Experts: Holder appearance at Sharpton rally pure politics
- Eric Holder's appearance at the Rev. Al Sharpton's rally widely seen as election-year politics
- Conservatives: Obama using Sharpton to fan racial flames, ensure black voter turnout
- President's coziness with Sharpton ostracizes whites, Vanderbilt professor says
- Syracuse scholar believes Obama relationship "cheapens" Sharpton's civil rights legacy
(CNN) -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to speak at an annual convention of the Rev. Al Sharpton's group, in which Trayvon Martin was a key issue, has been widely panned as a political ploy.
But maybe, just maybe, it's also evidence that the tamer version of the civil rights leader that we've seen in recent years -- the syndicated radio host, the MSNBC personality, the White House adviser -- is enjoying broader legitimacy these days.
"It certainly is a sign of Sharpton's very close relationship with the White House," said Boyce Watkins, a political analyst and Syracuse University economist who often weighs in on race relations. "But to think there isn't a political calculation involved would be a bit naïve."
Holder opened his Wednesday speech at the National Action Network with high praise for Sharpton, thanking him for being a partner and friend and for his "tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill."
He went on to say that he could not discuss the DOJ investigation into the 17-year-old Martin's killing at the hands of neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman but that Justice Department officials were meeting with Martin's family, local police and the Sanford, Florida, community.
He promised a "thorough and independent review" and said, "If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action. And, at every step, the facts and the law will guide us forward."
Conservative websites quickly blasted Holder and questioned how the attorney general could stand next to a man whose long history of civil disobedience and protest includes allegations of defamation and inciting deadly riots.
A checkered past
In a column on The American Spectator website, titled "Holder is a disgrace ... and a very bad man," senior editor Quin Hillyer wrote, "Even I, with my low opinion of Thug-in-General Eric Holder, can't believe he would lavish praise on scofflaw, tax evader, and murderous inciter to violence Al Sharpton in the way Holder did."
A Breitbart.com columnist added of Holder, "Why should he be introduced by Al Sharpton, the man who once incited a race riot in Crown Heights ending in the murder of an Orthodox Jew, the man who pushed the trumped-up Tawana Brawley case, the man who forwarded the false Duke lacrosse rape case, and the man who is currently stirring up trouble in Sanford?"
"He's doing it because that's his job: to pander to extremists like Sharpton. That's why we've heard nothing from the DOJ about the New Black Panthers' bounty -- or even their voter intimidation back in 2008."
Sharpton has refused to apologize for his handling of the 1987 Brawley case, despite being found liable for defamation. He apologized for using racially charged language ahead of the 1991 Crown Heights riots but has denied responsibility for any of the violence. Sharpton's involvement in the Duke case was minimal, but he stood behind the lacrosse players' accuser when she was later discredited. The accused students were vindicated.
The last reference in the Breitbart.com quote refers to the Justice Department's decision to scale back an inquiry into allegations that two members of the New Black Panthers, one wielding a nightstick, had intimidated voters in Philadelphia in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president.
Several conservatives alleged that Holder was again pandering to the New Black Panthers -- which the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed a hate group -- when the Justice Department took no action for a dead-or-alive $10,000 bounty placed on Zimmerman.
Breitbart.com wasn't the only media outlet to claim the Holder appearance was an orchestrated moment in Obama's re-election campaign.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh flatly stated Wednesday, "There is no question that the White House wants this kind of chaos and unrest in the culture. They, for some reason, have determined that it is helpful for Obama's re-election because they believe that they can tie all of this to the existence of Republicans and conservatives, that the racial problems exist because of never-ending racism of the right, never-ending racism of Republicans."
Largely omitted from the conservative commentary were the attorney general's remarks calling for temperance in the case, "for safety and civil rights for all." He also said ordinary people were calling "not just for answers and justice, but also for civility and unity, and for a national discourse that is productive, respectful, and worthy of our both forebears and our children."
Watkins, the Syracuse scholar, said Obama and Sharpton have a symbiotic relationship in terms of lending each other credibility, and though there are times when it appears to be "political quid pro quo between the Obama administration and Al Sharpton," Watkins stands resoundingly behind the fiery civil rights leader when it comes to the Martin case.
Boyce Watkins, Syracus University
"I think anyone who speaks on behalf of the Trayvon Martin family is on the side of good," he said. "Most rational people don't believe George Zimmerman should've been able to kill this young man and escape arrest."
After weeks of protest and outcry, Zimmerman was arrested last week and charged with second-degree murder, 45 days after Martin's death.
When the NAACP chapter in Seminole County distanced itself from Sharpton's calls for peaceful civil disobedience and economic sanctions in Sanford, an Orlando suburb of about 54,000, Watkins wrote that Sharpton was "right on point" and couched the local NAACP reaction as "catering and sucking up to Southern racist traditions."
He continued: " 'I wannabe-a-good-negro-itis' is a disease that is especially prevalent in the South, with an epidemic so pervasive that we should call the Center for Disease Control."
The chapter president of the Seminole County NAACP, Turner Clayton Jr., did not return a voicemail and e-mail seeking comment.
Though Watkins has been critical of Sharpton in the past, he believes the National Action Network founder is rightly using his clout in this case to bring attention to an atrocious situation.
Tawana Brawley -- the then-15-year-old that Sharpton championed before her claim that six white law enforcement officers raped her was discredited -- has nothing to do with the Martin case. It's unfair to even raise the 25-year-old incident, Watkins said.
"I think there are people who will always be critical when one black man stands next to another black man in the name of social justice," Watkins said.
Race v. injustice
Dr. Carol Swain, a race relations expert and Vanderbilt University law and political science professor, said she believes Sharpton and his supporters have manufactured the racial divide over the Martin case. She wasn't surprised to see Holder at Sharpton's rally, she said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week indicated that 44% of all adults felt Martin's killing was unjustified and 51% didn't know enough to form an opinion. Broken down along racial lines, the divide was stark: Only 38% of white respondents called it unjustified, as opposed to 80% of blacks surveyed.
"Americans were not polarized on the basis of race" when the story first broke, Swain said. The case was getting plenty of media coverage, many people felt Zimmerman had misused Florida's Stand Your Ground law and the country was united in its call for more information and an indictment, she said.
"It did not have to become an issue of race. It seemed to be an issue of injustice," she said.
Yet when Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson entered the fray -- with their "1960s approach to our social and political problems" -- black and white America diverged, Swain said.
The Obama administration was all too happy to let it become a racial matter because "Democrats see political gain in keeping blacks riled up," she said, questioning the presence of voter registration booths at some of the rallies in honor of Martin.
The administration is "fanning the flames of racism" to galvanize the black electorate in hopes of a turnout similar to that in 2008, Swain said. Democrats are using Martin as a "diversionary tactic" to distract from the president's failings on unemployment, illegal immigration, HIV/AIDS education and the incidence of unwed mothers -- all of which Swain said have a disproportionate effect on black communities.
It's a delicate moment in American race relations, and the country needs a "uniter in chief, and it's not coming from the president and it's not coming from the president's men," she said.
Standing alongside Sharpton -- as Holder did last week and Obama himself did last year -- ostracizes white people, Swain said, comparing Obama's 2011 National Action Network speech to a past president appearing alongside white nationalist David Duke.
"It's my understanding that Al Sharpton has had an open door to the White House. He's always had a legitimate status with President Obama, but not the rest of us," she said. "When the attorney general stands with a character like that, it legitimizes them inappropriately."
Sharpton fighting "dirty wars"
Watkins disagrees, only because he believes Sharpton has become part of the establishment that is so often accused of keeping black people down.
Sharpton has done commercials for pay-day loans, which have been criticized for targeting low-income communities with high-interest rates and aggressive collection means. He's been a syndicated radio show host. He got his own MSNBC show in August. And now, he has been selected as one of Obama's "attack dogs," Watkins said.
When influential black commentators such as Cornel West or Tavis Smiley blast the president, it's not Obama who responds, Watkins said. It's Sharpton "fighting their dirty wars," he said.
Sharpton told "60 Minutes" last year that he is a "refined agitator" and said he won't criticize Obama because "to minimize who he is, I think, is an insult to the achievement of having him there."
Simply put, Sharpton said he was a changed man, as evidenced by his defense of same-sex marriage and his taking the side of Latinos in the immigration debate -- stands he said would have surprised his followers 20 years ago, he told "60 Minutes."
"I've learned to pick my fights and also to be more strategic about my fight plan," he told the newsmagazine. "Doesn't mean it's not the same fight, but it means I'm a different and I'm a more seasoned fighter."
According to Watkins, you can't say that Sharpton hasn't earned his stripes, that he hasn't dedicated himself to the civil rights struggle for decades, that he isn't uniquely positioned to speak up and bring visibility to cases like that of Trayvon Martin's, but there is an element of speaking truth to power that doesn't jibe with being in the president's pocket.
"This cozy relationship between the Obama administration and Al Sharpton is one that minimizes his credibility as a civil rights leader," Watkins said. "It cheapens his legacy."
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