01 Aug

Opinion Why Are Democrats Defending Al Sharpton?

They’ve handed Trump an easy win and yoked themselves to a genuine bigot.


Image CreditCreditPeter Kramer/Getty Images

When I first heard that President Trump had gone after the Rev. Al Sharpton — and that Mr. Sharpton had responded in kind — I must admit that I laughed. Are there two New York City hustlers who deserve one another more?

But 48 hours later, I feel differently. That’s thanks to the leading Democratic candidates for president, who have rushed to Mr. Sharpton’s defense, extolling his supposed virtues as a civil-rights paragon while denouncing Mr. Trump’s attack as racist. In doing so, they have, yet again, taken Mr. Trump’s bait, handing him another easy victory while yoking themselves to a genuine bigot.

To read their tweets, you would think Mr. Sharpton was Gandhi-esque. “@TheRevAl has dedicated his life to the fight for justice for all. No amount of racist tweets from the man in the White House will erase that — and we must not let them divide us. I stand with my friend Al Sharpton in calling out these ongoing attacks on people of color,” wrote Elizabeth Warren. Kamala Harris praised Sharpton as a man who has “spent his life fighting for what’s right.” Joe Biden agreed, lauding the reverend as “a champion in the fight for civil rights.”

The problem for Democrats is that Al Sharpton actually is, as Mr. Trump put it on Twitter, “a con man.” And not just a con man: Mr. Sharpton is an ambulance-chasing, anti-Semitic, anti-white race hustler. His history of offensive statements is longer than the current American president’s. And Mr. Sharpton’s worst sin — his blatant incitement to violence during the Crown Heights riots of 1991 — leaves no doubt that he is not a leader, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described him, who has spent his years “pushing for justice in the teachings of Dr. King.”

Consider this very partial list of his offenses:

Mr. Sharpton came onto the national scene in 1987, during what is now known as the Tawana Brawley affair. On Nov. 28 of that year, a 15-year-old black girl was found lying in a garbage bag, smeared with feces, with various racial slurs and epithets written in charcoal on her body. She said that she’d been raped by six white men and that two were law-enforcement officials. Mr. Sharpton relentlessly championed her cause. And yet, after seven months of examining police and medical records, a grand jury found “overwhelming evidence” that Ms. Brawley had fabricated her entire story.

Yet Mr. Sharpton proceeded to accuse the prosecutor, Steven Pagones, of being one of the perpetrators of the alleged abduction and rape. Mr. Sharpton was successfully sued (along with Ms. Brawley’s lawyers, Anthony H. Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason Sr.) for defamation. The jury in this civil action found Mr. Sharpton liable for making seven defamatory statements about Mr. Pagones, whose life fell apart as a result of the entire episode. Mr. Sharpton refused to pay his share of damages, which was later paid by a number of his supporters, and he has refused to apologize.

In August 1991, after an automobile accident involving the motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi accidentally killed a black child, riots broke out in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Much of the press portrayed it as a kind of cultural clash between the black and Jewish communities, but it was described accurately by the Times columnist, A.M. Rosenthal, as a “pogrom.”

Following the death of the boy, Gavin Cato, hundreds of black men took to the streets. Within hours of the accident, 20 young black men surrounded Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Australian yeshiva student visiting the United States to conduct research for his doctorate. They stabbed him several times in the back and beat him. He subsequently died of his injuries. The rioting continued for three days, leaving 152 police officers and 38 civilians injured. At least 122 blacks and seven whites were arrested.

Amid this unrest, Mr. Sharpton led hundreds of protesters on a march in front of the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. During his remarks at Gavin Cato’s funeral, at which there was a banner declaring, “Hitler did not do the job,” Mr. Sharpton let loose with a eulogy blaming “the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights,” and insisted that “the issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid.” He continued: “All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffeeklatsch, no skinnin’ and grinnin’. Pay for your deeds.”

Four years later, Mr. Sharpton incited violence again. In 1995, Fred Harari, a Jewish tenant of a retail property on 125th Street who operated Freddy’s Fashion Mart, sought to evict his longtime subtenant, a black-owned record store called the Record Shack. Beginning that August, Mr. Sharpton led a series of marches against the planned eviction. Protesters led by Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network picketed outside the store day after day, referring to Jews as “bloodsuckers” and threatening, “We’re going to burn and loot the Jews.” At one point Mr. Sharpton told protesters, “We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business.” Never mind that the building was actually owned by a black Pentecostal church.

Then, on Dec. 8, 1995, a protester named Roland J. Smith Jr. entered Mr. Harari’s store, told all the black customers to leave, shot several remaining customers and set the store on fire. The gunman fatally shot himself, and seven store employees died of smoke inhalation.

Why is a person with such a sordid history — one for which he has offered nothing more than weak apologies for wishing he’d “done more to heal rather than harm” — enjoying the support of such a determinedly anti racist political party? For a few reasons that I can see.

The first is President Barack Obama. Before 2008, Mr. Sharpton had largely remained at the fringe of the Democratic Party. That changed because of Mr. Obama’s candidacy. Mr. Obama was catching flak from his left among African-Americans unhappy about his relative moderation on race-related policies, including his disavowal of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The candidate needed a black “leader” to defend him and deflect criticism. One was found in Mr. Sharpton, who was cultivated by Mr. Obama’s closest aide, Valerie Jarrett.

In short order, Mr. Sharpton became a political kingmaker. In 2011, he got his own show on MSNBC. Between 2009 and 2014 he’d visited the White House 61 times. All of this has left the Democrats joined at the hip with an exemplar of failed black leadership.

The second reason Democrats have rushed to Mr. Sharpton’s defense is South Carolina. Given the critical importance of that state’s early primary election, and the crucial role the black vote is sure to play in that contest, Democrats running for president have had to kiss Mr. Sharpton’s ring — and cover his derrière.

The third, and most powerful, reason is that Mr. Sharpton now has the right enemy: Donald Trump. Democrats seem unable to do two things at once: condemn Mr. Trump and refuse to defend ideas and people that are not worthy of being defended. Instead, anything he criticizes, however plausible that criticism, becomes something they feel compelled to rally behind.

This is a losing strategy. Progressives have been bluffing on the race issue for years now: downplaying black-on-black urban violence, ignoring the polarizing effects of racial identity politics, maintaining a code of silence on the collapse of the black family and more. Mr. Trump knows it.

If Democrats cannot distinguish between Mr. Sharpton’s hucksterism and genuine moral leadership on race and justice in America, I assure you that many moderate voters in battleground states will have no trouble doing so. Shouting “racist” at Mr. Trump, even if there is truth to the accusation, will gain Democrats nothing. The president cannot be further damaged by that epithet. Meantime, he wins votes every time a prominent Democratic politician overreacts to his provocations by defending the indefensible.

Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He has taught previously at Boston, Harvard and Northwestern Universities, and the University of Michigan. He holds a B.A. in Mathematics (Northwestern University) and a Ph.D. in Economics (MIT).

Professor Loury is a distinguished academic economist who has contributed to a variety of areas in applied microeconomic theory: welfare economics, game theory, industrial organization, natural resource economics, and the economics of income distribution. He has lectured before academic societies throughout the world. He has been a scholar in residence at Oxford University, Tel Aviv University, the University of Stockholm, the Delhi School of Economics, the Institute for the Human Sciences in Vienna, the Institute for Policy Studies in Sydney, Australia, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carnegie Scholarship to support his work. He has been elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Econometric Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and Vice President of the American Economics Association. He is the 2005 recipient of the John von Neumann Award (given annually by the Rajk László College of the Budapest University of Economic Science and Public Administration to “an outstanding economist whose research has exerted a major influence on the students of the College over an extended period of time.”) He presented the University Lecture at Boston University in 1996 (“The Divided Society and the Democratic Idea”), The DuBois Lectures at Harvard University in 2000 (“The Economics and the Ethics of Racial Classification.”), and the Tanner Lectures in Human Values at Stanford University in 2007 (“Race, Incarceration and American Values.”)

In addition to this scholarly work, Professor Loury is also a prominent social critic and public intellectual. His over 200 essays and reviews on racial inequality and social policy have appeared in dozens of influential journals of public affairs in the U.S. and abroad. He is a frequent commentator on national radio and television, a much sought after public speaker, and an advisor on social issues to business and political leaders throughout the country. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, was for many years a contributing editor at The New Republic and at The American Interest, and he currently serves on the editorial advisory board of The Boston Review. Prof. Loury is a member of the standing Committee on Law and Justice of the National Research Council (NRC), and serves on the NRC’s recently formed committee devoted to a study of “The Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration in the United States.”

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