What is it with Black folks and Al Sharpton? He can’t seem to ignite passion in many African Americans for his presidential bid, mainly because he is fighting the curse of negative expectations.
Nobody thinks he can win. “Black voters, like all Americans, are on a shopping spree for a winner who will take on Bush,” says Donna Brazile, the Black woman who managed Al Gore’s presidential campaign.
Taking the high road
Sharpton has frequently taken principled positions (although he too has lapsed) when he and the other candidates meet. He has found the high road when others are mired in muck. Yet, despite that and a long record of work in the Black community, his candidacy has yet to fire up Black America.
In a recent Gallup poll conducted for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which serves Black newspapers, Sharpton was the choice of 22 percent of the African Americans surveyed, nine points ahead of second-place Wesley Clark. Carol Moseley Braun, the other African American candidate, garnered just 7 percent, putting her in the middle of the nine-candidate pack.
Although Sharpton outpolled everyone else, his support level is not very high, given his years of work in the Black community and his unstinting efforts to increase his visibility.
Ironically, Sharpton’s visibility actually is one thing that works against him.
No matter how much he might have done for the grassroots, it’s his hair that remains his most visible characteristic. And that hair-do just won’t do for many folks.
“He’s a joke,” complains “hanson28,” who recently posted comments on BET.com. “He needs to sit his **s down and stop wasting votes. Those votes can go to a candidate that really has a chance of winning…Sharpton needs to retire from politics…and take that perm with him.”
That kind of vehemence is more potent than simply disagreeing with Sharpton on policy. In fact, most Black people probably agree with him on the issues, as several readers did in comments to BET.com.
Take the words of “johnnymapalo,” for example: “I can’t believe how Al is getting such a fight from his own Black people. I doubt highly that these people who talk about Al Sharpton’s perm know anything about his political views.”
Reader “Nubianem” also sided with Sharpton: “The treatment of politicians like Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun is no different from the type of treatment that Shoshanna Johnson is getting. As [radio talk show host] Joe Madison clearly points out, ‘In America, we are culturally conditioned to believe that Blacks are inferior and Whites are superior and the manifestation of that is we are marginalized and undervalued.’”
True, but that processed hair and reputation still get in Sharpton’s way. His reputation includes strenuous advocacy for police abuse victims and other worthwhile causes. But it also includes Tawana Brawley and allegations of informing on other Black leaders. For some folks, Sharpton is not a man to be trusted.
Five years ago, a jury convicted him of making false statements about a man he accused of raping Brawley when she was 15. She claimed that she was kidnapped and raped by a group of White men in 1987, a claim many in the Black community and elsewhere came to doubt. His unwavering defense of Brawley seriously undermined his credibility.
Before that, he was labeled an FBI informant. In 1983, a New York newspaper, Newsday, reported that Sharpton allowed his telephone to be tapped and that he cooperated with federal officials probing other Black leaders and organizations. Sharpton has acknowledged working with law enforcement against drug dealers, but denies spying on community groups and activists.
His important role
Whatever the merits of those yester-year controversies, today Sharpton plays an important role in bringing issues to the fore. And when he blasted his Democratic rival, Howard Dean, for pandering to Confederate flag-wavers, the New York preacher spoke with a civil rights mantle that other Democrat candidates lack.
Sharpton compared the flag to the Nazi swastika and told Dean: “I think it’s insensitive and you ought to apologize for it. You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say I’m wrong.”
In contrast to Sharpton, Moseley Braun has lower visibility and quotability, and poll numbers too. Her campaign has been directed basically toward women, and she is largely unknown outside of Illinois and, until now, hasn’t tried to be a national leader as Sharpton has.
She also doesn’t generate the level of negative feeling Sharpton faces.
For example, “KayBlaque,” another BET.com reader, believes Sharpton could get more support if he spent “less time rhyming in Democratic debates and more time telling America what he is going to do to make things better.”
Yet, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s rhyming didn’t stop African Americans from enthusiastically supporting his candidacies for the nomination in the 1980s, when his chances of victory were small too.
But Jackson has something Sharpton can never obtain, though he is working hard to get it. That’s Jackson’s identity as HNIC — Head Negro In Charge.