Even as the Rev. Al Sharpton is being touted as the Obama Administration’s latest—and increasingly connected—ally on race relations, some are wondering if his presence on the scene of the Arizona immigration debate is hurting more than helping as heated battle lines over the state’s tough new law are drawn everywhere from Facebook to talk radio to state legislatures.
Sharpton, the polarizing and longtime civil rights advocate who has protested and called for boycotts in Arizona, has undergone what some have described as a public image transformation in recent years, shedding weight and urban attire for a more polished and suited look as he seeks to broaden his coalition beyond the work of his much scrutinized National Action Network. (NAN).
While in the past he has been castigated as a race-baiter, in recent months he has also appeared regularly on Fox News and alongside high-profile intellectual and conservative Newt Gingrich on issues like education reform, meeting with the President at the White House as Obama embraces him as an insider and looks for ways to re-energize those very coalition groups that brought him to power.
Jeremy Mayer, a professor at George Mason University who studies politics and race, says Sharpton has surprised him with what he describes as “an astonishing rehabilitation,” which he compares to straight out of the Jesse Jackson playbook, circa 1988.
“Sharpton is trying to expand his support base or his array of issues beyond merely the black community. That’s what Jesse Jackson did. He reached out to Hispanics much more, to Jewish liberals and the unions and went to all white places and got a lot of support. I think Sharpton is trying to do the same thing.”
But to what end? He has unsuccessfully run for Congress and also President but thus far has never entered the political fray.
“Al Sharpton has never been shy about injecting himself into tense political situations, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s putting himself out there,” Mayer said. “He’s always been accused of being an ambulance chaser. Whenever there is human suffering and a tense situation, he’s always there. It used to be in New York, wherever there was a racial confrontation, he’d show up. That was the charge with Tawana Brawley. His answer is ‘I go to where the trouble is, wherever I am needed.’ Now, in Arizona, this a very confrontational immigration law. By going there, he’s playing on a much larger scale.”
Critics of Mr. Sharpton assail his public alignment with Obama and the media’s seemingly fawning ability to forget about Sharpton’s flame-throwing and flamboyant past. They remind that the 1987 Brawley matter turned out to be a hoax, that Sharpton was successfully sued for libel by prosecutor Steven Pagones over the hoax, and they revisit other issues like his comments during the famed Central Park jogger case and his incendiary “white interloper” remarks that fueled racial discord after at 1995 fire at the Harlem store Freddy’s Fashion Mart.
Those and other polarizing racial episodes earned him a label as an attention seeker who would show up at the opening of an envelope if the thought it put him in the spotlight, his celebrity often outpacing legitimate civil right concerns.
Now, Mr. Sharpton, thinner and minus the funky track suits and gold medallions that screamed more “hood” than passionate freedom fighter, defends his actions in Arizona after the governor there signed a get-tough on illegal immigrants bill as an extension of his human rights and social justice agenda.
Speaking on the Glenn Beck show on Fox News, Sharpton described his outrage over the immigration law as bigger than simply the state of Arizona: “It’s our moral obligation to stand against this profiling in Arizona, just as we stood against it in New Jersey. Make no mistake about it. This is not a fight between minorities. This is a fight for justice and fairness for everyone.”
Beck quickly responded, echoing the views of others. Sharpton “knows full well that the vast majority of African-Americans are passionately against illegal immigration.”
Indeed, Mayer said of the Democratic coalition, “African Americans are among the least supportive of amnesty on immigration. So Sharpton is situating himself between two camps as a bridge, a diplomat if you will, and trying to get the black-brown coalition in action and healthy.”
Whether he is successful in turning back the law by legal challenge, which he and others are threatening, Sharpton faces his own dilemma as reports of tax issues weigh heavy at his nonprofit. As critics question where his organization gets its money and how, the Daily Caller reported in March that that Sharpton’s NAN owes federal taxes of more than $1.5 million and New York state taxes of more than $108,000. A NAN spokeswoman told the Caller that those issues were being resolved.