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Monday, August 15, 2011

The Black War Over Obama

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.

Samuel writes,

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.”

And notes,

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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  1. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) says:

    Oh, you are such an internet fringe type!

  2. trey says:

    Justin Jeffre, the voice of black America

  3. WTF? says:

    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.

    If you knew just how ridiculous this statement is, you’d slap yourself to your senses. Tavis could approach his corporate sponsors and challenge their activity in poor communities to effect change. West teaches at a school poor people could never afford; he could use his influence to effect change at Princeton. How are either of them “speaking” for anyone but themselves?

  4. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) says:

    West can’t criticize the President’s policies because he’s a professor? What a silly comment. Making Princeton more affordable wouldn’t do anything to help those experiencing poverty, changing government policies would.

    They are speaking for poor people by making an issue of the poverty that so many Americans are dealing with, particularly minorities. And they are pointing out how the President’s debt ceiling deal is another example of the war on the poor that both corporate parties are engaging in. They are holding Obama accountable.

    TAVIS SMILEY: We’re at Kent State now as one of many stops on this tour, as you mentioned, Amy, because we’re trying to raise awareness about this issue, trying to raise the level of debate and conversation about the plight of the poor in this country. I believe, and Dr. West believes, that it is, in fact, the telling of truth that allows suffering to speak. And if we don’t speak truth to power—and put another way, truth to the powerless—then they end up being rendered invisible in this country.

    You mentioned a moment ago, and you’re absolutely right about this, this deficit-reduction plan, this debt-ceiling plan, that Congress came together on and the President signed, unfortunately, I think is a declaration of war on the poor. Any legislation that doesn’t extend unemployment benefits, doesn’t close a single corporate loophole, doesn’t raise one cent of new revenue in terms of taxes on the rich or the lucky, allows corporate America to get away scot-free again—the banks, Wall Street getting away again—and all these cuts ostensibly on the backs of everyday people.

    This conversation now about the poor in this country needs to happen, and so we’re out here trying to dramatize that and trying to ensure that this time around, in this presidential debate, Mr. Obama and whoever his Republican opponent will be are going to be forced to address the issue, the ever-expanding issue, of the poor in this country.

    CORNEL WEST: Well, I think, on the one hand, large numbers of black people rightly want to protect President Obama against the vicious right-wing attacks, the Fox News-like attacks, the lies about him being socialist, Muslim and so forth. On the other hand, the suffering intensifies. It’s very clear that President Obama caves in over and over and over again. He punts on first down. If you’re in a foxhole with him, you’re in trouble, because he wants to compromise, you want to fight. He doesn’t have the kind of backbone he ought to have. So black folk find themselves in a dilemma: how do we protect him against the right-wing attacks and at the same time keep him accountable, especially when it comes to poor and working people?

    Unfortunately, Tim Geithner and his economic team have nothing to do with the legacy of Martin King, have indifference toward poor and working people. He listens to them, hence he’s rightly associated much more with the oligarchs than with poor people. We hope he changes his mind. We hope he gets a progressive economic team, even though, as you know, many of us are exploring other kinds of possibilities in the coming election, given his lukewarmness.

    They are doing precisely what Dr. King had done and would be doing today if he were alive today. They are taking heat for raising these issues and holding Obama accountable. How are they benefiting from that?

    So much for the “hope” and “change” he promised. He’s continuing the Bush Presidency.

  5. WTF? says:

    They are doing precisely what Dr. King had done and would be doing today if he were alive today. They are taking heat for raising these issues and holding Obama accountable.

    How are they taking heat? Tavis and Cornell are sleeping comfortably in their safe beds at night, not worrying about the KKK burning crosses on their lawns or police agencies coming in and arresting them for nothing, which is the civil rights “heat”. Criticising the president is nothing like criticising the corporate establishment that perpetuates poverty. Neither of those fools have the guts to go against their corporate masters and neither one has done anything to cut off his own suckling tit that’s firmly attached to the establishment.

  6. cincysuz says:

    Millionaires Smiley and West cruising around in luxury and taking advantage of all the amenities that other millionaires enjoy, who have never been known to be involved in issues of poverty, except very peripherally on paid speaking engagements should hardly be the spokespersons for people in poverty. In fact neither has been known to organize or march or do anything to improve the conditions of poor and minority Americans. Occasionally they’ll add their voice to someone else’s cause but never do the heavy lifting themselves. To mention their names in the same breath as Dr. King, who sacrificed all—his financial well being, his freedom his family and ultimately his life, is an insult. Of course Obama hasn’t done enough, neither has Sharpton, but Smiley and West have done absolutely nothing to alleviate poverty in America unless you count alleviating their own poverty. They’ve created no jobs, no programs, and propose no plans. I don’t remember West and Smiley jumping on the poverty train when Bush was in office, or when Bill Clinton slashed social services and created the conditions that exist today. Do you? They’re mad because they wanted to be in the inner circle and weren’t included. Smiley has publicly said as much. That’s what they’re mad about. They didn’t care about poverty under Bush but then, they didn’t except to be shooting hoops at the White House and then bragging about it at cocktail parties.

  7. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) says:

    How are they taking heat?

    Some black figures are engaging in chacter assassination.

    Criticising the president is nothing like criticising the corporate establishment that perpetuates poverty.

    The President is putting the corporate establishments interest before the American people’s. He’s a corporate shill and deserves to be called out.

    The fact that they are both successful and respected in their fields is precisely what gives them a platform to advocate for the impoverished and voiceless. It’s funny that someone that does nothing to help poor people would criticize them because they supposedly have millions. I have no idea what either one of them are worth (and doubt you do either), but see it as completely irrelevant.

    Perhaps some critics would prefer that they travel on a greyhound bus, but that would take twice as long and would prevent them from being able to get to the events they scheduled across the nation. That is just a silly and petty criticism. Obama’s apologists are attacking the messenger in order to silence the message, but the message is on point. Obama doesn’t care about poor people.

    Of course Obama hasn’t done enough, neither has Sharpton, but Smiley and West have done absolutely nothing to alleviate poverty in America unless you count alleviating their own poverty. They’ve created no jobs, no programs, and propose no plans.

    You aren’t criticizing the President even though he has more power to address the needs of those that are suffering than anybody. Isn’t that a little hypocritical?

    Smiley has organized annual events where he’s invited black leaders to discuss all of the problems that black Americans and poor people are facing and to talk about solutions. The Covenant is basically a plan to move the black agenda forward and it was formed out of those discussions. I have read that he doesn’t profit off of the sales of the Covenant. He also did an excellent special on Dr. King’s final years. He and West-who was featured in it-are doing exactly what King did-holding those in power accountable and speaking for the poor. 

    West has consistently spoken at those events and many others. And he has consistently used his role as an educator to advocate for the poor. And yes West was very critical of the Bush administration. As this black commentator put it, “Cornel West has been consistent for the last 20 years when it comes to speaking up for the poor”. And yes he was very critical of Bush.
    They aren’t marching, but they are on a poverty tour raising awareness about the poverty an increasing number of Americans are facing. The fact is that the economy is much worse than it has been in decades and that the African American community has been hit harder than most.

    President Obama obviously has a lot more power to help the poor and working class, but instead of doing that he has helped Wall Street at the expense of everybody else. He gave them a bailout and is protecting them from prosecution from their crimes. He is wasting money on wars that make us less safe. He sides with polluters that want off shore drilling, to continue mountain top removal, more nuclear and now a pipeline from Canada to Mexico.

    His policies are hurting poor and working class people. They not only have a right to criticize the President, they have a civic responsibility to do it.

    Occasionally they’ll add their voice to someone else’s cause but never do the heavy lifting themselves.

    Their tour is obviously their own and they are clearly doing the heavy lifting. King was criticized by civil rights leaders in his day and died with low approval ratings even among African Americans. Speaking truth to power isn’t always the popular thing to do.

  8. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) says:

    Speaking truth to power isn’t always the popular thing to do.

    no, it isn’t….too bad that’s not what these two are doing….

    and what happened to Travis’ “State of the Black Union/America”? did he stop doin it because now that we have a black president, its not needed? like someone state above, these guys are pissed about something small and insignificant (bein invited to the white house for hoops and football) and are now the darlings of Fixed Noiz and the whiny left because of their failed Samuel Jackson projecting on the president hasn’t panned out in their eyes….

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