Thursday, November 22, 2007

Why Al Sharpton is the Man Millions Love to Hate
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The only thing really remarkable about the warning from the FBI to Al Sharpton that an unnamed, and unspecified dangerous substance may have been mailed to his National Action Network office in New York was that it came from the FBI. For months Sharpton has bitterly complained that he had been receiving a steady stream of hate mail, and death threats, and had repeatedly told law enforcement and the FBI about the threats. He questioned just how seriously they took them. This time the FBI apparently took the substance threat serious enough to warn him.

That Sharpton should be under attack is hardly a surprise. If it’s a police shooting, a protest over housing discrimination, a Jena six march, the charge to dump Dump Don Imus, a fist shake at the Bush administration, the bet is that Sharpton will be in the thick of the action. When Sharpton toppled Jesse Jackson from the top spot as black America’s main man, the notoriety, and the hostility, that that title carries with it, insured that he’d take the heat for whatever went right or wrong when blacks took to the streets in protest. Sharpton’s ubiquitous visibility on the protest front and willingness to go virtually anywhere as the visible, face and voice of angry black America makes him a universal punching bag.

But that doesn’t totally explain the deep, and almost clinical loathing that the mere mention of Sharpton’s name stirs among far too many whites, and a fair number of blacks. There are two bigger reasons why the hatred-fascination for Sharpton. He shakes, rattles, and ignites the goblin of racial denial in many whites. Sharpton is a breathing, walking, reminder that race still matters, and matters a lot in America. He is a slap in the face to the legions that duck, dodge, deflect, and flat out deny that there’s still a lot of racial hurt inflicted on blacks. Sharpton shatters their comforting delusion that racial hate is a dusty antique thing of a bygone past, a figment of the overwrought, paranoid imagination of many blacks, or better still that blacks themselves with their alleged incessant penchant for playing the race card are the only bigots left in America.

The flap over Imus or Dog the Bounty Hunter was a textbook example of that. The instant they copped to their racial sins, the predictable happened. Legions of whites unleashed a torrent of self-righteous, angry, and near paranoid rants on internet chat rooms, on the comment section of news blogs, and in emails to this writer, hysterically defending Imus and Dog. They cussed Sharpton, always Sharpton, even though he had nothing to do with Dog or Imus opening their traps and blurting out their racist digs.

Sharpton got the by now familiar taunts--race baiter, hustler, clown, buffoon, and racial pimp. For an instant one would have thought that Sharpton had called whites the C word, and the Duke Lacrosse players accused of rape, nappy headed honkies.

But then again if there wasn’t a Sharpton, he’d have to be invented, or someone such as him. That’s because blacks are eternally straight-jacketed with the tiresome monolith of race burden. Think how ludicrous it sounds to say the white leader, the Latino leader, the Asian Leader. But that’s not the case with blacks, whites demand a one-size-fits-all black leader; the “black leader.” There’s a method to this absurdity.

When the mantle of black leadership is wrapped tightly around one man, the presumption is that he or she speaks for all blacks. Jackson, pre-Sharpton’s muscling him off the top perch, was the whipping boy. In the 1980s when he talked about forming the Rainbow Coalition, blacks were attacked as radicals.

When he talked about building an independent black political organization, blacks were attacked as separatists. When he talked about boycotting corporations and baseball leagues that racially discriminate in hiring and promotion, blacks were attacked as disruptive. When he called New York "hymietown," blacks were attacked as anti-Semitic. When he talked about leading a national crusade to save affirmative action, blacks were attacked as wanting quotas and special preferences for the unqualified.

It's the same with Sharpton. While he took much heat for the Tawana Brawley rape controversy, the burning down of a Jewish-owned store in Harlem after picketing that he endorsed, and his then penchant for shoot-from-the-lip inflammatory statements, so did blacks. They were forced to publicly defend him from the attacks while privately grousing that he made them look like idiots. Like clockwork, even though the Brawley case happened nearly two decades ago, whenever there’s a Sharpton sighting on an issue it’s instantly thrown up in his face.

When the FBI notified him of the dangerous substance threat, Sharpton quickly sent out an alert to his regional offices. Whether the dangerous substance threat was real, or more likely a crank, it won’t change one thing. Sharpton will continue to be the man that millions love to hate.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)