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The Economist

Every white bigot's favourite black.

By Iván Román

January 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved.

Los neoyorquinos están muy familiarizados con su copete y sus encendidas polémicas. Hace acto de presencia de forma milagrosa al primer indicio de un problema racial. Es una imagen siempre presente en las noticias televisadas y en las tertulias. Incluso ha sido inmortalizado en una de las grandes novelas sobre la ciudad, "La Hoguera de las Vanidades" de Tom Wolfe como el inolvidable Reverendo Bacon.

Como dice la canción, ¿puede Al Sharpton llegar a probar que si triunfas en Nueva York puedes triunfar en cualquier parte? ¿Puede convertirse en un político nacional hecho y derecho? Está claro que este es su plan. Durante años ha estado abriendo pacientemente sucursales de su National Action Network por todo el país. Ahora tiene planeado presentarse a la presidencia en la próxima ocasión que se presente, en el año 2004.

El Sr. Sharpton está algo acelerado si cree que el primer puesto en la política de color está a disposición del primero que lo quiera coger. Jesse Jackson, que tiene ahora 60 años, ha ostentado este puesto durante un par de décadas, pero ahora está noqueado por los escándalos. Su confesión de que había tenido un hijo con una de sus ayudantes le costó el respaldo de las iglesias de color. Esto también animó a los medios a revelar su costumbre de intimidar a las empresas para que concediesen más contratos a las minorías, y luego desviar esos contratos a sus amigos y parientes...

NEW YORKERS are all too familiar with his pompadour hair and pyrotechnic polemics. He materialises miraculously at the first whiff of racial trouble. He is an omnipresent figure on news broadcasts and talk shows. He has even been immortalised in one of the great novels about the city, Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities", as the unforgettable Reverend Bacon.

Can Al Sharpton go on to prove, as the song has it, that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere? Can he turn himself into a fully-fledged national politician? That is clearly his plan. For years he has been patiently opening branches of his National Action Network around the country. Now he is planning to run for the presidency when the chance next comes, in 2004.

Mr Sharpton is in overdrive because he thinks that the top job in black politics is up for grabs. Jesse Jackson, now 60, has held this job for a couple of decades, but he is now punch-drunk with scandals. His admission that he fathered a child with an aide cost him support in the black churches. It also encouraged the media to reveal his habit of bullying companies into giving more contracts to minorities, and then directing those contracts to his friends and relatives.

Mr Jackson's protege-turned-rival is doing his utmost to ensure that he inherits the mantle. He is reworking his image with the enthusiasm of a Hollywood starlet, losing 80 pounds and exchanging his tracksuits and gaudy gold medallions for well-tailored business suits. He is also taking his brand of agitprop politics far beyond New York. He visited Sudan to condemn its habit of enslaving human beings, a mission many other black leaders have avoided (slavery, as they see it, is a white vice). He went to prison for protesting against the American navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for bombing practice. He is soon off to India and Pakistan to avert nuclear war (just what they need, and a typically Jacksonian flourish). No problem is too big these days for the one-time Harlem street-politician.

All the same, he is no Jesse Jackson. A poll comparing the two politicians, taken a couple of years ago, shows how high a mountain Mr Sharpton has to climb. Mr Jackson is known across the country; his would-be replacement is known mainly in the north-east. Mr Jackson enjoys huge support among blacks and some among whites; among blacks, Mr Sharpton barely breaks into positive territory, while whites loathe him. He also has little support among the black establishment, which much prefers even a wounded Jesse Jackson. He has no support in the all-important south. It is unlikely that any other leading Democrat will court him as they once did Mr Jackson.

Mr Sharpton's problem is that too many people regard him as radioactive. He is indelibly remembered for championing Tawana Brawley, the black 15-year-old who falsely alleged that she had been raped and abused by six white men. Mr Sharpton was more interested in "riling up the masses" than in pondering the truth of her accusations.

He is also competing for a post that no longer exists. In the days of Martin Luther King and the young Jesse Jackson, there was no debate about the need for a single black spokesman. Black America was united behind the crusade for civil rights. And there was a dearth of qualified leaders in a community that had been denied both education and a voice in politics.

Today, the situation could hardly be more different. In 2000, according to the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies, Mississippi and Alabama together had more black elected officials than the whole country had in 1970. Blacks run some of the country's biggest cities. The black congressional caucus currently boasts 42 members.

Black politics is also much more complicated than it was a decade ago. Black officials occupy much of their time with such humdrum issues as balancing the books and meeting payrolls. The biggest problems that face the black community, most notably poor school performance and high illegitimacy rates, are not amenable to the clear-cut certainties of the civil-rights era.

All this does not mean, however, that Mr Sharpton will fail. He has an extraordinary talent for capturing the headlines and is a highly accomplished, even mesmerising, public speaker. He started preaching at the age of four. At ten he preached to 10,000 at the 1964 World's Fair. He regularly works huge crowds of supporters at his Harlem headquarters into a frenzy.

He also has a genius for picking emotive subjects. His trademark issue, racial profiling (broadly, the arrest of minorities on suspicion), may have lost some of its resonance in the age of terrorism, though he is bravely making common cause with Arab-American organisations to keep the debate alive. But he has another issue in his repertoire that is almost guaranteed to mobilise blacks and infuriate whites: reparations for slavery.

Mr Sharpton also has something else on his side: the media's voracious desire for controversy. The Reverend is a gift-horse for the political talk-shows that fill so many hours of cable television. It is a safe bet that, given a choice between interviewing a serious black politician about local services in Atlanta and interviewing Mr Sharpton about reparations for slavery, the moguls of cable television will choose the showman every time.

This is depressing news for black America. It helps to obscure the fact that America boasts a plethora of successful black politicians. It reinforces the impression that black America is still mired in the politics of protest and victimhood. Black America may now be too successful and sophisticated to need a single spokesman. But the same cannot be said of either mainstream America or the media. Al Sharpton's greatest strength is not his ability to lead his own people. It is his ability to reinforce the prejudices of the white majority.

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