I shared a flight with the Rev. Al Sharpton yesterday (in the sense that I saw him in first class as I made the Walk of Shame back to coach). Interesting challenge to explain who he is to the kids. How do you capture his long tabloidy journey from court jester of the civil righs movement, to racial and religous provocateur, to perennial presidential candidate, to the kind of nearly dignified (and thin — say what you want, but the man sticks to a diet!) elder statesman he’s grown into? I mean, what would you even say he does for a living?
For a lot Jews, it isn’t hard to sum up his career in one word: “anti-Semite.” I don’t go there — even in his most egregious race-baiting, like the Freddie Fashion Mart protests and his Crown Heights incitements, I always felt he was more interested in exploiting N.Y.’s ethnic and class divides than in singling out Jews for ridicule. In both of those incidents, Sharpton viewed Jews as examples of white privilege, and in his zero-sum thinking, the success of any one ethnic group must come at the expense of another. The tragedy of Sharpton and the civil rights faction he represented was that he channeled his community’s anger into blaming and scape-goating the other, instead of seeking changes from within, challenging society’s warped power imbalances through the courts and public persuasion, and cultivating allies without.
Sharpton’s involvement after a cop killed a 16-year-old black youth in Teaneck in 1990 was typical of the bankruptcy of his style of activism. In the wake of the tragedy a lot of good folks in Teaneck, white and black, civilians and cops, reached out to build bridges. Sharpton, meanwhile, brought in his followers on buses, marching on the Municipal Building to demand — well, it’s not clear what, except some vague notion of “justice.” The futility of his approach was summed up by an onlooker, Kendal Brown, quoted in the Times account of one of the marches: “I don’t know what this is going to accomplish.”
And then there is the Tawana Brawley incident, which was just unforgivable.
So who’s that guy in first class, kids? A civil rights “leader” who left things worse than he found them. Let’s hope he’s learned from his failures.