Recent events from Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island, N.Y., might prompt an observer to infer that American cops are racist and that a bigoted white populace tolerates unnecessary lethal force against minorities.
One might also conclude that America has a hearty appetite for the carnival barker, the jester, the rabble-rouser, the race baiter and, lest we leave anyone out, the performance-activist who pretends to be a newsman while fomenting unrest that only he can quell.
I haven’t yet said Al Sharpton, but if his name came to mind, there must be a reason.
In nearly every high-profile case in recent years that involved a black alleged victim and a white alleged perpetrator, Sharpton has injected himself as arbiter. Where once he was a mere street activist, he is today a disruptive celebrity. He has stepped off the soapbox and into the MSNBC television studio, where he is free to pontificate and to chastise those who don’t fit his template of truth and justice.
This isn’t to say that Sharpton doesn’t have fans or that he hasn’t helped many people. He has. But in too many cases that he designates as racist, he has inarguably contributed to more harm than good. He has evolved into a variation on the Munchausen syndrome by proxy: He creates a problem, then zooms in to save the day.
One can argue that he isn’t really taken seriously, but this isn’t so. Protesters take him seriously. The president of the United States takes him seriously enough to bring him in as an adviser. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio takes him seriously enough to keep him close despite, or perhaps because of, Sharpton’s recent threat to the mayor: “If we’re going to just play spin games, I’ll be your worst enemy.” Well, now.
This was in connection with Sharpton’s push to revolutionize the police department in the wake of the death of Eric Garner, who was asphyxiated after being placed in a police chokehold. Was that cop racist? Hard to say, but it’s not difficult to deduce racism in the subsequent murders of two police officers sitting in their car by a black man who described his act on Instagram as revenge.
Sharpton was a key player in the aftermath of all instances, including the last. You do not get to stir the pot until it boils over and then say, “Hey, whoa, I didn’t say to turn up the heat that much. Simmer down.”
Other cases are numerous.
In 2006, Sharpton took up the cause of exotic dancer Crystal Gail Mangum, who accused three players on the Duke lacrosse team of gang-raping her. Ultimately her claims were found to be baseless.
Even so, this story was immediately assumed to be true, even by the university, because it fit one of our cultural narratives: White males rape black females. Call it the Tawana Brawley Assumption, another one of Sharpton’s gifts.
In 1987, then-15-year-old Brawley, who is African-American, claimed she had been gang-raped by six white men (including an assistant district attorney and a New York state trooper) who scrawled “KKK” across her chest and a racial epithet on her stomach. Sharpton was Brawley’s spokesman and has yet to express contrition for helping perpetuate what turned out to be a hoax, though he was forced to pay $65,000 in damages to the assistant district attorney he falsely accused.
Brawley, who, we remind ourselves, was a child, allegedly made up the story because she feared being beaten by her stepfather for being away for four days. Poor kid. She came up with the best-worst story she could imagine. And Sharpton, with nary a glance at due diligence, ran with it.
To be fair, though the race card may be Sharpton’s ace, the game is also played by whites. Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two young sons by letting her car slip into a lake, initially blamed her children’s disappearance on a black hijacker.
Another hoax, another narrative.
No one doubts that race sometimes plays a role. Perhaps white cops are more fearful around black suspects and react too quickly. Blacks are surely justified in their rage about being stopped and frisked for being black, a law enforcement technique that has ended under de Blasio.
But as we try to ease racial tensions, we might begin by examining our own unconscious biases, which are too easily coaxed to the surface, and apply a more-critical eye to narratives before accepting them as true.
We might also send racist agitators back to the soapbox, where the peddlers of outrage have always belonged.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.