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The Sharpton Generation

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But where's the beef? Is there a Sharpton agenda, a set of achievable goals? Is his new image a charade? Ask him once what he wants out of all this and he will tell you that everyone should stop trying to be his psychiatrist. He says he absolutely, positively wants to be a United States senator. Ask him a second time, when he seems in a more introspective mood, and he will say, "I may not ever be the first black senator from New York or the first black governor of New York. I may not ever even be mayor. But I do think I could be the Jesse Jackson of New York politics. And it takes somebody to create the climate so that David Paterson can become the next David Dinkins."

In New York, the gulf between blacks and whites seems to widen with every slight, every assault, every misplaced nuance in the public discourse. Form has taken precedence over content to such a degree that it is just about impossible to have an honest public discussion about any issue involving race—which means just about every critical issue facing the city. Just as in the days of segregation when there had to be two of everything, one bathroom for blacks and one for whites, we have reached a point where every conflict, every debate, every confrontation, has two separate versions, one truth for blacks and another for whites. The particular incident or issue matters far less than the hyperbolic racial spin put on it. Sometimes it seems as though blacks and whites live not in different cities but on different planets.

Can you imagine the outcry there would have been, many black leaders asked me, if within weeks of taking office David Dinkins had had his own radio show on WLIB? Yet Rudy Giuliani, they argue, can have a show on WABC radio, and no one says anything—despite the fact that so much of what the station broadcasts is anathema to blacks. Blacks see an unrelenting double standard. They are told to denounce Farrakhan, but they want to know who denounced Senator Ernest Hollings in December when he implied that African leaders are cannibals. Where was the righteous indignation last October, they ask, when state controller Carl McCall—a graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Edinburgh, a former state senator and U.N. representative—was called "the nigger from Harlem" by an upstate councilman named Joseph Kover?

"Our starting team is scoring no points," says Eric Adams of the old-line black establishment.

To successfully function in mainstream politics while at the same time maintaining credibility in their own communities, black leaders in the city and, indeed, across the country are often forced to walk a very thin rhetorical line. Statements that fly in Harlem can cause trouble on the Upper West Side. Though black politicians are loath to discuss this high-wire act, it is a fact of life for them. "I've been criticized by some members of my own community for trying to appease others," State Senator David Paterson says with a heavy sigh. While Paterson argues that a politician can't successfully say different things to different people, he knows the problem. "I'm constantly trying to explain to my white constituents why there is a certain reaction to something in the black community, but when talking among other blacks there's no need. Everybody just understands."

Because black leaders who openly criticize an activist or a radical run the risk of having their authenticity challenged, they habitually equivocate when they rebuke. In the case of the Nation, even mainstream leaders—people like Dennis Walcott and Calvin Butts—follow any repudiation of hate with a but, as in but I respect the work they're doing with young black males or but look at how they build self-esteem.

So when six-term Brooklyn congressman Major Owens recently denounced Farrakhan emphatically and at length, he opened himself up to attack. "Minister Farrakhan can only fill a void that Major has left open," says Eric Adams, Owens's likely opponent this fall. "Those who feel people shouldn't gravitate toward Farrakhan should realize there wouldn't be a need it Owens and so many of our other leaders in Washington and Albany were actually bringing home the victories to the communities they represent. They're not. There are some congressmen and state senators that actually walk out their door and people are standing in front of their offices selling narcotics.

So blacks are criticizing blacks for criticizing blacks. Paterson, among others, wants it all replaced by united-frontism and civility generally. To this end, he says, black leaders will begin to hold one another to a higher standard of discipline. "Almost in the way it must have been back on the plantations when somebody mouthed off and then everybody got a beating for it—the standard is going to be if you're really trying to help the community and you know these statements set people off, shut up already," Paterson says. "Criticize all you want, but don't do it in a shrill, childish way. And don't ascribe conduct to a whole race of people, because that's exactly what's been done to us."


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