Though I don’t always agree with their tactics, I often find myself playing the contrarian and defending Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to those who have absolutely no tolerance for their brand of racial politics. I still believe Jackson and Sharpton have an important role to play at times, in a nation that still stumbles over issues of justice and diversity; however, today I’m feeling really disappointed in Rev. Sharpton.
By now, you’ve probably heard about Golf Channel broadcaster Kelly Tilghman’s on-air faux pas last week. If you haven’t, here’s a recap. The short story is that Tilghman was bantering with analyst Nick Faldo about what young players could do to challenge Tiger Woods. After Faldo suggested they “gang up” on him, Tilghman playfully added that they “lynch him in a back alley.” Tilghman, who is white, immediately recognized her goof and apologized later in the broadcast (and has since apologized to Woods directly).
Of course in this era of Don Imus and Michael Richards, high-profile gaffes like that do not die easily. The media, social activists, and the blogosphere (yep, we’re guilty too) will always keep them alive way past their shelf life.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe episodes like this one should be used as teachable moments. The word “lynch” is loaded with a lot of ugly meaning (why didn’t she say “beat him up” or “shoot him”?). But I believe the more important point here is that Tilghman apologized, and the Golf Channel ultimately suspended her for two weeks. When she goes back on the air, it will take quite awhile for her to live down her unfortunate choice of words. (I think this commentary offers the best insight on the situation.) But, again, she apologized. And more importantly, Tiger Woods forgave her.
So this is where my frustration kicks in. Despite Tilghman’s public contrition, two-week suspension, and Tiger Wood’s acceptance of her apology, Al Sharpton inserts himself into the drama—and gives ammunition to those critics who accuse him of always playing the race card—by demanding that Tilghman be fired. He remarked:
“This cannot just go with, ‘I apologize, me and Tiger are friends.’ We are in an era now where we see hangman’s nooses all over again. I don’t know why that would pop into her head, but it popped out of her mouth and she should be accountable.”
While I believe it’s right for Rev. Sharpton to remind us of the gravity of this situation and the weighty power of our words, I think he also needs to remember his call as a Christian minister and learn to balance his crusading activism with a spirit of grace and forgiveness. If instead of condemning this woman Rev. Sharpton were to say, “What she said was wrong, and we need to understand why, but we should forgive her and pray that we all learn from her mistake,” imagine the impact that could have on a jaded and cynical culture that lives by a code of tit for tat.