Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Smiley and West.

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Public intellectual and Princeton University Professor Cornel West, and broadcast journalist Tavis Smiley have gone into territories where few black commentators, activists or scholars have been willing to go – critiquing President Barack Obama’s domestic policies and his recent comments on race and the George Zimmerman trial. At a time when it is considered disloyal or politically incorrect to criticize the president for any reason, especially by the black community, West and Smiley have stayed true to form as “thought provocateurs.” Each has directed diatribes toward Obama for tepid responses to poverty in general and the black condition in particular.

From my reading of their various statements and concerns, both Mr. Smiley and Dr. West passionately believe that the president is not doing enough to help middle and under class Americans. Both say that with the power that he has at his command through the bully pulpit, Obama should more readily and vigorously assert himself in eradicating the economic problems facing black folks in America. These concerns range from beefing up Obama’s domestic economic policies by eliminating unemployment to reconstructing NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific partnership by establishing more fair trade as opposed to free trade practices which give more economic parity to American workers.

Others argue that while Obama’s is not specifically and openly speaking to the plight of African Americans, his basic policies are still benefitting them. Deborah Douglas in a recent article in Crisis Magazine on Obama’s black agenda reveals a variety of perspectives both pro and con on this issue.

2010 Census Bureau statistics disclose that some 46 million Americans are now living in poverty and if current economic trends continue, that number is expected to dramatically escalate in coming years. While many white Americans live in poverty, the problems double for many African Americans because the black community is disproportionately poor and unemployed, an entrenched part of a growing underclass. It is one thing to be among the working poor. It is another thing to be among the poor who are not working. It is still another thing to be black and poor and not working.

Whatever your thoughts or feelings about their statements, these two men rank among a small number of public persons who have been willing to openly criticize the president for his politics regarding poverty. They believe that the president is wasting a grand opportunity to make some important decisions that will sway the scaffold that is protecting the construction of the policies that are shaping America’s future. History has been made with the election of America’s first black man to both a first and second term in the Oval Office. Now is the time for Obama, they believe, to turn history on its head by implementing positive changes that will chart a new direction for America’s future. In Hegelian terms – thesis, antithesis, and finally a synthesis – a historical opportunity still exists and the two men are worried that the president’s reticence on key issues will cause him to forfeit a real chance to find a synthesis that will impact history.

Although West and Smiley have taken a lot of flak from the black community about their comments and have been ridiculed and criticized for their 2012 fact-finding outing, The Poverty Tour 2.0, A Call to Conscience, at least they have been willing to speak out when so few of their colleagues are willing to take up this cross. And while some have trivialized Dr. West’s comments by stating that he is still angry for not receiving tickets to the first inaugural, after working so hard for the Obama campaign, they miss the point entirely. Both he and Smiley ’s platform is to: offer a cogent critique of the status quo; to be equal opportunity criticizers of all forms of injustice, and to call to account those leaders, in various positions of power, who could do more to move America forward. Their analyses touch the president’s performance as well as the current “do nothing” Congress, the Supreme Court, and other national and local leaders who have gone silent when they should be helping the everyday people who are daily “dying deaths by a thousand cuts” and who really need help in this country.

Smiley and West appear as two voices crying in the wilderness. Contrary to some people’s personal beliefs, their work is not for personal attention and glory, based on a megalomaniacal egotism. Instead, it is rooted in their legitimate concern: to give voice to the Vox Populi – “the voice of the people” – who have not really been heard. In this so called post-racial society, it is no longer fashionable to publicly and passionately discuss issues of race. It appears to be more expedient to politely skirt those issues in deference to a new non-racial Zeitgeist or “spirit of our age.”

West and Smiley have something to say. They are saying things that few others are willing to say. The question is, are we and the President listening?


2 responses to “Smiley and West.”

  1. Alfre E.Talley Avatar
    Alfre E.Talley

    I am pleased that Cornel West and Travis Smiley address the poverty plight af the African-American community and the concern they both share. However, the critisism of Presdent Obama in this regard is ill-placed. They see no positive action that the president has taken to better the plight of the Black population, in particular. That may be so. However, in my veiw, the president has displayed much concern about poverty in America for the public in general, not only for African-Americans, but also for everyone that fits that model. One must ask,what success does one think if the president is viewed as bias toward the black population and not the same regard for whites as well? Can one imagine the opposition that he would face in getting anything into law. We must remember that no one in America can be successful in politics if they display a preference toward black American over the white community. The plight of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are proof of that.

    Dr. West and Mr. Smiley would be more constuctive if they were viewed as supporters of President Obama, rather than adverseries of him.

    1. cfstewart Avatar


      You are absolutely correct! I also believe that there are many things that Obama is doing that may not yet be fully revealed. I also believe however, that sometimes when a culture of favor is created for a particular person, people are sometimes reluctant to call attention to areas that need to be strengthened. I do believe that West and Smiley are also arguing against the culture of inertia that sometimes prevents people from recognizing areas that could be improved. We believe that the President has done a masterful service in many areas, but there are also other areas, as with us all, that can be improved if properly addressed. Thanks for your comments.

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