The article incorrectly said that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson won five primaries during his 1988 Democratic presidential bid. He came in first in primaries and caucuses in 13 states and territories.
WHO ASKED HIM?
The Irrelevant Rev. Sharpton
When the news broke last week that the rapper Nas intended to use a racial epithet as the title of his next album, it was no shock that a television reporter immediately thrust a microphone toward the Rev. Al Sharpton for a response.[an error occurred while processing this directive]
People who use the N-word in their music "wouldn't put out a record against whites or cops or Jews because they ain't got the guts to do that," the longtime activist declaimed, warming up for the killer sound bite. "They only got the guts to beat up on their own."
Toss another one onto the pile of headlines. It has been a banner year for Sharpton. Whether he's mixing it up with Don Imus, harassing Sen. Barack Obama, raising a ruckus over legal discrimination in Jena, La., or urging a boycott of the New York Knicks because of how they treated a female employee, Sharpton seems to make news every time he opens his mouth.
His presidential run in 2004 landed him far afield of the White House, but it succeeded in perhaps its only real aim: convincing the national media that in all things black, Sharpton is a one-stop shop. Journalists thus follow the good reverend's every move as though galaxies hang in the balance. At night, he routinely accrues even more face time, matching wits with the squawking chickens of cable news.
So potent is Sharpton's visage that in its recent puff piece on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, "60 Minutes" needed only to unveil decade-old footage of Sharpton to show the vast numbers of blacks who opposed Thomas's nomination. Some black intellectuals cried foul, arguing that the news magazine used a wild-eyed Sharpton to trivialize legitimate criticism. But the black pundits are missing the point. To much of white America, and much more of the white media, Sharpton isn't a front man for black America. He is black America.
It should be said that Sharpton has the support of some African Americans. Even those of us who question his methods are happy to see someone take an aggressive stand against white racism. In an April poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, almost half of black Americans said they had a positive opinion of Sharpton.
But Sharpton's overstatements and overexposure have rendered him a divisive figure in the black community. The remaining half of blacks polled either had no opinion, a negative opinion or didn't know who he was.
Still, once upon a time, to qualify for the title of "black leader," you had to actually lead and, more important, have a following. Harriet Tubman was the paragon: Black people quite literally followed her out of slavery. W.E.B. Du Bois helped create the NAACP, then godfathered the Harlem Renaissance. More than any single figure, Malcolm X arguably rebuilt black America's collective self-esteem, eliminating "brown bag tests" (the color caste system among blacks) and making the rest of the world safe for dreadlocks.
In more modern times, black leaders could point to real events to show their worthiness. Louis Farrakhan resurrected the Nation of Islam as a mass movement and reached his zenith in 1995 at the Million Man March. During his presidential run in 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson won five primaries in which almost all blacks voted for him, an accomplishment that Obama may find hard to repeat. More important, the momentum from Jackson's bid helped New York elect its first black mayor and Virginia its first black governor.
Sharpton's resume isn't even in the same pile. His list of misses includes backing Tawana Brawley's fraudulent accusations of rape and his shilling on TV for predatory lenders. His 2004 campaign was a farcical remix of Jackson's. According to published reports, Sharpton's campaign was backed by Roger Stone, a controversial Republican political operative.
And when the votes were counted, Sharpton came up lame. In South Carolina, where African Americans made up almost half of the Democratic primary electorate, he not only lost overall but lost among blacks. He finished third among his alleged followers, outdone by Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards.
Any other public figure with such a comic resume and dubious traction among his constituency would find himself swiftly jettisoned from the Rolodex of reporters and network anchors. But Sharpton endures. He is black America's first virtual leader, a product of a collective longing for the romance of the 1960s and an inability to cope with the complexities of 21st century African Americans.
National Public Radio recently held a discussion titled, "Who's in Charge of Today's Civil Rights Activism?" The host asked, "If there was an 'American Idol' for civil rights leader, who would be the winner?" The panelists intelligently declined to answer, but in the question we have the seeds of Sharpton's ubiquity. The implicit idea is that there is always one person through whom the goals and aspirations of black people can be channeled.
This was always fiction. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was more representative of Birmingham than of Detroit. Indeed, the one thing that King and Sharpton share is the use of media and spectacle to advance their ends. For King, it was the very real sight of Southern cops siccing dogs on peaceful marchers. But King's moral appeal became so great that he ultimately became larger than the movement he led. In the nostalgia of hindsight, he has become a messiah. And he left behind the impulse to look for another towering figure to helm black America.
This "black Jesus" paradigm has become even more useful in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. It allows a struggle -- indeed, millions of people -- to be boiled down to a single, preferably colorful, person. The problem is that the past 30 years have seen the rise of a generation of African Americans with unparalleled opportunities. From their ranks have sprung leaders in nearly every field. If there is a message in the Obama candidacy, it's that being president of black America is irrelevant in an age when you could take the whole thing.
But the many competing and cooperating strains of black activism are impossible to capture in a sound bite or a five-minute "Crossfire" segment. Thus Sharpton is invoked as shorthand, as a way to avoid the time it takes to show complexity, nuance and humanity.
There's another reason why the media have elected the reverend president of black America. For cable networks, Sharpton is the gift that keeps on giving. He provides an easily disposable villain, a simple out for his most loyal constituency: white racists. For those who already doubted the humanity of black folks, who believe that we spend our days counting the ways white people owe us, who think we chant "Reparations now!" at least once every seven minutes, the bombastic Sharpton is a perfect confirmation.
Sharpton ceded the high ground long ago. When he becomes the face of often legitimate racial injustices, his critics are then free to snort, "Yeah, but it's Al Sharpton." Sure, that's unfair to the cause. But the reverend is no victim. Largely lacking mass traction with black America outside of New York, Sharpton needs the media to keep up the illusion of his relevance. The pact is simple: He gets a platform, and the media get great television.
A few weeks ago, when Fox News's Bill O'Reilly ventured to Harlem and discovered that black people, like other sentient beings, consume solid food and inhale oxygen, it was no shock that Sharpton was his guide. In describing the encounter, O'Reilly asserted that African Americans were moving away from "the Sharptons and the Jacksons, people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They're just trying to figure it out. 'Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it.' "
This is America's racial rift transformed into a reality show -- a place where Sharpton can cross swords with O'Reilly one day and take him out for fried chicken the next. O'Reilly was, of course, widely criticized for his dim comments. In his defense, he summoned the very man whom he claimed African Americans weren't listening to: Sharpton.
Memo to everyone everywhere: Al Sharpton isn't a black leader, he just plays one on TV.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer based in New York.