There was a time, not long ago, when the dominant arbiters of public opinion relegated Al Sharpton to the outskirts of serious, respectable discussion. Sure, he was a fixture on the Ebony magazine list of the 100 “top” black Americans. Sure, journalists called him when they needed a provocative quip. Sure, Democratic Party politicians courted him. But “the Rev” was unmistakably relegated to the black ghetto of celebrity activism.
No one thought to ask his opinion regarding issues other than those perceived as directly pertinent to aggrieved blacks. The deference accorded by Establishment bigwigs stemmed more from fear of his ability to cause them trouble than respect for his skill at envisioning positive initiatives. Among white opinion leaders he was widely seen as the very embodiment of a race hustler, a living version of Reverend Bacon, the demagogue that Tom Wolfe concocted in his novel Bonfire of the Vanities. There was, alas, a basis for this negative impression.
But now Sharpton has risen above the confines of a strictly racial niche and emerged as a person of far-flung and real influence. His growing prominence in the American mainstream—from his appearances on the Sunday morning network news programs, to a favorable profile on "60 Minutes", a laudatory cover story in Newsweek, and now his own prime-time show on MSNBC—is partly by dint of ambition, persistence, skill, and an apparent immunity to embarrassment. But it also due, in no small part, to the sponsorship of President Obama.
AS A CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER in New York City trying hard to become a national figure, Sharpton displayed, among other things, a disturbing ease with making unsubstantiated charges, even when he was dealing with the most serious of allegations. The most vivid example is the Tawana Brawley fiasco of 1987 and 1988. Brawley was a black teenager who claimed that she had been raped by a group of white men. Sharpton persisted in publicizing the charges even after it had become clear that they were probably false—conduct that led to a successful defamation action against the Rev. Indeed, he continued to push the case even after a grand jury report showed conclusively that Brawley had lied. Although the Brawley imbroglio is now decades old, Sharpton has never apologized for his conduct and to this day indignantly refuses to do so.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Jesse Jackson was the country's leading black celebrity activist commentator. Sharpton's eclipe of his former mentor stems in large part to the difference in the relationships both have with Barack Obama, now the most important person in American politics.
As much as Obama has facilitated Sharpton’s rise, he has quickened Jackson’s fall—despite the fact that Jackson helped prepare the way for the current president in a way that demands acknowledgment. Jackson’s runs for the presidency in the 1980s changed the psychology and ground-rules of the Democratic Party in ways that proved essential to Obama's ascendancy. Jackson, for example, insisted upon substituting proportional representation for winner-take-all in the Democratic Party nomination process. Absent that reform, Hillary Clinton would probably have won the Democratic nomination in 2008.
But Jackson was unable to mask his condescension and envy, infamously making a threat during the last presidential campaign to neuter candidate Obama. A terrible gaffe for Jackson, the remark was an inadvertent gift to Obama. It accentuated his distance from Jackson, thereby gaining him stature in the eyes of many whites. At the same time, it provided Obama with a handy excuse for completely snubbing Jackson. Who, after all could now accuse the new president of ingratitude if he refrained from associating with Jackson at all?
Sharpton, by contrast, has become, at least for public consumption, the President's favorite surrogate in racial matters, particularly conflicts within African American ranks. Sharpton was not a supporter at the outset of Obama's campaign. Indeed, initially he was downright skeptical if not dismissive. But as soon as Sharpton perceived that Obama would probably win the nomination, he jumped aboard the bandwagon. Showing notable discipline, Sharpton expressed support in a fashion calculated to lessen the risk that negative views of himself would rub off hurtfully on Obama.
Since Obama's victory, Sharpton has been not only an unequivocal cheerleader. He has been a vocal critic of blacks on the left who complain about Obama's priorities (attending to the hurts of Wall Street ahead of pain in the ‘hood), appointments (all manner of centrist technocrats but no prominent progressives in major posts), and methods (compromise over confrontation). Sharpton has acidly and repeatedly rebuked, for example, Cornel West, one of the President's most esteemed African-American detractors.
In that way, Sharpton performs the valuable service to Obama of validating his racial bona fides. When West, Tavis Smiley, and Maxine Waters, among others, draw into question Obama's commitment to black folk, Sharpton is on hand to refute them, bringing to bear all of the credibility accumulated by his countless marches, demonstrations, and arrests over the years.
True, without Sharpton, Obama would likely still retain the loyalty of the great mass of black voters. But a steady chorus of complaint from West and company, accompanied by unchanging economic hardship and Obama's uninspiring leadership might well prompt some blacks to reconsider their support. However marginal that potential abandonment, it could play a significant role in the sort of close election that 2012 is likely to bring. Under these conditions, Sharpton's assistance has been very much welcome at the White House.
The President has rewarded Sharpton handsomely for his services. When seeking to display attentiveness to blacks' concerns, he includes Sharpton amongst the leaders he purportedly "consults" (though, actually, of course, these gatherings are typically pseudo-events almost wholly devoted to mere public relations). He has invited Sharpton to the White House for numerous events, including his birthday bash. The President, with senior aides in tow, paid homage to Sharpton in New York City this spring to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the National Action Network, the Rev's main organizational vehicle.
The President's patronage has played a key role in the renaissance of Sharpton's public image. The reflected glory of the White House's prestige undoubtedly assisted in giving him an edge over competitors for his MSNBC gig. The manner in which Sharpton earned his promotion stirred controversy among black journalists, some of whom feel they’ve again been snubbed by the Establishment of which the Rev is now a part. The grumbling has been sufficiently loud to prompt Sharpton to withdraw from a planned appearance at the National Association of Black Journalists.
There were plenty of candidates for the hosting job more desirable than Sharpton. One is Melissa Harris Perry, a political scientist at Tulance University who has served as a substitute host and frequent guest on MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show". Perry is a smart, telegenic, and fiercely partisan progressive who is demonstrably more knowledgeable and dexterous than Sharpton.
The Rev is actually rather boring, his show a collection of formulaic attacks on conservatives and paeans to liberals. This should come as no surprise: Sharpton has never been likely to say anything that is counter-intuitive or genuinely enlightening. His greatest talent has always been self-promotion. The difference from earlier in his career is that now he has the imprimatur of the president.
Randall Kennedy is a professor of law at Harvard University. His most recent book is The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency.