Should Al Sharpton Apologize?

The racial politics of reconciliation in New York

He charged the attacks on him and Carson were nothing more than a smear campaign engineered by Giuliani. (The mayor's office did not return a call for comment.) In an attempt to rescue Dinkins's campaign, Weusi called on about 20 Jewish women, who wrote letters to the media repudiating the attacks on him. Even his old friend Julius Lester failed to sway Weusi's critics. "I've had all kinds of disclaimers, rejoiners, apologies, and still, whenever the media wants to pull this old anti-Semitism bone out of the bag, boom! I get hit over the head with it," Weusi laments.

In 1990, Weusi founded the Unity Party and became its gubernatorial candidate. Because of the continuing controversy his involvement in the Dinkins campaign engendered, some Democratic Party candidates were pressured against running on the Unity Party line.

After reading McAlary's column suggesting that Sharpton would apologize, Weusi predicted that the same troubles he has seen would soon be visited upon Sharpton if he caved in to media pressure. "I don't see anything that Reverend Sharpton has to apologize for," Weusi says. "I think that in his conduct as a civil rights leader he has been very responsible."

Bill Lynch, too, has been studying the Sharpton debacle in the aftermath of the Pagones verdict. "Will an apology heal? Historically, it has shown it doesn't heal anything," declares Lynch. "I'm as frustrated as Al is about what he has to do."

The 1991 riots in Crown Heights, which followed racial incidents throughout the 1980s in other parts of the city, were a major blow to New York's always-explosive race relations. Dinkins was harshly criticized by Jewish groups for failing to take stronger action—criticism that helped destroy his 1993 reelection bid.

In April of this year, Giuliani apologized for his predecessor's alleged lack of action, saying it was Dinkins's fault the city had to pay $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit by Jews who claimed Dinkins failed to protect them during three nights of rioting in which Yankel Rosenbaum, a Hasidic Jew, was fatally stabbed.

"I was in the hospital at the time that they had the settlement," scoffed Lynch, a deputy mayor in the Dinkins administration, who is recuperating from a kidney transplant. "Do I need to tell you how traumatic that apology was for me? Part of my illness was caused by Crown Heights."

Lynch warned that the political enemies of those who sometimes consider themselves "too black, too strong" never forget when they are slighted. He recalls that when Dinkins contemplated making a political comeback in last year's Democratic mayoral primary, his critics dredged up the tragic events in Crown Heights and were prepared to remind voters all over again of Dinkins's association with reputed anti-Semites like Weusi and Carson. "For us, race is politics," he says.

He predicts that Jesse Jackson will suffer the same fate if he decides to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. "Although folks understand his role in the country a little better, the situation hasn't gotten better for him," Lynch declares. "Generally, people feel like they did in 1984 after the Hymietown remark."

For now, Al Sharpton broods in his Garden of Gethsemane. Was it his God or a jury of his peers—which says he must pay for the vicious things he's said about Steven Pagones—that finally brought the reverend to his knees? Should he apologize to Pagones, whom he now acknowledges is "a man with a family, a man who has got to live in a community"? What will happen to Sharpton if he apologizes? What will happen if he doesn't? God knows how much he has struggled with those $395 million questions.

"I am listening to my own conscience," he says. "It is my decision. I have seen what they did to Jesse Jackson and Jitu Weusi, who were counseled into apologizing. The same people who urged them to do it turned around and continued attacking them. Now my critics in the Pagones case are saying, 'Trust me!' Trust you?"

Research assistance: W. Michelle Beckles

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