Would you want to be bedfellows with Al Sharpton? More importantly, do you want your president to be? This is the question that Americans should be asking themselves this week, after President Barack Obama joined the Reverend Al Sharpton last night at the National Action Network’s annual gala.Obama’s reelection bid this week generated less interest than did the parody produced by the Republicans. Now, Obama has chosen to have his first major appearance since the announcement be one shared with the controversial Al Sharpton.
NAN Annual Convention
Obama spoke at the annual convention of the National Action Network, founded by Sharpton last night, saying, among many other things: “The other thing that hasn’t changed is the National Action Network’s commitment to fight injustice and inequality here in New York City and across America. And that’s not only a testament to Reverend Sharpton. It’s a testament to all of you who are here tonight. I want to commend you for the work that you’ve done over the last two decades to lift up not only the African American community but the broader American family. That’s what you’re about.”
The Sharpton Controversy
Sharpton certainly doesn’t illicit much neutral response. His history of controversy makes it a questionable move. In addition to his controversial political views, Sharpton also has a long history of tax disputes, federal investigations and other questionable actions. He first became well known with the Tawan Brawley hoax that slapped him with civil liability.At the same time, Sharpton has managed to become quite popular, and to be seen as a sort of voice for the unheard black population of America. The National Action Network lists 42 chapters around the country and claims to have 200,000 members. Sharpton also has a radio show that reaches 40 cities around the country and he leads a weekly Harlem rally.
Obama is often caught between a rock and a hard place with his support for black causes. While he tries to be the president for all people, he also wants to continue to court the black vote. In a Gallup poll just last week, 84% of blacks approved of Obama’s performance overall. He has to be careful at times, however, of looking like he’s too focused on black interests and black votes. As Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University explains, it’s actually harder for him to reach out to black voters than it would be for a white president “because there’s a narrative that he’s catering to a black constituency.”Certainly, this makes sense. Aligning himself with Sharpton, of all black leaders, however, seems like a sketchy choice at this time. Obama is keeping his promise, however. At Sharpton’s convention in 2007, he vowed that, win or lose, he would return. And indeed, last night he made history as the first sitting president to attend the NAN convention.