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The Sharpton Generation


Sharpton says black leaders can have divergent opinions as long as they are expressing what they truly believe—not what a sponsor tells them to say. "Giuliani may call a black leader and get him to attack me, and he's doing it only because Giuliani made him, to get a contract or to get an appointment rather than because that's what he really believes. That's the difference between those who project different views and are acceptable and those who aren't." This tension among New York's black politicians has been put on vivid public display by the Louis Farrakhan debate. Though Sharpton has said he doesn't agree with many of the statements made by the Nation, he, like so many others, has refused to definitively push them away because of the street-credibility problem.

But surprisingly, when he preaches in black churches in the city and around the state, far away from the eyes and ears of white people, he sends a different, more reasonable message. Instead of celebrating victimization and calling for black unity at any price, he's painfully candid. Sharpton can do this because he has built up enough credibility in his account, so to speak, to now risk making a few withdrawals. "We strove for what was right even if wrong was done to us. That's real black history," he told a congregation in Queens recently. "Martin didn't die so you could be no dope pusher. Malcolm didn't take seventeen bullets so you could call your mama out her name. When we had no rights, we respected and loved one another. We've gained the world and lost our own soul. We will be the disgrace of black history if things don't change."

Despite the city's demographic reality—non-Hispanic whites now make up only about 43 percent of the population—blacks do not hold a single citywide office. And while there are 14 African-American City Council members out of a total of 51, Mayor Giuliani has only just named his first black to a senior post. Absent any strong, coherent voice from the black community, Giuliani has virtually no incentive to work with anyone claiming to represent it. He can pursue his own agenda with impunity, as he did in the recent controversial incident at the Harlem mosque and as he is doing in the current budget struggles. "We really have to fight for everything now," says Harlem councilwoman C. Virginia Fields. It's not much better in Albany. Controller H. Carl McCall is the first and only black person to ever hold a statewide office—and he's in that job simply because he was chosen by the Legislature last year when Republican Edward Regan retired. He still must prove he can win the position in this fall's elections.

Many black politicians believe that although the void is not new, what is different now is that it's being recognized and talked about. "The lack of leadership behind David Dinkins, that gap," says David Paterson, "has always been there. I don't think enough people paid attention to it." It is true, as Paterson points out, that the next mayor's race is not until 1997, but much of the current jostling for position is with an eye toward that campaign. And unless things change dramatically before then, there isn't one plausible black contender on the horizon.

"If I have to say things that make people uncomfortable to get their attention," says Eric Adams, "then I'll say them."

The fact that there is no one now prepared to step out from the shadow cast by Dinkins would be easier to explain if he had been a more dominating, powerful, and charismatic figure—a giant political oak that created so much shade that nothing grew around him. But Dinkins was a fairly spindly, sickly political specimen. What happened is that with a black man in Gracie Mansion, much of the black political machinery switched to its energy-saver mode. Some observers believe that Dinkins's term as mayor simply masked the leadership problem. J. Phillip Thompson, a political-science professor at Barnard and a former Dinkins-administration official, points out that during Dinkins's term, there was never a specific agenda presented by a unified black leadership. "The challenge for black leaders," Thompson says, "is how to unite and around what program."

For the insurgents, the answer to this question rarely extends beyond the rhymes, the alliterations, and the heat of their rhetoric. Real answers to the intractable problems are harder to come by. Eric Adams, however, has presented a detailed crime plan— structured around taking back the city's neighborhoods ten blocks at a time—to Giuliani and to Police Commissioner Bratton. But with or without specific programs, the activists believe the time for change has come.

"Our starting team is scoring no points," says Adams, in his assessment of the incumbent leadership, "so how much worse can I do? If you walked down your block and your children were playing outside and someone's selling drugs, shootin', you as a man are not going to allow that to exist. No matter how poor we are, no matter what our state is, as men, we should not be allowing what exists in our community."


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