Ode to Al (Or Confessions of a White Liberal)

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  one year
ago, on a cold January
Saturday morning, I sat
down in front of my computer
and tuned in the
Pacifica newstream covering
the Washington, D.C.,
anti-war protest. Rev. Al Sharpton had just
taken the stage. Although I don’t remember
much of what he had to say, I do remember
being struck by his charisma, undiminished
even by my crackling speakers and slow
internet connection. And I remember
thinking, “This man should be president” –
of course, then and now, it was and is quite
clear that Al Sharpton would not win the
Presidency in 2004. But as I sit here writing,
the question as to why Sharpton will not or
cannot win – and others questions like it –
are foremost in my mind.
Watching the Democratic primary race
unfold over the past few months has been
an interesting affair. Of the seven candidates
still in contention at the time of this
writing, four – Joe Lieberman, John Kerry,
Wesley Clark, and John Edwards (and, to a
lesser extent, Howard Dean) – share a
strong set of controlling features, including
a mild token liberalism, a general inability
to say anything very strong about the current
state of affairs as it relates to poverty,
health care, the continuing demise of the
middle class, or racialization, and an
unwillingness to transcend the foreign policy
terms set to them by the political right
(they all “strongly support our troops in
Iraq”). In light of these unifying themes, all
supposed “differences” recede, and the candidates
appear virtually indistinguishable.
But above this generalized, undifferentiated
political noise rise the clear, progressive
voices of Al Sharpton and Dennis
Kucinich. Both are solidly and consistently
liberal in their thinking, and neither
exhibits the fatal Democratic flaw of
retracting or qualifying under pressure.
Both their campaigns raise many interesting
issues. However, much is often said
about the role of progressive politics and
grassroots campaigns in transforming
national culture, so that doesn’t need to be
repeated here. Instead, I want to focus on a
less obvious, more reflective – but by no
means less pressing or critical – question:
namely, the relationship between Al Sharpton
and the white liberal caucus.
The question goes something like this: If
a forceful, well-spoken, charismatic
African-American candidate with roots in
the civil rights movement and a decadeslong
career demonstrating continued commitment
to human rights, international
diplomacy, and a myriad other “liberal
issues” were to come along, we would all
jump aboard….Right? The importance of
this phenomenon, the
repeated disregard that
white liberals have had
for Sharpton and his
“serious” political candidacy,
cannot be ignored
and demands analysis.
I am aware of two
objections that are
repeatedly employed to
dismiss Sharpton. The
first is that he is powerhungry
and egotistical –
that his “decades long
career in civil rights”
has been motivated by
his desire for influence and attention. This
however, in all honesty, is not any real
objection at all, since calling a politician
egotistical is about as insightful as calling a
banana yellow; its superficiality alone, or
the fact that Sharpton alone among politicians
is referred to as egotistical, suggests
that something deeper is at work.
This leads directly to the second, more
substantive objection: namely, that Sharpton
“lacks integrity,” as evidenced by the
Tawana Brawley imbroglio. And here we
reach what seems to me to be the very heart
of the matter. White liberals, by and large,
have felt free to denounce Sharpton at this
point, because they have mostly misunderstood
the true radicality of the worldview
espoused by Sharpton,Martin Luther King,
Jr., and the whole civil rights movement,
and therefore have not properly interpreted
Sharpton’s actions. Justice, as articulated by
King and advocated by Sharpton and others,
is not merely the “raising up of the
oppressed” – it is a raising up at the
expense of others. In other words, it is
absolute, preferential treatment of the
oppressed – even and especially when this
means offending the privileged – at all levels
of society without apology. Practically
this means – and this is where Sharpton
comes in – that one always believes the
word of a young black woman over that of
a white police officer and that one doesn’t
apologize when one
turns out wrong. Therefore,
in my view, it
seems as if Sharpton’s
refusal to apologize at
this point indicates
rather than negates his
integrity and consistency
– he understands
what the civil rights
movement really meant,
and his white liberal
detractors do not.
One final factor which
seems to me decisive in
the white liberal dismissal
of Sharpton and misapprehension
of the civil rights movement is discomfort
with the sometime source of its motivation.
In his decisive formulae King, for
instance, talked about sister- and brotherhood
under God. It is a great historical
hack-job, and the source of much misunderstanding,
that many refuse to interpret
King along the lines which he chose to
interpret himself. It is therefore an open
question to me whether the out-of-hand
dismissal of Sharpton’s political candidacy
has something to do with the fact that he is
Reverend Sharpton. Another way to ask
this question is to wonder whether the general
lack of interaction between white
activists and black activists might not have
something to do with the fact that, historically,
much of black activism has happened
“in church.”
What then remains to be said about the
other progressive candidate, Dennis
Kucinich? Mainly this: That, with great
respect for his integrity, consistent advocacy
for progressive concerns, and political
platform in general, he is, notwithstanding,
boring. He is quiet, level-headed, uncharismatic.
These might be great qualities in a
legislative official, but not in a national
leader. And qualitative judgments aside,
there are also strategic advantages to supporting
Sharpton over Kucinich. For example,
progressive politics generally has a particularly
hard time making inroads into the
deep South, where the two key voting populations
are the African-American and the
conservative white communities. Kucinich,
whose political base consists almost entirely
of white, liberal folks not from the South,
has very little chance of building a movement
in this region – and, historically, presidential
elections are not won without
making inroads into the South. Sharpton,
on the other hand, has a strong, committed
following in Southern African-American
So reflections on the Kucinich campaign,
for my purposes here, serve up the
same demanding question. Why do we
white liberals generally prefer him to
Sharpton? Sharpton, in addition to being
“right” on the issues, is charismatic, exciting,
and would, if properly supported, certainly
have a better chance at shaking
things up than traditional white liberal
candidates. For me, the answer to this question
has something to do with the way in
which white liberal culture and white liberal
preferences (for instance, the preference
to avoid all religious rhetoric) defines and
limits the progressive political discourse.
The result for white activists, of course, is
lost opportunities and failed coalitions.
More serious still, however, is the continued
disregard for minority voices and
minority agendas in our political culture.

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