During my half century of life in New York City, race relations here have gone through many ups and downs.  One reliable contributor to the downs has been the Rev. Al Sharpton.  Sharpton is to racial understanding what Rupert Murdoch is to the news media or steroids to batting records.  Others have drawn larger conclusions about Sharpton’s ascent from a demagogue inflaming the tragic Tawana Brawley fraud to Official African-American Leader at the side of Mayor Bill de Blasio or President Obama.  For myself, I can only say (1) nothing else can inject doubts in my mind about some case of apparent racial injustice as quickly as Sharpton’s arrival on the scene, and (2) this cat really does have nine lives. 

The latter reality is being demonstrated by Sharpton’s casual dismissal of a New York Times report that he owes millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, to say nothing of other debts—and Mayor de Blasio’s rush to his defense.  “I know a lot of good people who ran into one kind of problem or another with their taxes.”  A million here, a million there, good to have a mayor who stands up for the little guy. 

As a reporter I had a couple of passing opportunities to observe Sharpton answer questions, the last at a National Baptist Convention at Madison Square Garden that called down God’s blessing on Mayor David Dinkins in his reelection contest with Rudy Giuliani.  (God wasn’t listening; Giuliani won.)  I can’t recall Sharpton’s answers—the matters were totally inconsequential—but retain the memory that they proved brazenly untrue.  It seemed that there was nothing to be gained from dissimulating—except the sheer fun of it. 

Self-promoting rogues who gain influence and sometimes fortune as defenders of genuinely oppressed minorities are nothing new.  Irish examples abound, and I don’t doubt that some of my ancestors celebrated them.  Perhaps Sharpton is only another entertaining example. Then again we are now a nation on edge about Ferguson, and badly in need of credible leadership. 

Meanwhile here is a better, more knowledgeable account by an old friend, Jim Sleeper, whose book Liberal Racism remains instructive. 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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