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.”