Why Cornel West And Rev. Al Sharpton Are Fighting

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I just returned from the Measuring the Movement forum hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton in New York City. The forum was insightful and empowering as it pertains to getting members of African American leadership to see the value of accountability.  NAACP President Ben Jealous gave time to the forum, and even President Barack Obama came through to give a speech.

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In many ways, the convention was arguably the most successful gathering of its kind. I find Sharpton’s approach to action-oriented solutions to be refreshing, and as a person who sat on a panel with both Jealous and Sharpton, it’s a relief to be involved with a forum where the goal is not to simply provide the best sound bite. “Sound bite leadership” in the black community needs to die and be replaced with strong, direct action that recognizes the urgency of our deadly situation.

The day after the forum, I got off an airplane to hear that Rev. Sharpton got into a heated debate over the black agenda with Cornel West. I knew the conversation would be volatile, and I was concerned about the imagery of two black men going to war on MSNBC. Ed Schultz was the host of “A Stronger America: The Black Agenda,” a show that allowed a few voices to air their perspective on what a black agenda should look like in the age of Obama.  Personally, I wonder why such a show was not positioned on a black network, or at least with an African American host.

As I expected, the argument came to a predictable boiling point.  Consistent with the views of his close colleague, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West fought hard to short-circuit the partnership between President Obama and Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton,  a man not known to back down from anyone, defended his positions well and also challenged those who “sit in the ivory tower” and talk without much action (I do not consider Cornel West to be one of those people; he believes what he says and acts on it).

I watched the entire exchange shaking my head, primarily because I knew that such a fight was simply inevitable.  As I wrote on the Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago, the Obama Presidency has created a divide among black public figures that I pray does not cripple our community.  I love both Rev. Sharpton and Cornel West, and it was sad to watch them get into such a personal and nasty fight on national television.

My perception is that Cornel is coming from a genuine place.  I cannot say the same about Tavis Smiley, who seemed to have a problem with Barack Obama’s disrespect toward him during the 2008 presidential election.  West’s statements about the elitism of the Obama Administration (he mentions that Obama would be glad to speak out if a wealthy banker were stopped by police, but not if it were a poor black man) are on point.  He is also correct to note that the administration has been slow to readily acknowledge African American suffering.

In Sharpton’s defense, the truth is that having an African American figure on the inside of the Obama Administration gives our community a better chance to grab the ear of the president.  What’s yet to be determined, however, is whether or not the president is listening to Sharpton’s concerns or giving priority to the issues being faced by other constituencies.  Women’s groups, the gay community and the Latino community have gotten high priority from the Obama Administration, but African Americans remain at the back of the bus when it comes to our primary concerns, including mass incarceration and growing unemployment rates of over 15 percent.  My belief is that Cornel West and Al Sharpton are both witnessing the community’s struggle up close, and Sharpton hopefully serves as a true and passionate surrogate for those who are frozen out of Obama’s big white house.

President Obama has reason to be concerned about losing much of his steadfast African American support.  According to a recent survey conducted at YourBlackWorld.com, 34.4% of black respondents said that President Obama failed to meet their expectations after being elected.  This disappointment may not translate to votes for the Republicans, but it can manifest itself in reduced voter turnout in the African American community.

Another survey at YourBlackWorld.com reveals that nearly two-thirds (62.3%) of black respondents do not see President Obama as a civil rights leader.  Given that Obama is not a civil rights leader, we must be careful not to feel that his presence reduces the significance of true civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others.  This means that we need genuine and empowered advocates within black America who can mobilize the people to put pressure on any administration that is in power so that our rights as Americans can be secured.

In other words, sitting around and hoping that President Obama will look out for our interests is not nearly as effective as pursuing our interests ourselves.  Work must be done on the ground to lay out a black agenda, putting pressure on both Congress and the Obama Administration to see to it that our community is not left behind.  Both West and Sharpton would likely agree with this assertion, and this can begin the quest for common ground.

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