Rule of thumb: He who is first to call for a “national conversation” is least interested in having a real conversation. When it comes to the “national conversation on race,” The Rev. Al Sharpton exemplifies the rule. First to jump to the mic in the wake of any racial news narrative—true, false, or downright defamatory—and quickest to use the mic to denounce anyone who dares say anything that differs from his line.
So, when Bill O’Reilly used a segment of his show to opine on problems facing the black community and accused Sharpton of exacerbating them, it was entirely predictable Sharpton would come back accusing O’Reilly of engaging in “Willie Horton stuff.” To be fair, Sharpton’s engagement with O’Reilly’s ideas was an intellectual step up from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes’, who just declared all of it “super-racist.”
But no one realistically thought Bill and Al were going to have the leading calm discussion of the country’s racial climate, since they both started out on a pretty accusatory foot. The most productive conversations usually happen, as the president noted, without large political rallies and TV crowds watching. But every now and then, you get a surprise. CNN’s Don Lemon, who cannot be accused of the “sudden concern” problem Sharpton hangs on O’Reilly, did his own monologue declaring, “O’Reilly’s got a point.”
Lemon doesn’t have to agree with every word O’Reilly said or the way he said it, but he recognizes that a bit of grace is necessary if you sincerely want to allow different voices, which is part of how conversations work. It was all the more surprising coming from Lemon just days after he seemed to disqualify guest Ben Ferguson from a conversation on race due to his “white privilege.”
Lemon was not offered any grace for the sin of engaging with ideas that diverged from liberal conventional wisdom. He’s been described as a “turncoat mofo,” an “angry white man who happens to be black,” and a “slave”— all language more mean-spirited and racially offensive than any O’Reilly used in his original Talking Points.
It’s ironic that the conversation-mongers who attacked Lemon seem incapable of recognizing that a decent discussion comes from unexpected interactions like Lemon’s and O’Reilly’s. They don’t have to agree on politics or on every issue. All they have to do is not use the moment to declare each other irredeemable racists or traitorous Uncle Toms.
If you blind yourself to the possibility of these moments, as Sharpton and others have done, and malign those who can have them you prevent the progress you claim to seek.
Sharpton himself actively ignores possible allies on issues the black community cares about if they come from the other side. On his show this week, while yelling at O’Reilly, he accused the entire “right wing” of ignoring issues of racial disparity in the justice system, particularly in the drug war. While making this argument, he tidily edited me out of his clips and references even though I argued with O’Reilly about mandatory minimum drug sentencing during the very segment he was ranting about. I have addressed the issue of racial disparity in marijuana arrests and lack of accountability for law enforcement in no fewer than three conversations on “The O’Reilly Factor” about the Trayvon Martin case, noting that while I thought the verdict was correct, I understand the source of emotions on this issue within the black community. We had a shouting match on the subject of mandatory minimum sentencing long before the Martin case, so I’m no Johnny Come Lately to the issue, but Sharpton airbrushes my views away because they don’t help his narrative.
But these kind of alliances are where progress is made, if Sharpton cared to look. (Update: A reader reminds me of the unlikely pairing of Newt Gingrich and Sharpton on education in 2009, so he at times has recognized the value of such an alliance. He backs charter schools but not vouchers. Another example is his trip to Sylvia’s in Harlem with Bill O’Reilly, which was a great chance at honest cultural exchange. But this week, he took O’Reilly’s comments about that lunch out of context to destroy anything gained on that outing. In the wake of Zimmerman, the desire for a conservative caricature has overridden any desire for conversation.)
The Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, passed in 2009, was a collaboration of Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Pat Leahy and Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions. It closed the gap in federal sentencing between cocaine powder and crack, which had the effect of disproportionately earning black offenders much longer sentences than white offenders.
The fight against drug war mandatory minimums is a collaboration of Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Leahy.
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, which gives 1,700 low-income black and Hispanic students in Washington, D.C. the chance at a better education, was saved in the face of opposition from unions, Senate Democrats and the White House by an unlikely team of Republican Senators, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
My friend Kirsten Powers wrote this week on her skepticism about some of the concern conservatives have evinced in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict about black-on-black crime in the country’s urban centers, pegging it as political posturing instead of genuine concern.
Conservatives also seem to have taken the Trayvon Martin case as an opportunity to try to position themselves as the only ones who care about “black on black” violence—their new obsession—and accuse Obama of disregarding it.
The criticism is not entirely unfair. Any situation as politicized as the Zimmerman trial will bring out political attacks disguised as concern on both sides, and it’s true that prominent conservatives don’t speak terribly often about concerns in the black community. Some of that is disinterest or misunderstanding, and some of it is that conservatives are petrified of the kind of backlash O’Reilly faced.
But the other side of the coin is, Sharpton and his allies must recognize when conservatives do work on issues of importance to the black community. If they ignore every good-faith effort to address mandatory minimums and deplorable education, then it’s easy to make every comment in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict look politically opportunistic.
Which brings me back to O’Reilly’s original point about Sharpton and the conversation-mongers. It’s almost as if Sharpton isn’t looking for allies to solve problems because the problems are much more profitable than solutions.