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Smiley, West’s Anti-Poverty Theme Isn’t Hiding Anti-Obama Sentiment

Anthony Asadullah Samad: 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.
tavis smiley cornel west

Smiley, West and The Poverty Tour National Debate: The Anti-Poverty Theme Isn’t Hiding The Anti-Obama Sentiment

This is an issue I’ve known about for sometime, 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, grand-children 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 Smiley, in his national platform as a social commentator, T.V. 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 nation, in the footsteps of King’s poor people’s campaign started in Chicago in 1966, ending in Memphis in April 4th, 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 at Obama’s expense.

To suggest that President Obama is ignoring the poor and poverty is a continuation of what many see—including myself, a personal grudge that he 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. But he’s creating a pathway for the Republicans to miscast the President and impede his re-election. People are not going to let Smiley use the poor as his excuse to undermine the President’s re-election.

Last week, it 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 Smiley’s megalomaniac behavior on this Obama hating. If you didn’t hear it, here’s the link, Harvey threw a fit.

For nearly three years, Smiley 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 went became a very vocal critic 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 pot shots at the President. 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 ten things, and fall out on the one thing you 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 spirit of the nation, at this critical time in history, and too much to black people, to let this folly continue. And Tavis’ voice to 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 tying it back to King is not going to get it addressed any faster with idealogues in Congress 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 Cornel 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 Barack Obama? I don’t want to believe that.

Dr. West has acknowledged privately that part of his issue with the President is personal. He, unlike Tavis, worked to help get Barack 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 him, he made over 70 appearances for Obama in the 2008 campaign and didn’t receive an invitation to the inauguration nor has received an invitation to the White House, or has been extended any kind of reciprocity for his effort.

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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 Cornel 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, in Detroit, in Atlanta, 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 acknowledgement, 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 I’ve heardn’t anybody say they are not working to get him re-elected, or working to help him lose. Maybe except Tavis.

Tavis Smiley 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 what Tavis is doing is for the common good, at a time where 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 Barack Obama. Even Tavis’ heroes, Bill and Hillary Clinton, haven’t done as much as Barack. 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 Smiley and West are sleeping in the streets with. That’s the Clinton’s contribution to poverty.

All Clinton did was “fake left, and went 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 Cornel state that this isn’t an anti-Obama tour, but every time you see him 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 Smiley’s tour sees large black crowds and report that Obama is losing support among blacks, 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 Smiley 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 amongst black leadership. The intent is to get others to defect based on perceived black defection.

Lastly, Smiley has chosen to allow himself to be positioned as the preverbial “gun on the table” for the conservatives to pick up shoot Obama with (in a figurative sense…I know how sensitive Secret Service is about analogies like this). Smiley 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, all friends and/or former supporters of Tavis who think he’s taken this personal grudge too far. 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 their 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 (I just did). 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.

Anthony Samad

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 Samad

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.