Sharpton: Blackness and Fighting

sharpton.jpgAlthough I disagree with Shelby Steele’s thesis on Obama, he was right about one thing: so-called black authenticity in politics is largely intertwined with being angry and confrontational. Al Sharpton made this point plain as day in the recent New York Magazine piece.

In his book, Steele argued that black leaders either conform to bargainer or challenger identities. Bargainers give whites the benefit of the doubt with regard to racism and challengers constantly rub racism in the faces of whites. Steele asserts that Obama is a bargainer, a claim which I think is entirely off the mark (where I discuss here ). But Sharpton demonstrates that Steele is on the money about the challenger concept being the dominant identity of black politics. From the New York Magazine article:

Until recently, Sharpton’s relationship with Obama has been more aloof. Sharpton has also been underwhelmed by Obama’s campaign. “He never came off as a fighter,” he says, a strategy that he thinks has hurt Obama with a key demographic: black women. “Black women like a fighter. Even if you’re fighting a fight that is not my fight, I will believe that you might fight my fight. And to come off as ‘I’m all right with everybody’ doesn’t give people who want a fight a comfort level. I want somebody who’s at least a little upset with somebody, because I’m mad as hell. If you’re not mad, how do I get passionate about you?”

Sharpton thinks Obama should take more cues from his wife, Michelle. He still thinks about the time he bumped into her at a recent Chicago fund-raiser. He claims the conversation went like this.

“How you doing, Mrs. Obama?”

She’s tall, and looked down at him. “I’d do a lot better if we had your endorsement.”

Sharpton tried to play dumb. “What do you mean?”

“We need your endorsement. I’m just telling you straight out: We need your endorsement. What are you going to do?”

Sharpton didn’t know what to say. “I’m like, ‘Uh, well, duh.’ I mean, she was like a sister back in Brownsville, where I grew up!”

Could he have played the tune of the angry black women stereotype any clearer? Did he not represent the angry black man stereotype perfectly? Could he be any more wrong?

Sharpton’s premise is that being a fighter and projecting anger go hand in hand. But who was a greater fighter for justice than Martin Luther King? Was he angry? Of course. Was that central to his message? Absolutely not. In fact, he fought his fight embracing a principle that is in opposition to this sentiment. Al, more than anyone, should get this.

I don’t care about Sharpton slighting Obama. That’s politics and I’m not here to defend Obama. But I do care about Sharpton (and the media) appointing himself the arbiter of black authenticity. To claim that he is not impressed by Obama because he doesn’t seem angry enough and implying that he is not black enough because of it, is just plain ridiculous. And I, for one, am tiring of him speaking for all of us.

**Hat tip to Baratunde Thurston of Jack & Jill Politics, Carmen Dixon of All About Race, and Desmond Burton of Afronerd from Wednesday’s Bloggers’ Roundtable on NPR**


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