Back in 2001, I got into a long argument with a friend about Jesse Jackson, who had just acknowledged having fathered a child with a mistress. I insisted that Jackson’s retirement from the American political scene was long overdue, and that Jackson probably should have called it a career after the 1984 “Hymietown” controversy. Jackson, I asserted, had long since become an obnoxious, ineffective blowhard.
My friend disagreed. While not defending Jackson’s adultery or anti-Semitic rhetoric, he suggested that the best way for Jackson to leave the political stage was for white racism to decline dramatically, and that the folks who wanted Jackson to go away should work harder to combat the manifestations of discrimination. After all, he stated, “If racism goes away, what does Jesse have to complain about?”
I haven’t spoken to that old friend in some time, but I keep thinking about his remarks whenever I see Al Sharpton speak out about police brutality. I can’t say that I’ve ever been a Sharpton fan; I don’t watch his MSNBC program, and even when he makes points I agree with about police violence against African-Americans, I can’t help wondering if it might be better for American race relations to have those points made by someone with, frankly, a less controversial track record than Sharpton.
Yet the point my old friend made about Jackson also applies to Sharpton, no? If we all work harder to combat racism, discrimination, income inequality and police brutality, would we not, in effect, retire Sharpton? Is Sharpton not a reminder of our collective unfinished work?
When we hear complaints about Sharpton’s rhetoric and image, do we really think about how we should best answer those complaints? Getting rid of Sharpton wouldn’t get rid of racism…but getting rid of racism would get rid of Sharpton, no?
I’ll admit it: when I see Sharpton, I still think of Tawana Brawley and Freddie’s Fashion Mart and the other controversies of his past, not his calls for racial justice in the present. For many years, I regarded Sharpton as a voice of racial discord and resentment, and it’s tough for those memories of Sharpton to fade.
However, I can’t deny the validity of the argument that Sharpton’s grievances have to be addressed before he can depart from the platform of American politics. There are millions of Americans—left, right and center—who secretly want Sharpton to shut up and go away. The best way to achieve that goal, of course, is to actually fix the problems Sharpton is talking about.
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