WHEN IT COMES TO RACE, liberal politics in New York has become a theater of the blind. At the Apollo Theater on Feb. 21, Al Gore and Bill Bradley spoke repeatedly about the Republicans' moral failure to condemn the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina State Capitol. They are, of course, entirely right, even if self-serving on this subject. Who can argue with Mr. Gore's denunciations of "right-wing, Confederate-flag-waving-Republican" racism?
But there is an ugly irony in Mr. Gore's statement about the GOP's inability to see racism even when it is staring them in the face. The Republicans, said Mr. Gore, "looked at that State Capitol in South Carolina … But they didn't see a symbol of prejudice and injustice … They turned their heads and pretended they didn't see." That's precisely what Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley did. They stared at the face of racism right in front of them, the face of the Rev. Al Sharpton, and pretended they didn't see.
You would never know this from the candidates or the extensive press coverage of the Apollo debate, but the famous theater is located diagonally across the street from the site of the racial arson instigated by Mr. Sharpton at Freddy's Fashion Mart five years ago. It took eight lives. The murderous rampage was set in motion when the United House of Prayer, one of the largest black landlords on 125th Street, raised the rent on the Fashion Mart owned by a Jew, Freddy Harari, who then raised the rent on his subtenant, Sikhulu Shange, who ran a record store. Recognizing that the quickest way to gain support in a landlord-tenant dispute is to turn it into a racial issue, Mr. Shange went to Mr. Sharpton's National Action Network, which in turn knew that the quickest way to build a crowd in Harlem is to rouse racial hatreds. Mr. Sharpton and the daily picketers did their job brilliantly. He opened his public campaign against Freddy's on WWRL radio, warning: "We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street."
After two months of rhetorical violence, protester Roland Smith ran into the store with guns blazing and burned it down. When it was over, Smith had killed himself and seven others. Armed with a .38-caliber revolver, he shot three whites and a Pakistani in cold blood—he had mistaken the light-skinned Pakistani for a Jew, and then set the fire that killed five Hispanics, one Guyanese, and one black, a security guard whom the protesters had taunted as a "cracker lover."
I've gone into the horrid details because Mr. Gore and Mr. Bradley might well claim that they knew nothing of the massacre since, Stalinist-style, the story of Freddy's has been largely effaced from the public record. Many of the recent profiles of Mr. Sharpton mention Freddy's either not at all or only in passing.
The memory hole into which Freddy's disappeared fits the pattern of Mr. Sharpton's political career. After each major outrage, Mr. Sharpton draws in the press and some selected rubes, and assures them that this time he's really reformed. The first New Sharpton, complete with fawning profiles in the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, came after the Tawana Brawley hoax.
Then, when a young rabbinical student was murdered by a racist mob in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Mr. Sharpton did his best to stoke the anger. At the funeral for Gavin Cato, the young boy whose death in a traffic accident set off the rampage, Mr. Sharpton eulogized in full Farrakhan mode about Jewish "diamond merchants" and "no compromise."
A New Sharpton emerged when he ran in the Democratic Party Senate primary in 1992. He remained piously above the fray as the real candidates went at each other tooth and claw, emerging with his reputation refurbished.
But in 1993, it was back to business. Mr. Sharpton introduced the Nation of Islam's maximum leader, Louis Farrakhan, at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, saying: "We will stand together. Not in some private midnight meeting … but in the daylight.… Don't ask who don't like it; we love it! Don't ask who's mad, we're glad!" By 1994, the Farrakhan connection was brushed aside and yet another Al Sharpton, Sharpton III, ran a primary campaign against Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Sharpton III told people he was evolving, and promised to make amends. A year later there was the massacre at Freddy's followed by the fourth New Sharpton. Sharpton IV, a candidate for Mayor in 1997 was, for the most part, on his best behavior. But Evan Mandery, a staff member of Ruth Messinger's campaign, reveals in his recent book The Campaign that after Mr. Sharpton lost the Democratic primary to Ms. Messinger, he tried to shake down her campaign in return for an endorsement.
Last summer, after Khallid Abdul Muhammad threatened to kill Bill Perkins, a City Council member of Harlem, Mr. Sharpton, alone among New York's African-American leaders, spoke at the annual hatefest of a man so extreme he had been expelled from the Nation of Islam. Writing in The Observer, Joe Conason expected reasonably enough that "the only likely loser at Khallid's carnival is the Rev. Al Sharpton." But Mr. Conason overestimated the intelligence and integrity of the New York press corps. Mr. Sharpton has moved beyond criticism. His attacks on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have earned him the status of a liberal icon. But when I appeared with City Council member Ronnie Eldridge of the West Side on New York 1, she talked about how Mr. Sharpton was "worried about the little people," and then gushed that she wished she were "as smart and witty as Reverend Sharpton."
In the wake of the Diallo verdict, Mr. Sharpton's relative restraint has produced almost Eldridge-like praise in the press, which is grateful that the city has been spared Mr. Sharpton's wrath. Mr. Sharpton and his enablers count on our remembering the history of racial oppression in America and forgetting Mr. Sharpton's history.
New Yorkers, myself among them, take great pleasure in mocking the credulity of the Tammy Faye Bakker, Jesus-speak and Southern racist Holy Rollers. How, we ask ourselves, can these people be played for suckers time and again? But New Yorkers have to ask the same kind of question of themselves. How is it that Mr. Sharpton has been able to put his con over time and again? It turns out that we are just as susceptible to the appeal of political militance mixed with racial guilt as some Southerners are to white-identity politics in religious guise. In a city where institutional liberalism collapsed under the pyre of the Dinkins Administration, liberals in the press and politics need the gestural radicalism of Mr. Sharpton to maintain their own identity.
If Sharpton V has yet to appear, it's because, having already gotten away with so much, he no longer has a need to feign contrition. The Confederate flag will probably be taken down from the State Capitol in South Carolina by the end of the year. But we in New York, who have already had more New Sharptons than there were New Nixons, will have Mr. Sharpton for a long time to come.
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