The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Al Sharpton is not a lifelong fighter for justice

Democrats have rushed to his side this week. But he’s never reckoned with his past anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton was in Baltimore on Monday to defend the city from attacks by President Trump. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE)

President Trump has perfected the art of the undorsement, the ability to get his opponents to beatify whoever and whatever he denigrates. Whether a first-term congresswoman, a quarterback or the city of Baltimore, #resistance to his targeting is futile.

Unfortunately, “the enemy of my enemy is my infallible hero” is a terrible approach to politics, aptly demonstrated this week when Trump turned his sights on the public figures who stepped in to defend Baltimore’s honor. Al Sharpton — who should still be seen as a notorious hate figure but has somehow escaped that fate — practically tripped over himself trying to get Trump’s attention. It worked. “Al is a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score,” Trump tweeted. “Just doing his thing. Must have intimidated Comcast/NBC. Hates Whites & Cops!”

Then ensued one of the more depressing news cycles of the year, as major Democratic presidential candidates praised Sharpton to the heavens.

Sharpton “has spent his life fighting for what’s right and working to improve our nation, even in the face of hate. It’s shameful, yet unsurprising that Trump would continue to attack those who have done so much for our country,” tweeted Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.). Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) insisted that Sharpton “has dedicated his life to the fight for justice for all. No amount of racist tweets from the man in the White House will erase that — and we must not let them divide us. I stand with my friend Al Sharpton in calling out these ongoing attacks on people of color.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio boasted of his decades-long relationship with Sharpton, thanks to which he could attest that “Trump’s characterization is not only disrespectful, it’s untrue.” Then former vice president Joe Biden, that great moderate hope, added his voice to the chorus, calling Sharpton “a champion in the fight for civil rights.”

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

Sharpton is unworthy of such praise, so much so that the decision to back him reflexively is a massive moral demerit. Calling Sharpton a lifelong fighter for “justice” ignores his history of race-baiting and deadly anti-Semitic incitement.

No one loses a debate over anti-Semitism. Except Jews.

In August 1991, after City College professor Leonard Jeffries ranted that “everyone knows rich Jews helped finance the slave trade” and that “Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a financial system of destruction of black people,” Sharpton rushed to his defense, threatening: “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” Days later, a Jewish driver accidentally struck and killed a black 7-year-old named Gavin Cato in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That set off three days of rioting, in the first hours of which a group of African Americans chanting “Kill the Jew” did just that, beating and stabbing an Orthodox Jew named Yankel Rosenbaum, who died of his injuries.

But Sharpton was only warming up. He led crowds in shouting for “justice” — pay attention here, Sen. Warren — as rioters wantonly beat Jews in the streets to chants of “Heil Hitler.” At Cato’s funeral, Sharpton poured out every last drop of gasoline he had left: “Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid. … All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffeeklatsch, no skinnin’ and grinnin’.”

Nor was that an isolated incident. In 1995, Sharpton and his National Action Network colleague Morris Powell agitated against Fred Harari, a Jewish shop owner in Harlem. “We are not going to stand idly by and let a Jewish person come in black Harlem and methodically drive black people out of business up and down 125th Street,” Powell said. Sharpton added: “We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street.” A few months later, a gunman entered the store and set it ablaze, killing seven and then shooting himself. When the shop reopened, Powell was back at it, warning, “Freddy’s not dead.”

Sharpton, meanwhile, is free of shame or apology. “You only repent when you mean it, and I have done nothing wrong,” he insisted years later. In 2011, he wrote a gobsmacking piece of revisionist history for the New York Daily News, claiming his remarks were being manipulated by “extremist Jews,” though he conceded that some of the marchers’ rhetoric “played to the extremists rather than raising the issue of the value of this young man whom we were so concerned about.” Sharpton then pronounced: “It is not enough to be right. We had our marches, and they were all peaceful.” That is, Sharpton doesn’t think he’s getting enough credit for his behavior.

So how did someone with this record become a figure who could be praised unequivocally by leading presidential candidates and no one bats an eye? The answer is, he won a game of chicken. Sharpton’s smartest move was to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. It put his rivals in a bind: Attacking him on his record risked alienating black voters. But ignoring his record would sanitize it by legitimizing his candidacy and rendering future criticism vulnerable to an effective counter: Why didn’t you say it to my face?

Sharpton, much like Trump himself, also made use of the opportunities afforded him by pop culture. During the campaign, in December 2003, Sharpton hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Over the years he appeared as himself in shows such as “Boston Legal,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Girlfriends,” as well as the 2002 Adam Sandler comedy “Mr. Deeds.” In 2011, MSNBC gave him his own show, which he hosts to this day, in addition to his participation in live campaign coverage. During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama leaned on Sharpton to help fend off criticism from other black leaders, and Sharpton visited Obama’s White House more than 100 times. Sharpton helped de Blasio’s mayoral run in 2013 and was rewarded with unprecedented access.

And that’s the most galling part of the mainstreaming of Al Sharpton. He never sought absolution. He simply got away with it.

Why does President Trump keep dragging Jews into his attacks?

So at Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, no one asked Warren about Sharpton’s record or the message she might be sending with such fulsome praise. Nor was South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — who has struck up a very public alliance with Sharpton in an attempt to burnish his standing with black voters — prodded about the hypocrisy on display. Republicans, Buttigieg lectured, “are supporting naked racism in the White House, or at best silent about it. And if you are watching this at home and you are a Republican member of Congress, consider the fact that, when the sun sets on your career and they are writing your story, of all the good and bad things you did in your life, the thing you will be remembered for is whether, in this moment, with this president, you found the courage to stand up to him or you continued to put party over country.”

What would Buttigieg say about his own support of a public figure with a long history of bigotry? We don’t know, because no one thought to ask him at the debate. (I have repeatedly asked his campaign for comment, to no avail.)

We are routinely told that harsh criticism of minority members of Congress amounts to incitement to violence. What of Sharpton, who initially made his career out of explicit incitement to violence? This is no idle concern. “The increase in the number of physical assaults against Orthodox Jews in New York City is a matter of empirical fact,” reports Armin Rosen at Tablet. “Anti-Semitic hate crimes against persons, which describes nearly everything involving physical contact, jumped from 17 in 2017 to 33 in 2018, with the number for the first half of 2019 standing at 19, according to the NYPD’s hate crime unit. … And yet, many believe the attacks are even more widespread than has been reported.” De Blasio claims anti-Semitism is a right-wing phenomenon, but in New York, Rosen writes, “the perpetrators who have been recorded on CCTV cameras are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.”

You can believe that Jewish lives matter, or you can pepper your public career with slavish fan fiction about Al Sharpton. When the sun sets on the careers of this crop of Democrats and their stories are written, what will the record show about the choice they made?