The Washington Post

‘Poverty tour’ fuels debate on Obama’s policies and African Americans

Kyshandra Jackson was in the laundry room drying a load of clothes when the debate over President Obama’s efforts on behalf of African Americans arrived at her West Side apartment complex. Her predominantly black neighborhood was among the first stops on a week-long road trip that media personality Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West are calling “the poverty tour.”

The bus tour, which is drawing large crowds and media attention, ups the stakes on the continued criticism of White House policy toward blacks by Smiley and West and provides a window into how their complaints are playing on the streets of the city Obama calls home.

At the two stops they made in the heart of Chicago’s black community over the weekend, the men and women fell into two camps: those who think Obama needs the push and those who see it as piling on.

Jackson, a 26-year-old single mother who recently found a hospital housekeeping job after nearly a year of unemployment, said, “They are not really giving him a chance.”

“Things are going to get done, but it is also going to take some time,” she said. “He is doing more than everybody else tried to do.”

Jackson’s views were reflected in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll in which 86 percent of blacks expressed approval of the job Obama is doing, even as support for him has slipped among other groups. But the view is nuanced: Among blacks, approval of the president’s economic policies has weakened, with only 54 percent saying the policies have made the economy better compared with 77 percent in October.

Lamont Robinson, a 29-year-old insurance agent, falls in line with that group. Robinson was part of a packed house at St. Sabina Catholic Church on the South Side that turned out Sunday night for a town hall held by Smiley and West. “There’s no change going on,” Robinson said. “So what can we do? I’m frustrated with the president. We know there is money for wars, but our people are suffering. He is disconnected from what is going on in his home town.”

During the meeting, Robinson applauded when Smiley shouted: “Say the word ‘poor,’ Mr. President. We want to hear you say it!”

And Robinson stood in support when West questioned Obama’s commitment to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “Me and Tavis, we’re going to remind you who Martin really was.”

More than a year ago Smiley and West went rogue on Obama, fomenting bitter, public fights with allies of the president that have resulted in name-calling and shouting matches. The two men, who are best friends and have long been concerned with the state of blacks in America, described the tour — which is not solely focused on blacks — as an attempt to force the White House and Congress to pay more attention the poor.

Obama has said repeatedly that he is focused on putting Americans back to work. He will launch his own bus tour next week— a three-day haul through the Midwest that will focus on jobs. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that Obama “looks forward to talking to the folks about growing the economy, creating jobs.”

Jackson, who was broke for a while, , has not followed the back-and-forth. She did not go to the town hall or even leave the laundry room when she heard that Smiley and West were at her apartment complex.

She credits Obama for trying and thinks his critics are “crazy.” A temporary job she got in 2009 through a now-defunct program called Put Illinois to Work, which provided 15,000 low-income people with temporary jobs, was funded in part by the federal stimulus. For that she thanks the president.

Keisha Lott, 39, who manages the MLK apartments, agreed, saying she has “turned her ear” from Smiley’s criticism. “I see all of the poverty. . . . It’s on every corner. You see generation after generation of it. It’s not solely his responsibility. These are things that have been happening over dec­ades,” she said. “It’s going to take more than Obama.”

West, who said Obama has “no backbone” in negotiating with Republicans, explained the support for Obama this way: “Black folks will love him unless he really betrays them — explicitly. We’re all attracted to the symbolism.”

The Chicago town hall, the first of three that Smiley and West plan to hold this week, drew attendees who were receptive to their views. In the crowd of about 2,000, there was vocal support when West pointed to the high levels of black unemployment and when Smiley called the debt-ceiling compromise signed by the president last week a declaration of “war on the poor.”

Unemployment among blacks in Chicago has risen from 13.1 percent in 2008 to 20.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lindell Wallace, 37, drove two hours from Plano, Ill., with his son to attend the event, but his applause for Smiley and West had a layered meaning. “Thank God that these two men are looking past him as the first black president. Everybody has to push. No nationality has gotten anything from any government without pushing,” he said.

A few minutes later, Wallace added, “I can personally understand [Obama’s] pain. It’s the first time in history our credit rating has been downgraded. They are throwing all these stumbling blocks at him. I think he is facing what other minorities have faced, just at a higher level. I can relate to that.”

At the end of the two-hour meeting, Jeanette Foreman, an attorney and activist, asked the last question. How do you criticize Obama and also keep people from saying “I’m just not going to vote,” she asked, to equally loud applause.

Smiley and West “mean well, but they are not paying attention to what’s going on in the streets,” Foreman said later. “This tour is powerful, but they have got to turn the rhetoric a bit. Talk about Congress. Talk about the Republicans.”

Polling analyst Peyton Craighill and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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