Why Reverend Al Remains Relevant

by Dax-Devlon Ross

As universally reviled as Al Sharpton supposedly is, we can’t seem to get enough of him. In the last two months ‘Reverend Al’ has been in the news non-stop. Two months ago a pair of scientists discovered a link between his slave ancestors and Strom Thurmond’s slave-holding forebears. A month ago he was accused of waging a political turf-war with Barack Obama. Three weeks ago he stood astride Sean Bell’s family at press conferences following the indictment of the three officers accused of murder. Two weeks ago he and Russell Simmons called for yet another end to the violence in the hip-hop community. Last week he became synonymous with the Imus affair after the he grilled the shock jock/serious journalist on his satellite radio program. This past Friday Bill Maher had the Reverend on his popular weekly news program to discuss the scandal. Even the HNIC Report became a hot source for Sharpton news. For more than a week nearly 100 unique visitors per day read a three-week old piece on Sharpton and Obama that had gone unnoticed initially.

The flood of attention on Reverend Sharpton got me thinking: How has this man managed to remain in the public eye for so long?

Let’s start with the American dream. We’re all familiar with its promise: we can reinvent ourselves into what we want to be. But in order for that promise to be honored, we all have to agree to allow each other to be remade. That is the clincher, what Sharpton apprehended early on in his public career and has shrewdly exploited throughout. Despite our flaws, we Americans have a profoundly short memory and an unmatched capacity for forgiveness that teeters on the edge of gullibility. Knowing this, Sharpton was able to transform himself from pariah to power broker by making the subtle, superficial changes that once allowed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby to climb his way into Long Island’s High Society. Of his early steps away from the unconscionably ill-attired race pusher, Sharpton’s one-time close political ally Dr. Lenora Fulani wrote,

I bought him a good suit and my friends and I bought him an expensive watch.
We went to Los Angeles and stayed at the ultra-fancy Biltmore Hotel and held meetings with the Cripps and the Bloods. My close friend Jim Mangia and I took him into the gay community in San Francisco – his first public act of connecting to gays and the transgender community.
Even as he remained a charlatan to the black elite and intelligentsia, this new clean image elevated his prestige among the poor and working-class blacks whose “pain and humiliation” he was already adept at empathizing with and articulating. Armed with a new look and an agitator’s agenda, he quickly became a leader the people could not only identify with but be proud of. Suddenly and ironically, Sharpton was a symbol of American enterprise itself. He fit right into the cult of personality marketplace that Jay-Z aptly identifies when he rhymes, “I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man.” In a country in which the Law permits individuals to incorporate themselves and grants corporations rights on par with individuals, Sharpton, Inc. came into being, and he did so just as the long and storied tradition of African-American leadership stretching back to Frederick Douglass was reaching an impasse. Those who would’ve held the mantle had either been worn threadbare by the entanglements of the earlier era or they had been coopted into complacency by Democratic dalliances and empty promises of empowerment. Sensing the opening, Sharpton stepped into fill the void.

Which brings us to one of the most misinformed criticisms of Sharpton: that he is a “poverty pimp.” His critics condemn him for taking advantage of the nation’s tumultuous racial history at every opportunity. They complain that he won’t let the wounds of racism heal, that he picks at the scab every chance he gets to draw attention to himself. But would even have a scab to pick if racism wasn’t still a problem in our society?

What critics really want is for Sharpton to stop making them feel uncomfortable. They want him to shut up so that they don’t have to feel disquieted; otherwise, they wouldn’t care what he said. Consider this: we celebrate opportunism everywhere from the stock market to the flea market in this society (ex: the early bird gets the worm). We admire those who are able to capitalize off of other people’s misery to the tune of several billion dollars earned or saved. We call it ‘fair game’ when a candidate attacks his opponent’s personal life, his war record– anything that might affect his public perception. But when Sharpton uses those same tactics to reveal racial prejudice and push the “black agenda” opportunism becomes a condemnatory act. Historically this nation has only dealt with race when it has been forced to. Particularly in this day and age, it would rather insist that racial schisms are a thing of the past than work to fix the persisting inequities in education, employment, housing and law enforcement practices. Without Sharpton’s “opportunism” these issues might not ever be a part of the national dialogue.

In the late ‘90s Sharpton appeared on the cover of Vibe Magazine. He already had a certain amount of political capital within the hip-hop community because he was vocal and active on issues like police brutality and poverty. By appearing on the cover of a decidedly urban, youth-oriented magazine, however, he announced his solidarity with the hip-hop generation. At the time he wasn’t familiar with rap music, but he recognized that it was a force within the community, and that if he wanted to speak to young people he needed to be willing to meet them on their turf. This tactical move not only opened the door for a broader base of support from a younger generation but it has lent credibility to his criticisms of violence in the hip-hop community since then.

The same media that is now calling for Sharpton’s job rarely admits to its role in creating him. His image sells newspapers and his appearances on television spike ratings, hence his most recent Bill Maher interview. Rather than seek out a multitude of voices, the media chose to cultivate Sharpton as the voice of black America. The media chose to review his books. The media chose to send cameras when he organized a march or a rally. Sharpton can only speak for black America if the media participates in perpetuating his voice. What is interesting is that he is routinely attacked for calling attention to himself; meanwhile no one stops to ask why his opinion is always sought. As much as he is a creation of his own imagination, Sharpton could not have gotten as far as he has without the support of a willing media apparatus that relies on juicy quotes and soundbytes to attract the interest of readers and viewers who, either because they love him or love to hate him, can’t resist a Sharpton headline.

A related but separate issue has to do with the Democratic party’s reliance upon black leaders to carry the black vote. Historically, Democrats (and Republicans) have deployed the black leader of the moment to win votes rather than appeal to blacks directly. When, for example, Hillary Clinton announced she was running for the New York Senate seat in 2000, one of her first stops was at Sharpton’s church in Harlem. Sharpton was skillful enough to ensure that he wasn’t the only one being used, however. As Fulani points out in her article, he used his growing political cachet to fashion himself as a progressive voice (anti-war, war on poverty) within the stale Democratic establishment, not just as a black deal maker. Also, by legitimizing his power, the Democratic party assured itself that Sharpton would continue to be a thorn in its side in local, state and national politics with or without their support for years to come.

Al Sharpton is rarely given credit for fashioning a lucrative, longstanding public career in a fickle political environment; for broadening his rhetoric without alienating his base; or for maintaining a level of ideological independence that allows him to speak candidly about the issues he is interested in. Sharpton has proven himself a master media manipulator with a perceptive sense of timing. Even his choice to become a satellite radio host makes sense. Not only does it allow him to take advantage of emerging technology, it allows him to carry out his “watchdog” function without depending on a traditional media outlet that relies on commercial advertising. On another note, Reverend Sharpton has also managed to avoid the personal and fiscal scandals that have brought other so-called leaders down, something that is never mentioned by those who seek to silence him. Say what you will about the man, and there is plenty to say, but in twenty years and after countless personal attacks, he is still standing. At some point, you have to give credit where it is due.