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Al Sharpton, Helen Thomas and Family Ties

 Two news stories this morning reinforced my long-held observation about  the hypocrisy of American diversity.

We espouse the theory that our nation is enriched by the presence of persons with different cultures, ideas and beliefs.   That exposure to and exchange of new perspectives will strengthen all of us with greater compassion, understanding and creativity.   Our humanity will be elevated; our nation greater.

The reality, of course, falls far short of the ideal.   The Rev. Al Sharpton and journalist Helen Thomas are perfect examples.

The Washington Post  this morning profiled The Rev. Al Sharpton—long-time civil rights activist and now host of his own MSNBC program.    Mr.  Sharpton is not a journalist despite his presence on cable television.   For decades as a spiritual leader he has been the voice for African-Americans whose words remain unheard, whose rights are ignored, and whose lives and deaths deserve documentation.

Helen Thomas, who died today at age 92, enjoyed a fabled journalism career.  She was the first woman to enter several journalism venues formerly reserved for her male colleagues.   Ms. Thomas long represented the United Press International (UPI) news service in the front row of White House press conferences–50 years grilling administrations from John Kennedy to Barack Obama.  The Dean of the White House Press corps,  it was she who had the final word at every briefing with “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Al Sharpton is African-American: Helen Thomas was Lebanese-American.  Neither is a stranger to controversy.  But reactions to their views illustrate why America has failed to embrace diversity.  A value applauded by politicians, promoted by schools and universities, but  rejected by large numbers of our residents.

The reason: Family Ties.  Mr. Sharpton can address the African-American experience because of his racial heritage.   His words resonate with fellow blacks because he is family; he has ties to the national black community.   Allegiance to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  affords Mr. Sharpton freedom to criticize persons and institutions whom he believes either have failed to advance the freedom of African-Americans or continue to mock their aspirations.

The George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin verdict is the latest cause Rev. Sharpton has adopted.  He and many African-Americans believe that justice was not served when Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted by an all-white, female jury.

Perhaps that’s true.  But should Mr. Sharpton enjoy the national forum his MSNBC platform provides to pursue his activism?  Some black leaders have dared criticize him for using the trial to “racially divide” America.  But they are few and he retains his visible presence on the cable network.

The distinguished journalism career of Ms. Thomas is unquestioned.  But she fell victim to words she chose three years ago when she said that Jews should “…get the hell out of Jerusalem…They should go home.”

The uproar from the Jewish-American community was swift and harsh.   Within days she was forced to retire from her position as Hearst Syndicate columnist.

What is the difference?   The Rev. Sharpton is black and his Family Ties allow him to both defend and—at times—criticize other African-Americans.  He has immunity from persecution.

Helen Thomas, as Lebanese-American, was viewed by many Jews and their supporters as an outsider—another Arab opposed to Jews, the diaspora, and their dreams of a peaceful religious state in the Middle East.  She did not have Family Ties.  She had no right to comment.   She was forced from her journalism job.

True American diversity would allow all residents to speak candidly on all issues.  But we are not a diverse nation.

Only Gays and Lesbians are permitted to speak about homosexual/same-sex issues–without criticism.

Only Latinos are permitted to speak about Hispanic issues–without criticism.

Only Native-Americans are permitted to speak about Indian issues–without criticism.

Only Asian-Americans are permitted to speak about Indian issues–without criticism.

Only women are permitted to speak about abortion and female rights–without criticism.

Only if you have Family Ties are you allowed to comment on issues of national importance—without criticism.

Until we move beyond this limitation and allow full expression about issues of sex, race, ethnicity and religion,  from all citizens, America will remain a dysfunctional family.

I believe in and support diversity for America.   However, it is a myth.

Steve Coon


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