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Smiley, West: the anti-poverty theme cant hide the anti-Obama sentiment


This is an issue I’ve known about for some time, but have chosen to remain silent on it, beyond a few friendly admonishments. But the issue has rocketed into the mainstream public discourse with the launch of a poverty tour. It’s a conflict between two people I highly respect. One I love and one I revere. I got mad love for Tavis Smiley, because of where he comes from and the voice he has represented the last 20 years. I consider him a friend, and I hope he considers me one.

Friends can talk to friends when nobody else can, and we can disagree without being disagreeable … I hope.

I have a reverence for President Barack Obama simply because of what he represents in this nation’s history–the unlikelihood of his accomplishment, the self-esteem he presents to my children, grandchildren and all Black children in the realm of what they now see as possible–and the fact that I had a direct hand in helping this impossibility come about, places him in a position of esteem that few can attain.

Make no mistake, poverty is an important issue. And it is commendable that Tavis on his national platform as a social commentator, television host and now documentarian, wants to focus the nation’s attention on poverty. But to cast himself as some kind of moral compass for the country in the footsteps of King’s poor people’s campaign (which started in Chicago in 1966 and ended in Memphis in April 4, 1968), is over the top and very suspect, given he’s established himself as the Black community’s leading “Obama-Hater.” He should do a documentary on the poor in America, which I’m sure he will. But he can’t do it at Obama’s expense.

To suggest that President Obama is ignoring the poor and poverty is a continuation of what many (including myself) see as a personal grudge Smiley needs to let go. Everybody can see through it.

It’s Black on Black violence on another level, and he’s jamming Obama just because he can and has the platform to do so. But he’s creating a pathway for the Republicans to miscast the president and impede his re-election. People are not going to let Tavis use the poor as his excuse to undermine the president’s re-election.

Last week, the conversation reached a fever pitch when the highly popular Steve Harvey went on a five-minute tirade on his nationally syndicated radio show that pretty much represents how people are feeling about Tavis’ megalomaniacal behavior in this Obama-hating. If you didn’t hear it, here’s the link, Harvey threw a fit.

For nearly three years, Tavis has been on this “accountability” mission, which just so happened to start right after Obama failed to attend at his last State of the Black Union panel in 2008. He really tried to cause him to lose to the nomination, and when he didn’t, he became a very vocal critic of the president, and Black America didn’t take it well. They pushed back on him on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” making him quit the show, and Tavis has been relentless in taking potshots at the president ever since.

He finally found the issue to disguise his resentment of Obama–poverty.

Poverty, as a national issue, grew under Bush II. Where was the outrage then? The timing is what makes this tour seem so disingenuous.

Tavis, as a progressive, probably has a lot more in common with Obama than disagreement. Like many Black people who agree on nine out of 10 things but fall out on the one thing they disagree on, I feel that’s what’s going on here. Tavis may not even like Obama. I get that. Everybody doesn’t like everybody, but does that mean you have the right to put your personal animus ahead of the interests of the whole? No it doesn’t.

Obama means too much to the spirit of the nation, at this critical time in history, and too much to Black people, to let this folly continue. And Tavis’ voice in the Diaspora is too critical for him to be vilified for this. We need him too. Why self-destruct playing the martyr role? Sentimentalizing the issue by tying it back to King is not going to get it addressed any faster with ideologues in Congress who are worse than Dixicrats and without the guilt. That’s what Tavis should be hatin’ on. But his blind rage for Obama won’t let him.

It is difficult seeing the highly respected Dr. Cornel West tied up in this, as he has written extensively on the pathologies of race, oppression and demagoguery. It is not in West’s nature to attack anyone on the least common denominator, nor is he beyond dialoguing with anyone with whom he has ideological or philosophical differences. But he can’t come to terms with Obama? I don’t want to believe that.

West has acknowledged privately that part of his issue with the president is personal. He, unlike Tavis, worked to help get Obama elected but hasn’t been recognized for it. West feels used and exploited to an extent and considers this a character question, if not by Obama, by the people around him.

According to West, he made more than 70 appearances for Obama in the 2008 campaign and didn’t receive an invitation to the inauguration nor has he received an invitation to the White House or the extention of any kind of reciprocity for his effort.

Now, I have to tell you this issue of reciprocity is going to be an issue for the president in the 2012 campaign, and it’s not just coming from West. People who raised tens of thousands of dollars, traveled all over the country, opened their homes for fundraisers are saying the same thing in Obama’s own hometown of Chicago, as well as in Detroit, in Atlanta and in Los Angeles–that they haven’t been invited to the White House (when people who have done less, or nothing, have), or haven’t received a personalized letter of acknowledgment, or had others take credit for what they did in the last campaign. A whole bunch of people are waiting to have this conversation with the president, or they won’t be pushing as hard as they pushed in 2008.

But haven’t heard anybody say they are not working to get him re-elected, or are working to help him lose. Maybe except Tavis.

Tavis is now seen as being engaged in a grand distraction, his motives are seen as petty and revengeful, and his recalcitrance is now causing more harm than good. I mean, you gotta believe in what you gotta believe in, but there’s not too many people out here who believe that what Tavis is doing is for the common good at a time when the middle class is suffering just as much as the poor. And he can’t possibly believe that Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney or Rick Perry would reach further to the left than Obama. Even Tavis’ heroes, Bill and Hillary Clinton, didn’t do as much as Obama.

In fact, the Clinton policy contributions to the poor are overstated. Welfare reform was signed by Clinton in 1995 and it has tripled the homeless population that Tavis and West are sleeping in the streets with. That’s the Clinton’s contribution to poverty.

All Clinton did was “fake left, and go right.” Obama has moved to the left, the center and the reasonable right. His initiatives have helped the poor more than any president recently. Go to and see for yourself.

Tavis has been a mainstay in the national media for 20 years now, so he knows how to manipulate it. He and West state that this isn’t an anti-Obama tour, but every time you see Tavis on television, the first thing out of his mouth is, “This president has to …” making the president the focus of his anti-poverty engagement.

While anti-poverty is not synonymous with being anti-Obama, the mainstream media and the partisan media following Tavis’ tour see large Black crowds and report that Obama is losing support among people of African descent, when its not true. Three times, I’ve heard and watched political commentators suggest that Obama was losing support among Black leadership and, of course, they put up photos of Tavis and West, which isn’t support he’s lost. It’s support he never had (in Tavis’ case). Not a true reflection of the support Obama has among our leadership.

Lastly, Tavis has chosen to allow himself to be positioned as the proverbial “gun on the table” for the conservatives to pick up and shoot Obama with (in a figurative sense … I know how sensitive secret service is about analogies like this). Tavis has volunteered himself to be the one to help beat Obama, under the guise of “accountability” of course, and our community is not going to stand by and watch him do that.

Thus, the Steve Harvey tirade, the Tom Joyner “Done and Done” letter, the Eddie Glaude tweets, and all friends and/or former supporters of Tavis who think he’s taken this personal grudge too far. In 150 years, nobody will know who Tavis Smiley was any more than we know who the social critics of Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt were long after these presidential terms were over. But they will know who Barack Obama was as America’s first Black president and what he tried to do in one of our nation’s most vulnerable periods in its history.

That’s important. Nobody’s saying Obama can’t be criticized. Just make him better, or more aware. Don’t make the case for folk who want him to lose. That is, of course, unless you want him to lose, too. Our community also needs to know that.

Poverty’s important, but it must be addressed in the context of lifting the nation. The Poverty Tour, masked as a stealth anti-Obama campaign, is no way to get it addressed. For all of our sakes, let the megalomania stop and the healing begin, my friend.

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, “Real Eyez: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture.” He can be reached at or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.

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