The two demographic groups I feel the most sorry for when it comes to politics are blacks and Christians. African Americans and Christians have no worthy representatives to speak for them, only conmen and extremists. On the Christian side this sad reality is personified by men like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, who spout homophobic bigotry and small-minded religion in the name of family values. For proof of the sorrowful state of black political leadership, look no further than the two men leading the charge against radio host Don Imus: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Imus, as the entire country knows by now, committed a king-sized faux pas on his show last week by referring to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “some nappy headed hos.” Imus, a man well acquainted with off-color, racially insensitive humor, but also a man who is clearly not a racist, has apologized repeatedly for his statement and been suspended for two weeks from his radio gig, neither of which seems sufficient penance for Jackson or Sharpton. They’ve both called for Imus to lose his job.
As I wrote in a previous article, I understand why Jackson and Sharpton are upset. Racism is still in many ways the elephant in the living room, and hearing black female athletes referred to as “nappy headed” is going to be upsetting for some people. What still boggles my mind is how wildly disproportionate the outrage is to the act. Imus said something he shouldn’t have said, he made a racist joke. He admitted it. He said he was sorry. Why is that not good enough for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? And who are those two to ask for an apology in the first place?
I’ll start with Sharpton, since I mostly like the guy. He’s a blowhard and a whore for publicity, and as a self-promoter gives Bill O’Reilly a serious run, but he’s also done a lot of good and is right on a lot of issues. Sharpton led the public protests against the wrongful death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of New York police officers in 1999, and went to jail protesting the U.S. Navy’s use of Vieques, Puerto Rico as target practice in 2001. He’s also an important voice in the gay rights movement, supporting gay equality and discouraging homophobia within the Christian church. When he ran for president in 2004 he was often the most eloquent and intelligent participant in the Democratic primary debates.
But as right as Sharpton is on many issues, he’s also good at letting his heart-and his mouth-get in front of his head. His involvement in the Tawana Brawley rape case is the foremost example. In 1987 Brawley, then 15, was found smeared with dog feces in a garbage bag after going missing four days earlier. She claimed she had been abducted and raped by four white cops. Sharpton stepped up immediately to support Brawley, and even went so far as to accuse the white prosecutor of the case, Steven Pagones, of being one of Brawley’s rapists. Pagones successfully sued Sharpton and two others for $395 million for defamation of character.
“They hurt race relations,” Pagones said of Sharpton and the other two men named in his lawsuit. “We have enough problems in society. We don’t need people like [C. Vernon] Mason and 
Sharpton was also accused of anti-Semitism, and of inciting a riot in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn that resulted in the stabbing death of a 29-year-old man from Australia studying to be a Talmudic scholar. He denied the accusations, even sued the Republican National Committee for making them, but nevertheless made anti-Semitic comments while speaking at the funeral of Gavin Cato, the young man whose accidental death initially sparked the riots.
The mistakes and missteps of Sharpton are dwarfed by the peccadilloes of his ally in the Imus crusade. Jesse Jackson is not only more of a hypocrite than Sharpton, he also lacks Sharpton’s peculiar likeability. If Sharpton’s demand for the head of Imus is questionable, Jackson’s is downright laughable.
In 1973 Jackson criticized the eminently criticizable then-President Richard Nixon by claiming that “four out of five [of Nixon’s top advisors] are German Jews and their priorities are on Europe and Asia,” and that this accounted for Nixon’s perceived indifference to the poor. He also once claimed to be “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust.” In 1979 Jackson claimed to have “seen very few Jewish reporters that have the capacity to be objective about Arab affairs.” Five years later Jackson ran for President of the United States.
During his 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Jackson was interviewed by Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman. During the interview Jackson referred to Jews as “Hymies,” and to New York City as “Hymietown.” He eventually apologized for the remarks in a speech at a New Hampshire synagogue, but not before first trying to get out from under the issue by denying he ever said anything.
In 1999 Jackson, who has been married since 1963, had an affair with an employee of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition that resulted in the birth of a daughter. In 2001 the organization released documents that revealed $36,000 of PUSH Coalition funds had been used to pay for moving expenses and “consulting services” for Jackson’s mistress.
The demands by Sharpton and Jackson that Don Imus be fired for his tasteless joke are hypocritical and unfair. Not only does the punishment they demand not fit the crime, but both men-especially Jackson-have committed far more serious gaffes in the past. Jackson especially has a history of racist rhetoric that far exceeds anything Imus has said. Jackson has apologized for his remarks and for the most part been forgiven, yet he and Sharpton continue to withhold forgiveness from Don Imus, claiming that to forgive and forget after a racist joke sets a dangerous precedent. What is the difference between what Imus said last week and what Jesse Jackson said to Milton Coleman in 1984? Is one worse than the other? Is there some reason why Jesse Jackson deserved to be forgiven for his racial insensitivity but Don Imus must be made to suffer for his?
Imus may have started all this with a poor attempt at humor, but the real joke since has been the gratuitous indignation expressed by Sharpton and Jackson. With no one but these two speaking for African Americans for the last thirty years, is it any wonder so many people are excited by the candidacy of the fresh and articulate Barack Obama? Sharpton and Jackson as the de facto leaders of black American politics are the saddest joke of all.
 “Winner in Brawley suit says victory is bittersweet,” CNN.com, 7/13/1998
 “The skeletons and suits in Sharpton’s closet,” Salon.com, 6/20/2003
 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Salon.com, 8/17/2000
 “Jessie Jackson’s ‘Hymietown’ Remark – 1984,” Washingtonpost.com, 1998