Dr. Boyce WatkinsProfessor, Syracuse University
My heart sank as I watched Cornel West and Rev. Al Sharpton going at it on MSNBC's special, A Stronger America: The Black Agenda. Even host Ed Schultz had to shut down the bickering like a referee at an MMA fight that had gotten out of control. Neither West nor Sharpton is the type to back down from their beliefs, and both were insistent upon making their points.
The focal point of the argument was none other than President Barack Obama. West and his allies seem to feel that President Obama has left the black community at the doorstep of equality, while Rev. Sharpton is adamant in supporting the president's bid for reelection. Both men make valid points, for neither of their views can be readily dismissed.
Professor West seems to be hoping for a better America. That would be a country where African Americans don't simply vote for Democratic presidential candidates solely because they are not as bad as the Republicans. He hopes for a country where the suffering of black people does not continue to be ignored by those we've supported with our hearts and souls. Black men are incarcerated more in the United States today than during the height of apartheid in South Africa, our unemployment rates have regularly exceeded 15 percent, and our underfunded schools are sending kids into the world without the ability to compete. West is right to vent his frustration.
Rev. Sharpton appears to be working as a political pragmatist. He fully understands that not taking a stand for President Obama in the next election means that the Republicans are going to take over. He also reminds black Americans that President Obama can't do everything on his own. On the other hand, Sharpton's alliance with President Obama makes some critics wonder if the relationship benefits the entire black community or just Sharpton and Obama.
Clearly, having access to the White House can be a very good thing for the black community. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held the ear of President John F. Kennedy, who probably cared less for the black community than President Obama. All the while, outside agitators like Cornel West are incredibly important when it comes to keeping all parties honest in their relationships. Knowing that Cornel West and others stand watching at all times reminds both Sharpton and Obama that the community is analyzing the relationship to see if it actually bears fruit. President Obama is quickly learning that the black community is not satisfied with public appearances and Motown celebrations. More and more black folks are seeking a clear return on their political investment.
When it's all said and done, the fierce debate between Sharpton and West, while disturbing, actually provides a healthy check and balance for African American leadership. The pressure that men like Cornel West put on Sharpton and Obama may likely heighten their desire to engage in public activities that are designed to prove West and other critics to be wrong. Having the United States Justice Department deal with the mass incarceration of black men might be a great place to start, for any form of courageous political action on the part of the Obama Administration might go a long way to bolster the support of those who've become disgruntled by the Obama Presidency.
As Rev. Sharpton reminds me during our frequent conversations, black leaders have never been in lockstep on every single issue. Martin Luther King fought with Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey fought with W.E.B. Du Bois. Cornel West's public battle with Al Sharpton is nothing more than a continuation of a relatively healthy tradition, but we must be sure to take the energy from this debate and translate it into productive activity. The only thing that matters is the plight of the people and black leaders must keep this in mind.
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