There is one optimistic and one despairing way to spin the Zogby analytics poll commissioned by BET founder and mega-businessman Robert L. Johnson on leadership among black Americans.
The poll found that the leader garnering the highest percentage of responses was “none of the leaders listed spoke for them.” Coming in at a very significant second was Rev. Al Sharpton. One out of four blacks said he’s their voice.
The negative and despairing way to look at the poll is the one that the usual legion of hit pieces, slams, and digs at black activists and civil rights leaders eagerly grab at whenever the issue comes up. It goes like this: those who purport to be black leaders are puffed up, media-created opportunists who have woefully led blacks astray for decades. How else to explain the hard reality that year in and year out, blacks have the highest rates of poverty, joblessness incarceration, and health and educational disparities than any other group? This despite five years of having an African-American in the White House. And President Obama still gets off-the-charts approval ratings from black Americans.
On the other hand, the optimistic way to look at the poll is that many blacks identify with recognizable, definable, political and activist voices who speak up and out on, and who fight against, the towering racial and economic ills that plague black people. Six out of ten blacks in the poll were willing to put their finger on someone who they believe best speaks for their interests.
This brings us back to Sharpton. He’s the “go-to” guy for many blacks for reasons that say as much about him as about the ongoing struggle for equity and justice in America. The long parade of Sharpton bashers still delight in ridiculing and pounding him as an ego-driven, media hogging, race baiting agitator and opportunist who will jump on any cause to get some TV time. But the personal hits on him are nothing more than the ritual anti-Sharpton name calling. Turn the attacks on their head, and it becomes apparent why he’s popular. He’s the subject of the relentless attacks in part because of who many perceive him to be and the influence he has with many blacks, Latinos, the poor and community activists. This is a constituency that no liberal or moderate Democrat, and that certainly includes Obama, can afford to ignore or alienate.
Sharpton’s long, controversial and militant activism in turn fuels his media pull and image. And that’s vital for many blacks since the lines between the two are often blurred. Politicians have long known that a sound bite, photo-op, rock star and Hollywood celebrity allure can mean as much if not more in determining a candidate’s political fate than what they have to say about global warming, the deficit, the Iraq and Afghan wars, campaign reform, or the Wall Street meltdown, or even health care reform.
Black politicians and various Democratic candidates have leaped over themselves to get mug shots, endorsements, and a spot on the dais at the National Action Network’s confabs. At times, even some Republicans have saber rattled fence-sitting white voters with the dread of Sharpton. But Sharpton’s media allure wouldn’t work without another crucial ingredient for leadership appeal: the possession of a big, booming voice that is not afraid to speak out consistently when there is an injustice. Sharpton fits that bill.
But even that’s not enough to have broad leadership appeal for blacks. He or she must be perceived as someone who is fearless enough to publicly call racism, racism — and a racist a racist. In other words they must stand up to “the man.” Those individuals, from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Dr. King, had that quality. They and anyone like them will always get applause and a warm spot in the hearts of a significant number of blacks.
The fact that there that so many blacks are willing to name someone such as Sharpton as their go-to guy, and that includes, more often than not, the man in the White House, is something that shouldn’t be ripped, ridiculed, and certainly not ignored.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles, Fridays 9:00 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles, Saturdays Noon PST.