loyal opposition. I was the independent.) She asked, “What are you going to do to change the world?” Sharpton answered, “I’ll remain a progressive.”

No doubt, Sharpton would say he has. But no matter how powerful your rhetoric, no matter how powerful you think you are, you become what you do. For many years, I tried to persuade Sharpton to quit the Democratic Party, which I believed would drive him into powerfully compromising conflicts, as it betrayed Black people in favor of the party’s survival. I was unsuccessful. Sharpton instead enveloped himself in the time-worn racialist ritual of Democratic Party politics, which has landed him, now by his own account, at the center.

When Jesse Jackson sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 his campaign was an assertion of the power of the forgotten – “the boats stuck at the bottom.” Much of the Black establishment supported Walter Mondale, trying to ward off Jackson’s challenge to their dominant control of the Black vote.

Jackson polled an explosive three million votes, mainly from African-Americans, establishing himself as a major national player but one who had yet to “crossover” to the white voters necessary for a majority, or even a plurality, coalition.

In 1988 Jackson found his road to white America by going left. Identifying as a progressive, he reached out to labor, environmentalists, anti-imperialists, and the white poor. He polled seven million votes in the primary. Yet, it would be for naught, as Jackson found himself locked in a life and death struggle with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Four years later the DLC sponsored the long shot ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore and took the White House, complete with a premeditated public humiliation of Jackson and the Black-led left. Centrism ruled, albeit with the populist patina Clinton so masterfully projected.

The ascendancy of DLC centrism inside the national party forcibly altered the strategy for African-American and progressive white Democrats. No longer able to carve out a viable position on the left as Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition had attempted, the next generation of progressives – Black and white – found they had to compete, no longer to be the leftwing of the party but to be the leftwing of the center. Enter, Sharpton, onto the national stage and into this new reality.

Sharpton is now confronting the same question Jesse Jackson did in 1988. He can count on the Black vote, but where does he go for white votes? His answer? To the center. Irony of ironies, Al Gore – a creation of the DLC – is now the “class war” candidate in the Democratic presidential primary running to Sharpton’s left! In the distorting environment of the Democratic Party, Al Gore must become a populist to be competitive while Al Sharpton must become a centrist.

While Sharpton recasts himself (again!) for his national political purposes, he must also grapple with how to maintain the popularity he derives in the Black community from his militancy, particularly in New York. Now that his sometimes adversary and sometimes godfather Charles Rangel joined forces with Jesse Jackson’s old nemesis – Bill Clinton – to elbow Andrew Cuomo out of the Democratic primary for governor, Sharpton has already staked out his new “centrist” position on Carl McCall. Instead of teaching the Black community that Cuomo’s withdrawal was a sign of the acute racial divisions in the Democratic Party – where things are so bad that the Democrats can’t even complete a primary between a person of color and a white candidate – Sharpton is now promoting the illusion that he and the Democratic Party have moved beyond race and racialism. “We would support Carl McCall over George Pataki if he were white. In fact, I would support Carl over Pataki if Carl was white and Pataki was Black,” Sharpton said recently.

Al Sharpton, centrist, makes plain his new politic. He’ll vote for a Democrat, and only for a Democrat, no matter what. Al Sharpton, centrist.

What a waste.

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