Rev. Al Sharpton called on the U.S. government to enact race-based policies that foster equity during a speech delivered to a packed crowd Tuesday night in the Law School Auditorium.
In a keynote address for a Yale Political Union debate, Sharpton — a minister, political activist and former presidential candidate — said lawmakers must seek to remedy past racial injustice by passing legislation to bring blacks to a “level playing field” with whites. While some students at the event, which was co-sponsored by the YPU, the Yale College Council and the Black Students Alliance at Yale, said they thought Sharpton used his oratorical skill to gloss over holes in his argument, others said they agreed with Sharpton’s advocacy of race-conscious public policy.
Sharpton, who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, said inequality and tensions between white and black Americans remain a major issue today because of the nation’s history of slavery. He said the government must actively pursue race-based legislation because the government has been historically responsible for instituting racial segregation and other forms of oppression.
“If we understand that it was government who instituted, executed and enforced this, then how do we say that government has no role in correcting what government did?” he said. “You need government, race-conscious, close-the-gap action until equality is established.”
During his speech, Sharpton challenged the claim that government does not need to address the racial divide because the socioeconomic status of blacks has improved greatly over the last half-century. He said lawmakers must continue to enforce policies such as affirmative action because satisfactory change has not taken place.
“The goal isn’t to have a better ‘bad situation,’” he said. “The goal is to have a fair and equal situation.”
YPU Director of Campus Relations Sophie Brill ’07 said she thought Sharpton displayed more clarity and humor than past keynote speakers.
“He said a lot of things that you could have predicted he would say,” she said. “But he was better than other speakers in making a coherent argument.”
Sharpton said in an interview with the News after the debate that he hopes students listened attentively to what he had to say and form their own opinions about reaching racial equality. It is important for them to hear from individuals at the forefront of political debates, he said.
“I think that students need to know what people directly involved in these issues see every day rather than always learning from some removed academic,” he said. “This is a debate that is still raging, and I am on the front line.”
BSAY Co-coordinator Christina White ’07 said she hopes the debate will help open dialogue on color-blind policies on campus.
“This is a radical issue that will affect people in a real way,” she said. “I hope that people will come away from it at least having thought about the issues.”
Regardless of whether they agreed with what Sharpton had to say, many students said they were impressed by his wit and eloquence at the podium.
Steven Kryger ’10, who said he agreed with Sharpton’s message, said Sharpton’s delivery enhanced the persuasiveness of his speech.
“He definitely convinced the audience that what the government had done in the past created a negative that we need affirmative action to correct,” he said. “He knows how to work an audience.”
But other students said Sharpton’s intimidating oratory distracted from the flaws in his argument.
“Sharpton is very good at making himself seem eminently reasonable and totally covering over the blatantly contradictory or questionable things that are also part of his position,” Shaina Wright ’10 said.
The debate marked the first collaboration between the three groups — the YPU, the YCC and BSAY — in recent history.
YCC president Emery Choi ’07, who delivered a brief speech before Sharpton’s address, said the event was notable for its cooperative effort.
“It’s awesome that groups are helping each other put on an event that draws a lot of interested students,” he said.
Sharpton has not spoken to a Yale audience since the spring of 2002, when he delivered a speech sponsored by the Yale College Student Union on “The State of Racial Equality in this Country.”