Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton is shooting from the lip again, and it doesn't help his cause or his constituency.
Sharpton's gibe that Howard Dean is anti-black is ridiculous even by his loose standards. The same goes for his charge, made in a speech in Connecticut, that Jesse Jackson Jr., a Dean supporter, and other blacks who endorse white candidates are Uncle Toms.
What did Dean say to punch Sharpton's hot button? Sharpton dredged up a stray remark that Dean made some years ago suggesting that affirmative action should be based on class, not race. Sharpton seems to forget that many blacks have said the same thing and that such a policy could strip the bitter racial rancor out of the affirmative action debate. In any case, Dean now unequivocally backs affirmative action.
Sharpton also beat up Dean for saying that if Democrats wanted to win back the White House they must try to wean away from George Bush the white guys driving pickups decorated with Confederate flag decals. Trouble is, Dean is right.
As for the Uncle Tom remarks, Sharpton is playing to the commonplace notion that whites will vote for only white candidates, so blacks must counter by voting for only blacks. That ignores the fact that in elections of many kinds in which African Americans did not make up a majority of voters, blacks have won election with substantial white support.
In fact, it's troubling that Sharpton endorses the idea that blacks should reflexively vote for black candidates. Though you might think it signals a praiseworthy idealism and solidarity, in his case it's more a matter of opportunism.
After all, it's a given that Sharpton's candidacy really doesn't have a ghost of a chance. He dons conservative business suits and occasionally sounds like a thoughtful Democrat on some issues, but he carries too much baggage to dissuade most whites that he is anything other than a racial rabble-rouser. There are also a lot blacks who have deep misgivings about Sharpton. In a survey in 2000 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., public policy think tank, nearly 30% of blacks had an unfavorable impression of him.
Still, if large numbers of blacks out of misguided racial guilt or naivete back him, he could score big in the primaries in Washington, D.C., in January and in South Carolina and Michigan in February and March, places where the black vote is crucial. This would compel the white Democrat who finally emerges from the pack to genuflect at his feet in order to court vital black votes.
But Sharpton's political ploy is fraught with danger for blacks.
When the mantle of black leadership is wrapped tightly around one man, the presumption is that he or she speaks for the race. In the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson Sr. talked about building an independent black political organization, blacks were attacked as separatists. When he talked about boycotting corporations and baseball leagues that discriminated in hiring and promotion, blacks were attacked as disruptive. When he called New York "hymietown," all blacks were attacked as anti-Semitic.
The same prevails with Sharpton. When he has been under fire -- for his actions during the Tawana Brawley rape controversy for example, or during Jewish-black hostilities in New York City -- blacks in general got the blowback. Forced to publicly defend him, black leaders privately groused that he made them look like idiots.
Sharpton says he wants to break up the chummy "good ole white guys" presidential club. He says he wants to goad the Democrats to take strong positions on civil rights and poverty issues. Those are laudable aims.
But name-calling when it comes to Dean and Jackson and saber rattling when it comes to gathering backers is a no-win proposition.
He doesn't have a real shot at the nomination, and his antics make him -- and not Dean -- appear to be anti-black.