The Gaffes of Al Sharpton
His most embarrassing quotes, in context.
Posted Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2003, at 10:49 AM
Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates' biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, worst moments, and flip-flops. This series assesses each candidate's most embarrassing quotes, puts them in context, and explains how the candidate or his supporters defend the comments. Today's subject is Al Sharpton.
Quote: At a funeral on Aug. 26, 1991, Sharpton complained about "the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights," a disparaging reference to the Brooklyn neighborhood's Orthodox Jewish population.
Charge: Many people viewed Sharpton's comment as anti-Semitic. On Oct. 3, 1991, a liberal Orthodox rabbi wrote a column in the Jewish Advocate titled "Why Anti-Semitism Lingers in the African-American Community." The rabbi called Sharpton an "agitator" and urged the black community to repudiate "its extremists."
Context: Sharpton delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Gavin Cato, a black boy from Crown Heights who was killed when a car in a Hasidic rabbi's motorcade accidentally veered off the road and hit him. In retaliation, a gang of black youths stabbed a rabbinical student to death, and black-Jewish tensions ran high. Sharpton said of Cato's death: "The world will tell us he was killed by accident. Yes, it was a social accident. ... It's an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights. ... Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. The issue is not anti-Semitism; the issue is apartheid. ... All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise, no meetings, no kaffe klatsch, no skinnin' and grinnin'. Pay for your deeds."
Defense: On June 11, 1992, after the Anti-Defamation League accused Sharpton of helping to incite anti-Semitism in the Crown Heights conflict, Sharpton scoffed, "You don't even have a direct quote from me that anyone can call anti-Semitic." Sharpton has also reminded people that he never participated in the looting and riots that followed Cato's death. In a June 29, 2003, Washington Post article, however, Sharpton took a more apologetic stance: When questioned about his past abrasive comments (which included calling blacks who disagreed with him "yellow niggers"), he said, "I've grown … I'm not as brash. There are ways I look at life now that I would not have when I was a younger man from the ghetto."
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Avi Zenilman is a former Slate intern.
Photograph of Al Sharpton by Ellen Ozier/Reuters.