Listening to Al Sharpton rip into Barack Obama this week made me wonder: why is it that African American leaders so often feel compelled to give the back of their hand (to say nothing of the serrated edge of their tongue) to emerging black leaders? Is it jealousy? Ego? An unwillingness to give up power? Or is it some sort of political hazing ritual in which the upperclassmen mercilessly pummel the new pledges before letting them into the fraternity?
It's not that Sharpton didn't make some valid points: no one is suggesting that blacks should automatically support Obama just because he is black; and asking Obama why he backed Joe Lieberman over Ned Lamont or voted for tort reform are legitimate questions. But Sharpton's tone was so aggressively dismissive, you could almost picture him drilling holes in his paddle as he spoke.
"Why shouldn't the black community ask questions? Are we now being told, 'You all just shut up?'" said Sharpton. "I'm not going to be cajoled or intimidated by any candidate." Sharpton also told WCBS that the Obama campaign had reached out to him, but he didn't take the call. Very mature. What's next, putting Obama through a Hell Week where he is forced to do pushups in a puddle of urine or stand naked in the snow guzzling ice cold beer?
Sharpton has also been parroting the lame "Where"s the Beef?" attacks on Obama. "We keep hearing sizzle from the media," he said, "we're not hearing substance." "I want to know from Senator Obama where the meat is," he said on another occasion.
And it's not just Sharpton. Columnist Stanley Crouch also took a few swats at Obama. "When black Americans refer to Obama as 'one of us,'" wrote Crouch, "I do not know what they are talking about. He has not lived the life of a black American."
Ah, yes, the old "he's not black enough" routine. This too seems to be part of the hazing ritual. We saw it in 2002, the first time Corey Booker ran for mayor of Newark, when Jesse Jackson called him "a wolf in sheep's clothing," and his opponent, four-term Newark mayor Sharpe James, called him "a faggot white boy" and said, "You have to learn to be an African-American, and we don't have time to train you." Sharpton also campaigned for the ethically-challenged James instead of the reform-minded Booker.
In 2006, with James out of the running, Sharpton said he had "very warm" feelings for Booker, adding he was "clearly impressed with his growth in the last four years." In Sharpton's eyes Booker had apparently paid his dues and become part of the fraternity.
The membership committee has clearly not decided whether to initiate Obama in '08. Charles Rangel has sided with Hillary. Harold Ford, claiming affinity for both has decided to sit this one out. John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, and many other African American leaders are still uncommitted.
Fair enough. Just as long as their decision isn't based on some arcane ritual in which Obama has to qualify for the brotherhood before the elders teach him the secret handshake.