Smiley and West Take Their Poverty Tour to DC

15 Aug

tavis smiley, cornel west, poverty tour

by Kirsten West-Savali, Your Black World

Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West continue to draw fire from critics for their Poverty Tour, which many consider a personal attack against President Barack Obama and his loud silence on poverty in the United States.

Smiley, who has been a staunch opponent of President Obama since the early days of his candidacy, is frustrated with the insinuation that this tour’s purpose is anything other than alleviating the dehumanizing effects of poverty in America, specifically the African-American community:

“This is not an anti-Obama poverty tour and I’m tired of hearing that quite frankly,” broadcaster Tavis Smiley told ABC News White House correspondent Jake Tapper today on his way into DC Central Kitchen in the nation’s capitol.

Based on data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), 2010 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), in 2009 — the latest year that statistics are available — , 43.6 million people were in poverty, up from 39.8 million in 2008 — the third consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.

According to the National Poverty Center25.8 percent of blacks and 25.3 percent of Hispanics are living in poverty, compared to 9.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.5 percent of Asians. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. 

Radio personality and author, Steve Harveysparked controversy last week, when he called Smiley and West “Uncle Toms,” suggesting that their motives were less than pure and had more to do with damaged egos than economic equality:

“I was a huge fan of Cornel West,” he said. “Tavis, I seen him coming a mile away. His anger started when he had a town hall meeting, President Obama couldn’t come because of the campaign trail and he sent Mrs. Obama.  He has held that grudge every since.”

Harvey continues, “Poverty existed before January 2009 — where was your poverty bus when Clinton was President or Reagan or the Bush Administration when we were being driven to this new level of poverty?”

One of Harvey’s listeners wrote a letter accusing Smiley and West of “poverty pimping,” and using the tour as an excuse to “sell books”, and many people are beginning to share that belief. Similarly to the frequent accusations thrown at Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, there is a growing faction of observers who believe that Smiley and West are capitalizing on the backs of the people living in poverty, who are disenfranchised with Beltway Politics and hungry for strong advocates who will fight against the establishment on their behalf.

Dr. West has made it a habit recently of referring to people with low incomes, as “poor people,” as opposed to people living in poverty. On his Facebook page, he invited people to “come through” and join him and “poor families in the Clarksdale, MS area” for some catfish and blues.

There can be absolutely no doubt that Smiley and West have worked diligently to expose poverty as the ugly virus that it is — spreading unabated throughout the African-American community. However, there are no “poor people,” there are only people, and some of them are forced to live in poverty. A nuanced argument to be sure, but one that carries heavy psychological implications. To maintain his support and avoid being perceived as an Ivy League professor climbing down from his tower to help the “little people,” West needs to modify his message to ensure that he is interacting with people with dignity.

Adversely, Steve Harvey — if he is to throw insults — should make sure that they‘re accurate. Many people may argue that Dr. West entered into the gutter when he called President Obama a “black puppet for the plutocracy,” subsequently, he should not be protected against any mud-slinging he may encounter; however, “Uncle Tom” was a slave who pretended to adhere to the rules of the plantation, while secretly risking his life to free slaves. “Sambo” was the slave used by the overseer to catch runaway slaves and whip them into submission, reminding them of their fidelity to their master.

So, while it is clear that the term “Tom” is erroneously applied to West and Smiley — their resistance has been anything but secretive — , “Sambo” might be an accurate label for someone else in the conversation if we are to limit our characterization of the allegiance of African-American men to characters from a novel published in 1852.

However, I prefer to live in the 21st Century — specifically the last 2 and 1/2 years — and what is evident, is that Smiley and West, and Harvey, have dedicated more time to discrediting each other, attempting to gain access to the White House, and becoming the voice of Black America, than the Obama Administration has dedicated to even discussing the implementation of solid policy that would lift the burden of poverty off of the shoulders of vulnerable citizens.

Something is seriously wrong with that picture.

Media, politicians, and advocates, all need to be very aware that these are real people. People scared they won’t be able feed their families, scared they may never work again, hoping that they don’t get sick because healthcare is sub-par at best, and non-existent at worse. What they are not are political points to be awarded to the Obama Administration or its critics; they are not faulty human capital in need of a savior.

In the words of Dr. Cornel West at his best:

“There is a moral and spiritual as well as political and economic dimension in this.  People are hungry and thirst for people who will talk candidly about these issue. When you hit that moral and spiritual dimension you’re talking more than Democrat and Republican parties we’re talking something deep within the American people.”

Kirsten West Savali is a staff writer with Your Black World.  Based in Los Angeles, California, her provocative topics explore the interconnectivity of race, gender, politics and culture. Kirsten’s commentary can also be found on AOLBlackVoices.com, BlackPower.com, BirthplaceMagazine.com, CarsonVentureMagazine.com, The Loop21.com, and others. She is also founder of The Nomadic Poets Oasis, a website dedicated to the elevation and exposure of Poetry and Spoken Word.  Connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter: @KWestSavali

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16 Responses to “Smiley and West Take Their Poverty Tour to DC”

  1. Regg'e August 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    The Lord said” You shall have the poor with you forever, but seek me while I am to be found”. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life. Let’s not throw stones because I’m sure that both gentlemen have given not only their cloak but their coats to the poor since their hearts are so led. I will certainly start watching his show once he starts booking the poor to chime in; and purchase his books when I learn of ALL the royalties being directed to the underprivileged. Until then, just a bunch of rhetoric.

  2. Eddie August 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Well I certainly can’t argue with your logic. As far as I know, neither of these gentlemen seem to be materialistic. Ultimately, time will tell if they’re truly walkin’ the walk

  3. wallace August 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    I say again get off the backs of black men who try to talk up for poor people , stop complaining about them and do something yourself. You have something bad to say about every black person in power. you think steve H. don’t have the right to comment on politicians if he don’t nether do you!!!!!

    • altha August 16, 2011 at 4:08 am #

      Maybe they need to stop the long sermon and start doing for the poor people.

  4. Anonymous August 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    You can pull Dr. West’s resume from as a Child to whatever He has said in the last 15minutes. He has always been a Proactive-advocate for poor people of all colors. He is perhaps the most loving Human being when it comes to advocating for black folk living in poverty, generational poverty, people whom have moved from middle-economic class to a poor-economic class status, etc, etc. Review any radio show, tv show, podcast, forum, etc, etc & Dr. West has always been consistent on his stance in being on the Frontlines fighting for those that are marginalized (black people, poor, prison in-mates, children, etc, etc). This is no tour to make money. Stay in the loop & watch the man work,…Tavis understood this & has learned to be a better man, with the help of Dr. West. It’s team work. Combine their knowledge & resources; then implement some positive action. There is no ego here. It’s all about action & being emowered to have a voice. Speaking your mind is Freedom.

    • Billy Jones August 15, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

      Your comment is informative and enlightening, but why is it “anonymous” which diminishes its credibility?

    • Anonymous August 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

      earlier thoughts by Brandon E. Boykin from Dallas….Tour has hit Detroit & Chi-Town……check http://www.smileyandwest.com

  5. Bob Lee August 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    Look, any misfortune this ‘republic’ suffers is because of its own long term neglect in its duties towards its citizenry. It is incumbent upon those who are wise and intelligent to bring those who are profoundly unaware up to par with reality, as opposed to the deferred dreams of the ‘dark past’ of this “American institution”.
    The media is controlled to the point where they stutter when they deliver such non – sense! As if the plight of ‘the middle and far east’is more important.
    What’s more, ’55 members of congress went on a trip to’ a racist apartheid country to show their loyalty to that tyrant! Treachery! They have the nerve to ‘advise’ people not to travel to Haiti and Africa.
    Dr. West, Mr. Smiley, and even the comedian, have every right to question the obvious, America is failing to improve the welfare if its own people, while it polices too many other places.
    Criticize if they must, but as a ‘black man in America’, I can not imagine living in the same ‘white house’ that thought of ‘my kind’ as little more than live stock. Second term!

  6. We'll See August 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

    As much as I am a skeptic of this tour, and don’t appreciate the anti-Obama message that West & Smiley spread, I am willing to give their tour the benefit of the doubt. If they bring the tour to Detroit, I’ll be there to see what it’s about. And I’m not living in poverty. I’m just fighting real hard for the progression of black folks.

    And I want to see what their actions are AFTER the tour is over.

  7. ms freeh August 15, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    When are Tavis and Cornell going to take a leadership role and discuss what FBI agents are doing to the black community see http://www.rigorousintuition.ca/board2/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=29177

  8. rosakb August 15, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    I want to know who is paying for this “Poverty Tour”. Surely the money could be used for some programs to actually do something about poverty instead of these two taking a US tour.

  9. STAN L. NOLLEY August 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    FOR WHATEVER ITS WORTH I TAKE A STANCE WITH THE RIGHTOUS WHO IS WILLING TO TALK ABOUT AND BRING THESE ISSUES TO THE FORE FRONT REGARDLESS OF WHAT IS BEING SAID,ACTION SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS,AND SEEING IS BELEIVING. I HAVE GREAT RESPECT FOR DR WEST,AS A WELL ROUND BROTHER AND CONTRIBUTOR TO THE PRESENTATION OF POVERTY STRICKEN AFRICAN AMERICANS,WE HAVE ALL OTHER RACES COMING INTO THIS COUNTRY AND BOGARTING OUR JOBS,HOUSING,EDUCATIONAL NEEDS AS WELL THE AID THAT THIS GOVERNMENT AND ADMINSTRATION SHOULD BE HELPING WHITE’S AND BLACKS POVERTY STRICKEN PEOPLES IN THIS COUNTRY,SO YOU TELL ME WHERE THE SCREW UPS IS,NOT JUST THE PRESIDENT BUT THE GOOD OLD BOYS CLUB THAT HE HAS MORE POWER OVER THAN HE ARE UTILIZING,THE DEBT CEILING IS A GOVERNMENT POWER PLAY DOWN, HELL PRINT MORE MONE Y AND LEFT THE LAW THUROUGH THE UNITED STATE SUPERME COURT WE DON’T HAVE THE GOD INTHE MINT TO SUPPOSELY COVER THE CURRENCY WE ISSUE’S ANYWAY I HAVE NOT HAD IT FOR SOMETIME,A PENNY FOR YOU THOUGHT. STAN IN ATLANTA,GA.

  10. D.a.g August 15, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    I enjoyed the writer’s adherence to maintaining an objective observation in regards to Smiley, West, and Harvey.

    • We'll See August 15, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

      Me too.

  11. david August 16, 2011 at 2:46 am #

    there have been many articles on the conflict between west, harvey and smiley and i must admit this was the most objective…i enjoyed your article. unlike many of the previous wirters you focused on the facts and less on your opinion which made for a good read.

  12. Kirsten West Savali August 19, 2011 at 6:38 am #

    Thank you all for your feedback. It is greatly appreciated. My hope is that we can evolve from simply tours and dialogue, to organizing and originating applicable solutions to our issues. To do so, looking at all people in positions of leadership and influence objectively has to be the rule, not the exception. Again, thank you.

    – Kirsten West Savali

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