The Blame Obama Poverty Tour of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley


Hold on to your coffee mugs. I am about to write a post defending Pres. Obama.

Adam Serwer at American Prospect writes a piece about Prof. Cornel West and talk show host Tavis Smiley’s “Poverty Tour.” Prof. West and Mr. Smiley are touring poor communities to bring attention to the extreme poverty specifically in the black communities. The surprising thing is that these gentlemen are pointing fingers at Pres. Obama. They see Obama as ignoring black concerns.

His words for Obama are both harsh and personal: “We’ve had so many leaders who have sold out. … Their version of the crack pipe: Just call it success. They want to be a successful leader. You see, Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t into success. He was into greatness. If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, we don’t want successful leaders.”

West is basically saying that Obama sold out. And don’t think he hasn’t taken heat for it. As Serwer points out:

Smiley and West’s harsh assessment of Obama has exposed them to considerable criticism from within the black community. They have been tarred as hypocrites and haters, self-aggrandizing public figures with a personal beef against the president, eager to point fingers at Obama for being a corporatist sellout while they maintain their own questionable connections to the moneyed elite. Smiley is seen as the aspiring gatekeeper to power in black America and West as a publicity-seeking academic whose role as a civil-rights leader is as much science fiction as his cameos in The Matrix films.

Cornel West sees an attempt to silence those speaking out for blacks:

“The black prophetic tradition has been the tradition that has renewed American democracy even given its imperial practice,” West says. “And the sadness of the age of Obama is that there’s an attempt to silence the black prophetic tradition.”

I wonder if it ever occurs to Prof. West that Pres. Obama isn’t trying to silence the “black prophetic tradition,” rather he just sees it as wrong. Because in modern times, it is.

I have longed for years for someone, anyone, to find a way to heal the inner city. The first man I ever campaigned for was Jack Kemp. His idea of empowerment zones in the inner cities, that allowed the poor to own their own homes, and bring businesses into the community that needed the jobs the most was an amazing idea. I felt someone was finally wanting to do something truly innovative. But like so many government programs, it got watered down and caught up in city squabbles, greed, and money squandered. The sad truth as I see it, is that there are two camps when it comes to the black inner city community. One camp simply doesn’t care (GOP), and the other camp cares (Democrats), but has the wrong solutions. So, the inner city never catches a break.

I think Pres. Obama understands that he is not the savior of the black community. He is President of all of us, all colors. Yes, there are specific concerns in the black community that need to be addressed, but shoveling more welfare and programs at it, is not and never has been, the answer. As I have said many times before, all we did was create generational poverty. The blacks in the inner city find themselves trapped in despair, hopelessness, crime, and drugs. It is a hole that really only themselves can crawl out of. The government has been the problem, not the answer.

Can we do things to help? Certainly. Even government can have a limited role in the right way. Bush’s faith based initiatives is a great example. Pres. Obama must have liked them as well, because he kept them. Why? Because he understood, as Bush did, that the religious communities know what their own people need. They also know that a change from hopelessness begins with the heart. So, if Obama continued giving public funds to religious institutions to provide social services, how again has he given up on the black community Mr. West? It seems to me he did what he thought was the best way to help those who need it in the inner city.

The one thing I have always agreed with black activists about was the disparity of sentencing in crack cocaine arrests and how that affected the inner city community. Young black men being arrested for small amounts (users, not dealers) and sentenced to a decade in prison, and ruining any chance of a good life. For the past 25 years, the federal sentencing disparity for crack cocaine offenses were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. Then Obama pushed and signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. It was especially noteworthy since it was the first time Congress has eliminated a mandatory minimum sentence since the Nixon administration. I don’t know about you, but I would think that people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley might give Obama a little credit for that.

President Obama also spoke a real and necessary truth regarding fathers in the black community. In part he said:

We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled – doubled – since we were children. We know the statistics – that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.

This was a harsh, but necessary speech spoken by our first black President. It needed to be said, and the impact of the President saying it cannot be measured. Can West and Smiley give the President credit for that? Are they repeating this critical message on their poverty tour? No. Sadly, they are not.

If West and Smiley really wanted to be critical of Obama for something that truly does affect the black community, then they would fight him on school choice. School choice gives a child trapped in a failing inner city school a chance for a quality education, yet Obama caves to the Teacher’s Unions and closes down these valuable programs. But I never hear Cornell and Smiley talking about that. No, they would rather go with the mantra “Obama sold out to the man.” No, Obama is THE MAN. If you go to Ivy League schools, become a lawyer and politician, you ARE the man, no matter what color you are. Maybe instead of teaching kids to “fight the man,” you could teach them to BE a man. A man of responsibility, strength, faith, and character.

Blacks thought that Obama would be their black savior, but the simple truth is there is no black savior for the inner city. When enough men and women in that community realize that the government is not what they should count on, but that they should count on each other, then there will be positive change. When enough people demand that drugs no longer be a part of their community, then there will be positive change. When enough men decide to marry the mother of their children, then there will be positive change. When mothers and fathers take to the streets to demand school choice, then there will be positive change. When hard work, sacrifice, and integrity are once more the cornerstone of the community, then there will be positive change.

I grew up as a child of integration in Mississippi in the 60’s. I saw an amazing transformation of equality. Opportunity and success grew in the black community, and by the time I had children we had black Governors, Supreme Court Justices, CEO’s, Lawyers, Doctors, and we had left legal discrimination dead and bloodied on the dusty floor of history. Sadly, there has also been a legacy of dependency that languishes in the corner of their lives, sapping dignity and respect for oneself in the black community.

My advice to Smiley and West would be to get off the whining soapbox and go volunteer in your own communities to help. Become a big brother or keep foster children in so need of love and nurturing. Encourage communities to throw off the shackles of government dependency. Repeat Obama’s father’s day speech until you are hoarse. Celebrate men like Dr. Steve Perry who offers real hope for kids lost. THAT is how you make a difference. Not whining. Not elevating your celebrity status.

There has to come a time when you look reality in the face and realize that all that is past has not worked. Don’t blame Obama for what has happened to the black community. I know Mr. West and Mr. Smiley care, but they are on the wrong side of the answers. When will someone care that is on the right side?

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