A seven-day, 14-city bus tour highlighting the plight of America’s poor is a great idea. Income inequality is the greatest it has ever been. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. And the solutions to the economic insecurity facing all but the megarich seem out of reach. That anyone would take time to shine a light on poverty is commendable. That is, unless said tour is being led by Princeton University professor Cornel West and television host and author Tavis Smiley.
Pardon the pun, but a poverty bus tour guided by these two is a flawed vehicle for discussion.
You’ll recall that in April 2010, Smiley criticized the president for lacking a definable “black agenda” and demanded that Obama “take the issues of black America more seriously.” Then, in May of this year, West lashed out at the president calling him “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” It was a slam as ugly as it was obnoxious made worse because it was animus based in pettiness. West remains peeved that he wasn’t invited to the inauguration. Smiley hasn’t been the same since Obama didn’t show up at a forum during the 2008 presidential campaign, but sent his wife Michelle in his stead. Whatever Smiley and West have to say about poverty and Washington’s inadequate response to it — no matter how right, true or fair — will forever be colored by their personal pique against the president.
Steve Harvey, comedian and host of the popular urban radio program “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.” tackled the controversy surrounding Smiley and West in his brilliant and down-home way. His language gets a little salty in spots, but Harvey articulates why I and many others in the black community have a problem with the Smiley-West bus tour and the call for a defined black agenda. He riffs on an e-mail from a listener from Charleston, S.C., who accuses Smiley and West of “poverty pimping” and says that “[t]heir plan is to discourage a large voting bloc of the president’s base so that their lucrative hustle will once again be secure.”
HARVEY: The disguise is — the disguise of it all — he’s not doing for black America what he should be doing. But let me hip everybody to something right here and understand this — and this is in layman terms: You are so wrong when you make that statement. But he is the President of the United States. He is not the President of The Hood. He is the President of the United States. But if you look at what he’s pushing, no one could benefit greater than our community. Healthcare? Who is lacking in healthcare overwhelmingly than anybody else? Who is that? Who is lacking in education overwhelmingly than anybody else? And who—who do you know could stand a tax break above anybody else? So all you gotta do is fit yourself into the equation and you’ll see that he’s doing everything he can. But, it’s not for us. It’s for the American people. And the moment we quit saying, “Us,” “Gimme gimme gimme,” and just plug yourself into the already existing system — which ain’t gonna change just ‘cause you want it to — then we can move on with this thing. The man is doing a great job.
...You all, please look at the facts of what this man’s platform was about and see if you don’t fit into the platform. How can he raise a flag for black people and be the President of the United States? It’s utterly ridiculous. Y’all – do you know that that would be death to his second term, if he was standing up talking about “I’m gonna do this for black people.” He’s gotta do it for the country. We all live in this country. I would be disappointed if he did that. I really would.
At a forum last Monday on the African American vote in 2012, I made the same point as Harvey. If blacks want to guarantee that Obama is a one-term president — and thus fulfill the No. 1 goal of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and all other Republicans — then they should demand that Obama release a black agenda tomorrow. And if he doesn’t do it, they should continue to pummel him as someone who doesn’t care about African Americans. As Allison Samuels points out in Newsweek this week, “the black war over Obama” has black leaders fearful that “West and Smiley could discourage black voters from turning out when the nation’s first African-American president stands for reelection in 2012.”
The problems facing the country defy simple solutions and will require shared sacrifice. If the Republican field of candidates is any indicator, the 2012 campaign will provide a stark contrast for the American people to decide who would best lead the country for the next four years. This is not the time for petty concerns masquerading as high-minded ideals, no matter how relevant and laudable they are.