I can’t let the bandwagon lambasting of Professor Cornel West and Tavis Smiley go unchallenged. Nor can I accept the berating of liberals and progressives who are expressing their disappointment with President Obama.
Firstly, President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress of 2008-2010 shared some great victories. They passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and raised the minimum wage. In response to the implosion of the global economy as a result of predatory banking practices, they created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted a series of stiff financial industry reforms and regulations, and resuscitated an automobile industry that was about 20 minutes from being dead on arrival. The Democrat-led Congress passed Health Care Reform, which will extend affordable healthcare to millions of Americans. Health Care Reform also makes it illegal for insurance companies to deny individuals coverage based on pre-existing conditions. For the record “pre-existing conditions” can be serious illnesses like heart disease or cancer, and they can be as petty as a previous ankle sprain that never quite healed. So beginning in 2014, if you need medical coverage, you can still be eligible for it instead of restricted from it because you caught some pre-existing bad luck.
The Obama administration also ended the cowardly and immature Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. And coincidentally, they’ve stated publicly that they will support a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This means that the federal government will extend to legally married same-sex couples the same benefits and protections provided to heterosexual married couples. All in all, the President has been highly successful on progressive issues.
But President Obama still is not above constructive criticism. Much has been made of Tavis Smiley’s and Cornel West’s rebukes of Obama’s policies as they relate to the poor, and specifically, to Black Americans. When I say “much has been made,” what I mean is much shit has been talked, and much mud has been slung at Smiley and West. The cynic in us is convinced that these brothers believe they are self-appointed ambassadors of Blackness who can and will criticize the Black president without flinching — but mostly for the purpose of furthering their own interests.
The headline that surfaced on the Huffington Post this week, “Tavis Smiley: Obama Is the First President Who Hasn’t Invited Me To White House” doesn’t help in putting the Smiley-West Self-Aggrandizement theory to rest. But perhaps I can get you to see this differently. I posted an article recently on President Obama’s reluctance to deal directly with the role race plays in American society, and in his Presidency. I see his resistance (either willful or unintentional) toward Smiley and West as part of his and our discomfort in talking about race.
For all their shortcomings, neither Professor West nor Tavis Smiley has ever minced words in describing the plight of the poor, and exposing the disparities that continue to hold Blacks back. Now, if in your mind you intend to hit me with a personal accountability/responsibility retort, let me reassure you: A case can certainly be made asserting that “The Man” has raised his boot up off your neck some. That notwithstanding, the wealth gap between Blacks and whites continues to grow. Black unemployment today sits somewhere around 16%, while “general” joblessness hovers at 9%. Projected figures show Black unemployment soaring to 20% by 2012. Soooo…yeah…
If I hear another person hop up on their post-racial soapbox to inform me that President Obama is President “of ALL of America and not just Black America,” I’m not sure what heinous act of defiance might package my response. But it will be heinous, and it will be defiant. I took my rose-colored glasses back to the unattainable utopia store a couple years ago, and so I am well aware that Obama must govern as a “pragmatist,” and a centrist who pretends to be color-blind. Thus, holding a fried chicken and watermelon summit with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley talking 20% Black unemployment succeeds in making the color-blind see, and it forces us to delve into the clusterfuck that is American race relations. Because either there is something inherently wrong with people of color that renders them incapable of “succeeding” at the same level as whites, or there is something amiss structurally/institutionally that is worth exploring.
Finally, conventional centrist rhetoric likes to reassure the people that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In other words, economic policies that benefit the majority of the people also will benefit Black people (and poor people and Latino people, etc.). I suppose the inverse of that is the proverb, “when America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu.” I mean, do you treat your cold the same way you treat your flu? Will some chicken soup and a few “feel betters” soothe your fever and body aches? Or are you at CVS in your robe and slippers looking for the Thera-flu — the joint that will remedy your shit directly?
Professor West and Tavis Smiley acknowledge without apology that cats don’t have the sniffles anymore. This financial flu is full-blown in Black America and it’s spreading like gossip on my granny’s block. Obama’s allegiance to the illusion of compromise and political pragmatism essentially has him prescribing Flintstones vitamins — the gummy kind — to cure what ails us. And that shit’s not good enough. Obama is brilliant and charming and handsome, and he undoubtedly is the best choice going into Election 2012. But he deserves this criticism. And I’m not mad at West and Smiley for giving it.
**For the record, I refuse to speak on Steve Harvey’s contributions to this discussion. That cat is a coon, and coon opinions don’t count. You don’t see anyone trying to pen down Soulja Boy’s feelings on the subject either, do you?**