Politics & Policy

Al Sharpton, Maker of Presidents

Sen. Kamala Harris and Reverend Al Sharpton following their lunch meeting at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, February 21, 2019. (Bebeto Matthews/Pool via Reuters)
He has a large African-American following — but can he deliver it?

The first time I met the Reverend Al Sharpton, his laughter was uproarious, and his blithe countenance suggested knavery. His eye contact, wide and roaming, felt shifty. I smiled politely and paid close attention — unable to discern whether he was willfully animated or just being himself. After briefly explaining “how he handles business” on his MSNBC show, PoliticsNation, Reverend Sharpton slapped his palms together, thrust his hips forward as if rising from a squat, and flashed a big grin, concluding our interaction.

Growing up in a working-class African-American community in Washington, D.C., I have known many neighbors and friends who have long admired Al Sharpton. They consider him a God-fearing African-American bellwether with the courage of his convictions. When any race-related event or tragedy makes national headlines, they drop everything and turn on the news to watch Al Sharpton. When he speaks, heads in not a few African-American households and barbershops nod in agreement. Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to be circumspect and suspicious of talking heads who purport to represent the interests of an entire demographic.

One enduring criticism of Al Sharpton has been the absence of an apology for his involvement in the Tawana Brawley fiasco, which catapulted him to fame in 1987. Others have focused wisely on his divisive rhetoric about race and policing, his derogatory comments about Jewish people, and the reported $4.5 million in unpaid taxes accrued by Mr. Sharpton and his personal holdings. Given the role Mr. Sharpton appears poised to play in the 2020 election, as kingmaker and strategic intermediary between African Americans and the promising Democratic contender, we should also consider other questions about the street preacher–turned–progressive macher.

But let’s give Mr. Sharpton the benefit of the doubt and grant that the civil-rights icon, neither a seasoned politician nor a journalist by training, is well suited to summon the meeting, assess the candidate, and give his blessing to whomever makes the strongest impression.

What precisely does Mr. Sharpton hope to achieve in his widely publicized power lunches with Mayor Buttigieg, Senator Harris, and other 2020 presidential aspirants? Does he hope to speak on behalf of left-leaning African Americans? Does he want to gain a deeper understanding of candidates’ values and platforms? Does he want to assist or advise? Or, does he want to be seen with them — and perceived as being clothed in power? As he acknowledges proudly, Mr. Sharpton has “been able to reach from the streets to the suites.”

To his credit, Mr. Sharpton has on occasion forged purposeful alliances across the aisle with inveterate politicos such as Newt Gingrich to pursue education reform. He’s also used his megaphone with some consistency to highlight economic concerns of black underemployment, home ownership, and small business. When asked about his lunch with Mayor Buttigieg, Mr. Sharpton noted that their conversation was “candid” and that Mr. Buttigieg did not “duck any issues.”

At first blush, so far so good. Indeed, their public commentary reflects the success of a substantive discussion. If Mr. Sharpton is in fact being “candid” and he values Mr. Buttigieg’s willingness to tackle the tough topics, we should take him seriously. Perhaps these dialogues have some potential to make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. But only if we hold Mr. Sharpton to a higher standard, and this would require closer scrutiny should Mr. Sharpton continue to initiate such meetings.

Whatever you think of him and his ideological views, Mr. Sharpton is not, as the title of his memoir implies, “the rejected stone.” He is a role player, keen, it seems, on being a prime mover. As he explains in the chapter “Don’t Be Afraid to Be Big,” “you gotta be big enough to do big things.” We can take the reverend at his word and watch closely for what, if anything, comes of his positioning.

I do plan to, but I won’t hold my breath.

Zachary R. Wood is the author of Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America.

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