Ta-Nehisi Coates:

This “black Jesus” paradigm has become even more useful in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. It allows a struggle — indeed, millions of people — to be boiled down to a single, preferably colorful, person. The problem is that the past 30 years have seen the rise of a generation of African Americans with unparalleled opportunities. From their ranks have sprung leaders in nearly every field. If there is a message in the Obama candidacy, it’s that being president of black America is irrelevant in an age when you could take the whole thing.

But the many competing and cooperating strains of black activism are impossible to capture in a sound bite or a five-minute “Crossfire” segment. Thus Sharpton is invoked as shorthand, as a way to avoid the time it takes to show complexity, nuance and humanity.

Charles King of NAN:

As Coates acknowledges, Sharpton is having a “banner year,” as even the poll he cited proves — a 50 percent approval rating is testament to his leadership. Even so, opinion polls are not a true measure of leadership. Great leaders do not always take the most popular positions. Think of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. Neither Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (the one black leader Coates gave short shrift to ) nor Malcolm X, for example, enjoyed widespread popularity within the black community until after they were tragically taken away from us. Same with Lincoln or Churchill.

In Coates’ last, desperate attempt to mislead the Post readers on Sharpton’s relevance, he examines his activities in the electoral arena, focusing on a subset of primaries in the 2004 presidential campaign. Coates claims that his run left him “far afield” of the White House — neglecting to mention that Sharpton won every black district in the District of Columbia, for example, as well as the city of Detroit.

Defining black leadership by presidential primary victories misses the point of Sharpton’s critical contribution to that presidential campaign — and his role as a national black leader. More African-Americans were attuned to the presidential campaign because Sharpton was a candidate. Like Shirley Chisolm and Jesse Jackson before him, Sharpton raised issues that no other presidential candidate would raise. He kept John Kerry and others honest when discussing how well this country was doing in protecting civil rights.

Polls show that Sharpton would likely do well if he were to run for office in New York City. However, that is not how he views role as a civil rights leader. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Sharpton believes that he needs to be free to fight against injustice no matter where that fight takes him. He has been outspoken against friend and foe alike when they have been on the wrong side of justice issues.

They’re both right, although who can doubt that Coates is the better writer? Sharpton’s presence is a result of the laziness of the media in approaching black perspectives, but that also makes him relevant. It just doesn’t necesarilly make him representative. After disliking him for so long, I grew to appreciate his presence once I realized that he could draw attention to an issue that would otherwise go completely ignored.

The issue isn’t Sharpton. The issue is a racist media that thinks it can get everything it needs to know about black people from one person.

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