Sharpton, Cornel West and What Real Accountability Would Look Like

A sharp debate on MSNBC brought out issues of class and leadership, but largely missed the point.

By Tammy Johnson May 13, 2011

Although I am a political junkie going way back, I stopped watching talking head shows year ago. I find them to be tedious personality pageants that are short on issues, long on ego. But a recent [tete-a-tete between Al Sharpton and Cornel West]( on MSNBC’s "The Ed Show" made me rethink….a little. Last month, Schultz hosted a two-hour program on "the black agenda." During the discussion, which turned into a shouting match, the two went head-to-head on the progress, or the lack there, for black people during the Obama presidency. To summarize: West says Obama isn’t doing enough and might be coopting Sharpton; Sharpton says blame Congress not the president. The conflict soon brought to the fore issues of class and leadership, with [Sharpton claiming in a NewsOne interview]( a couple of weeks later, >"A lot of blacks in the intellectual circles have a problem with me because of class issues," Sharpton says in the interview. "I was a college dropout with a James Brown hairdo. ‘He cant talk for us!’ I mean all of the arrogance! They want to speak about the proletariat but don’t want a proletarian leader!" Well cry me a river, Al. There are plenty of sisters, queers, young people and hard working ground troops who never get the call from MSNBC because the political elite has not ordained us to speak our truth. We’d be wise to take a lesson from our brothers and sisters in Cairo who declared that they were are all spokespeople for the change that they intended to make. We have to resist that divide and conquer strategy because we need all of our people. We need our academics, our lawyers, our organizers, and brothers in sweat suits with fierce perms and street sense. But when we go all in we have to remember that we are betting against the dealer, and not ourselves. So it was a losing proposition from the jump when Sharpton and West responded to a frame that dictated that they choose opposing sides and defend it to the detriment of their own credibility. This idea, perpetuated by the mainstream media and individuals who benefit from it, that the black community has an anointed group of (male) spokespeople is a bunch of bull. Note to everybody: Black people don’t huddle up in some barbque shack and choose a new black leader every decade or two. Now I’m not one of these people who believe that black folks shouldn’t argue with each other in public. I just believe that we shouldn’t waste our time and cool points measuring our egos in public. I’m all for a good throw-down about holding our leaders accountable and a thorough interrogation of political strategy. A sharp analysis of President Obama’s words verses his action, of the systems that ought to place race front and center in policy making and of the players that either fight to break those systems down or exacerbate them are all worthy topics of both barber shops and cable news. So I appreciated the piece of the exchange between Sharpen and West that challenged each other on whether the president, the Congressional Black Caucus or other lawmakers leaders should be held to task. Yeah, let’s go there! In an interview about the president’s leadership, Sharpton makes the argument that, "We can have people who are a lot more progressive than Barack Obama…but they are not going to be president." So we should look the other way when he agrees to cut to what’s left of public services and the social safety net, when black unemployment continues to climb through the double digits? Hardly. But in this lead up to election-year craziness, President Obama won’t be the only incumbent, cutting deals to appease the independent (white) voter. When it comes to corporate taxation, immigration, housing and banking regulations, many of those so-called progressive champions boosted by West should be called to the mat on their stance on these issues, too. Oh yeah, let’s go there. Let’s talk meaningfully about issues and strategies. How has it been working for us to appease the political middle? Has it worked to not even acknowledge the realities of poverty and race? Will that multiracial base of youth, the political disaffected, and new voters be there for you in 2012, Democrats? What have you done for them lately? Let’s go there. I’m all for a good throw down about what really matters. Just check your ego at the door.