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Posted by Justin Jeffre
Tavis Smiley and Cornell West are boldly following in the footsteps of MLK by going on a 15 city poverty tour across the nation. Their criticism of Obama’s policies has outraged some black leaders and this ongoing debate in the black community that rages on.
I was watching MSNBC today and saw Allison Samuels being interviewed about her new column “The Black War Over Obama”. During the interview it was clear that she shares the views of Obama’s apologists like Rev. Al Sharpton and Tom Joyner among others. It was curious that they had one of Smiley’s and West’s critics on without having one of them on for balance.
Sharpton, an MSNBC host, has been called the President’s bull dog by the Black Agenda Report because he has made it clear that he won’t criticize the President. And many have questioned what kind of journalistic standards the GE owned company has because their new host has made it clear he will be uncritical and unquestioning of Obama.
Samuel writes of the West and Smiley tour they call “A call to conscience”,
Their efforts are increasingly stoking fears among some African-American leaders 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 negative discussion Dr. West is having can only put more apathy in the hearts of African-Americans and could ultimately cause them to lose more faith in the entire political process,” says the Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Obama’s former church in Chicago. “Where will that leave us?”
Lately, Obama’s supporters in the black community are fighting back. As West and Smiley pulled up aboard their “Call to Conscience” bus in Detroit in early August, a crowd of hecklers awaited them outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. “We will not stand silent as Smiley and West criticize the man who brought us health-care reform, one of the greatest accomplishments for the poor in this country’s history,” says a spokesperson for Detroiters for Better Government.
The pushback is not just coming from community organizers. “The poor did horribly under every president before Obama, and yet there wasn’t this level of outcry toward them by these men,” says Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown. “That makes folks skeptical about the intent.”
But isn’t it Obama’s broken campaign promises and his failure to address the needs of Americans that have been hardest hit by the current bipartisan economic policies the reason some may become apathetic and stay home on election day? And anyone who calls the Republican health care bill that the Democrats adopted as their own “the greatest accomplishment for the poor in this country’s history” is delusional. Obama didn’t even stand up for a public option much less expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. The health care bill is a windfall for the corporations that wrote it.
Eric Dyson has a point that the poor did horribly under every President before Obama, but the average American worker has seen their pay in terms of real dollars decline for four decades. As Barbra Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad noted in their report “The Destruction of the Middle Class”, “For African Americans — and to a large extent, Latinos — the recession is over. It occurred between 2000 and 2007…What’s happening now is a depression.”
However, in 2000 Cornell West supported Ralph Nader’s Presidential campaign and said, “The Democrats could use a good kick in the teeth” because they hadn’t stood for working people. And Tavis Smiley-who has been criticized because he was supportive of Bill Clinton-has been leading conferences with black leaders for years to come up with a black agenda so that they could demand more out of those in power. Why should remain silent when there’s a black President? (Well, at least he’s half black.)
It’s understandable that some African Americans would be defensive about Obama after all the attacks-much of it racist and xenophobic-from the right wing. But the reality is that Obama’s numbers have slid some even among his most loyal supporters-the African American community. And it’s hard to believe that West and Smiley are to blame for that more than the depression that minorities are experiencing.
West insists he does not intend to suppress support for Obama’s reelection. “If African-Americans choose to stay home this time and not go to the booth, it would be most regrettable -given the options,” he says. “But that can’t stop my message.”
Popular talk-radio personality Tom Joyner recently joined the fray, writing an open letter to West suggesting that he and Smiley were motivated more by a desire for attention and book sales than a genuine concern for the plight of the poor. (The two co-host a Public Radio International daily radio show, and Smiley owns a book imprint that publishes most of West’s written works. Smiley’s most recent book, Fail Up, was released in May.)
The Rev. Al Sharpton has also voiced concerns that the pair’s efforts may do more harm than good. “African—Americans are struggling with many issues, and serious discussions need to be had by all,” Sharpton says. “But instead, West has resorted to personal attacks … All that does is distract the attention from where it needs to be. I’ve said that to Cornel and explained the damage being done.”
One could certainly make the case that their detractors like Joyner and Sharpton are enjoying their new level of access to the White House and those in power. Sharpton even landed a show on MSNBC and was recently profiled by 60 Minutes as being a part of the establishment now.
Obama remains extremely popular among blacks so it would be easier for West and Smiley to remain silent and blindly support Obama no matter what he does like their critics do. But then who would speak for those that are being crushed by this economy? Who will demand that the President look out for their interests in the same way he looks out for Wall Street’s interests?
And what about the damage that’s being done by Obama’s policies: his six wars, the bailouts, continuing the tax cuts for the top %1, cutting of our safety nets and his constant “caving” to the far right? Frederick Douglas didn’t refuse to criticize Lincoln and Dr. King challenged LBJ on the war in Vietnam and the need for a Poor People’s campaign.
While I don’t see Smiley and West’s criticisms of the President as personal attacks, the Obama administration certainly hasn’t hesitated to slam the critics on the left as they continue to capitulate to the far right. In
this excellent David Sirota article about the myth of the powerless Democrats he notes that,
Crude as it is, this fable has been deliberately created as a defense mechanism and a cudgel—the media cites it to recast rank corruption as a noble “willingness to accept what is politically possible,” while the political establishment uses it to bash critics as one or another form of lunatic - in the words of Obama administration officials and other government sources, junkies who need to get “drug tested,” “Cheeto eating people in the basement,” children in “pajamas [who must] get dressed” and “Internet left fringe” types.
Obama’s former Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously called the left, “Fucking retards” and his spokesman Robert Gibbs said,
“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”
The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”
But nobody on the left has called for eliminating the Pentagon, that’s not reality. And Barack Obama himself supported Canadian health care (Medicare-for-all) in 2003 and he even said in 2009 that he still believes a single payer system (Canadian health care) is the only way to cover all Americans.
So where would Dr. King stand in this debate?
As this timeline of King’s last year describes, in 1967 King launched the Poor People’s Campaign and announced a “march on Washington” to demand a $12 billion “Economic Bill of Rights” that included a guaranteed annual income, quality education, jobs and decent housing. King supported universal health care for all saying, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” He didn’t just sit back uncritically and focus on the achievements that had been won under LBJ.
So it appears to be Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornell West that boldly walk in Dr. King’s footsteps by demanding justice from those in power. Only now-largely thanks to the uncompromising work of King-the most powerful man in our nation is black.
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