Thanks to the Civil Rights struggle of the last century, Americans now possess a healthy revulsion for racists and racism. This is the way America ought to be — a place where those who disdain or devalue others based on their ancestry are shamed and shunned.

But an unfortunate by-product of this positive development is been that a few entrepreneurial charlatans have managed to monetize this revulsion and build from it something that resembles an extortion racket. Nice business you have there — if you care about it, you're going to need to pay someone for protection.

An accusation of racist motives, racism or racial insensitivity against a company is nearly impossible to prove false, even if it is unfounded. Thus, in sufficiently unscrupulous hands, such an accusation can today be as powerful a weapon as any threat of physical violence. And as the New York Post reports this week, the Rev. Al Sharpton (whose influence now extends all the way to the White House) has been wielding that weapon even more deftly than most people knew.

In past times, Sharpton cried racism, and companies simply paid to shut him up. In 2006, Sunday's Post article recounts, he threatened to call a boycott against General Motors after it closed a black-owned dealership in the Bronx, and suddenly the company started giving to his National Action Network. Both Sharpton and his organization reaped the benefits of threats leveled against Honda and Pepsi for lacking diversity in their management and advertising. The problem went away for Honda when it started sponsoring Sharpton's events; for Pepsi when it hired Sharpton to a paid “advisory” position that lasted a decade.

That's the way things were, but the Post's new story reveals how, once such a racket is in place, the transactions can become both larger and quieter. The Post details a half-million dollar donation funneled from a Connecticut-based hedge fund to Sharpton's National Action Network, revealed in a New York State inspector general's report.

That donation came in 2008, at the same time the fund had a large investment in a company seeking a license to operate a race track and casino in Queens. Internal emails and interviews show that the company's executives viewed the payment as an insurance policy against objections from Sharpton and his network. But they also held out hopes that, in lobbying top officials in support of their application, Sharpton would also “piss on” their competitor, raising the specter of trouble if they lost.

This “insurance” policy is part of a larger pattern. As the Washingtonian has reported, when Comcast and NBC were hatching their plans for a merger in 2009, they purchased Sharpton's seal of approval. Comcast gave his organization $155,000; NBC went so far as to sacrifice MSNBC's already-low ratings during the 5 p.m. time slot by giving him his own show.

What Sharpton does is perfectly legal — and despicable. Companies pay. Their customers and shareholders lose. Sharpton gets rich. The victims of racist attitudes and practices get nothing out of it, save for one obnoxious and well-fed advocate that many of them never asked for.