Sharpton as Black Spokesman

by Michael Granger

Long on the scene, Al Sharpton has risen to unprecedented heights as a civil rights leader and activist. He is now the official Black leader designated by the Democratic Party to rally support for the President’s re-election. Sharpton’s role is a play on the old ‘one black leader’ paradigm. That leader is supposed to deliver the black base to the Democratic Party in national elections.

Customarily, being the national black spokesman was Jesse Jackson’s role, until he fell out of favor with candidate Barack Obama. The falling out occurred when he was overheard making very unflattering remarks about the president’s stance towards black people and figuratively advocating that he be dispossessed of his genitals. Since then, Jesse, a proud man, has refused to take the first step to kiss and make up with the president. And the president in turn has refused to take a definitive step in his direction.

The problems of the United States are too numerous and great for this continuing deep freeze in the Obama-Jackson relationship. If he were in the tent, Jesse could be of help registering people to vote and helping with black and union turnout. Having had a historically good relationship with Hispanics, he could even help with turnout in that voting base.

The point is that he has relatively broad appeal, even extending into the realm of White liberals, some of whom are not happy with President Obama. If he is outside the tent, and absent the momentum that history had bestowed on the first Obama run, he could be a problem.

Even though Jesse is a lifelong Democrat, he may feel that his advocacy work would enjoy a better platform with a Republican in the White House. It was much easier to publicly criticize Presidents Bush ’41 and Bush ’43 for not doing enough for blacks and other people of color. If he openly and continuously criticizes President Obama, he risks alienating those African-Americans whose support for the first black president is unconditional.

Especially because of his lifelong devotion to civil rights, starting as a disciple of the civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse never imagined himself being in this paradoxical position: At odds with the first African-American Presidential Administration and not being able to criticize that president for the perceived lack of a black agenda.

Instead, he has been relegated to the sidelines as a spectator, even as the Tea Party built momentum and the president was subjected to a barrage of political attacks. Even when some racial elements arose in the course of the first term, Jackson and other major black leaders were generally silent. This lack of involvement by traditional black leaders could portend some major problems for President Obama’s re-election.

Now enters Al Sharpton – formerly a disciple of Jesse Jackson, who first hired him to run a Rainbow-Push youth program in 1969 – to replace his mentor as national Black spokesman. It is difficult to criticize Al Sharpton in an absolute sense, even with his long and controversial record, given the times he grew up in. It is easier, if one understands what he faced, to be happy for him and about his personal triumphs. But to choose him as the national spokesman for blacks in an era where blacks have made so much intellectual, political and business progress – and when there are so many other centers of black leadership and excellence – is quite cynical.

It is hard to picture Al Sharpton as a role model for the contemporary black middle class. His style of public speaking, which includes shouting intellectuals like Cornell West down on national TV, is not what the black middle class or youth would subscribe to. Rather than seeing his job as defending the Obama Administration’s policies as it applies to blacks, he could play a more constructive role in developing and advancing ideas within the administration that could address some of the ills in the community. He could start with helping Black businesses get government contracts and historically black colleges get more of the government research grants that other colleges and universities seem to have a lock on.

Two years plus into his term of office, President Obama now realizes the he has a black problem. Mr. Obama knows what every black person who is cognizant of history knows: A black man’s election to the Presidency of the United States is the Holy Grail for black people. A black man’s election to the Presidency is an imprimatur given by the country, by Whites to Blacks, saying you are legitimate and you belong. That is why I watched with utter incredulity as the Democratic Party squandered the good will that obtained from this hyper-historic event.

Of all the times to marginalize the black community, the Democrats chose the one time where black expectations would be high and sensitivities would be elevated as well. This is the time when blacks are paying the most attention to see if, in fact, electing the first black president made a difference. For many in the black community, it is not a foregone conclusion that President Obama has made a difference in their lives.

And when you talk with black professionals and other highly educated people, they cite the lack of prominent and visible blacks in the cabinet involved in the issues of the day. Other than the Attorney General, they see the same or a less inclusive picture. An employment rate for blacks of twice the national average doesn’t seem to bother the Democrats who surround Obama. And the proof that blacks are not happy with President Obama is reflected in his depressed poll numbers. President Obama is now polling in the mid-80’s versus the usual high-90’s among blacks. This should be worrying and could determine the 2012 presidential election.

There is a logical reason behind this hands-off approach to black issues in the Democratic Party. The rationale is that if President Obama were seen to do anything special for blacks, he would lose white support. This is a cynical view that does not speak to the generosity and fairness of the American public.

He need only look to his current position to know what the American people and capable of. Yes, there are detractors who have no tolerance for diversity, but they are so infinitesimal as not to matter. President Obama and the Democratic Party need to cast a wider net for people who can carry the message and its substance to the black community.

Most importantly, the black community must once and for all become an integral part of American society, cared for as all other communities. Of course, there are a lot of donors who have better access to the government in comparison to African=Americans. However, the Administration should be careful not to allow donors to overwhelm the President’s ability to have a more open and fair Administration.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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