Tavis Smiley And Cornel West Want To See Peel And Stick “Black Agenda” Labels On Obama Policies

To Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, and all other African American pundits who want to own the conversation about the black community—President Barack Obama is not Captain Save-A-Negro.  He is the president of the entire United States. The way Smiley and West have been carrying on lately, though, you would think President Obama is supposed to wink his eye at the TV camera at least once a week and whisper, "I'll get that hook up for y'all when I get done with this announcement." What do these two commentators expect the president to do? Open up special branches of the U.S. Treasury in black communities that sell dollar bills for fifty cents?  


Which is why I was pleasantly surprised the other day, while cruising through the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, to come across a video recording of professor Randall Kennedy’s appearance on Tavis Smiley’s PBS show. Kennedy, the author of The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, provides an analysis of the dilemma Barack Obama faces as America’s first African American president that is so rational and thoughtful that I took the time to transcribe some of his more illuminating comments.

“In my view, it is a sad aspect of our politics that the president of the United States has to tip toe around the race question. Do I condemn him? No, I don’t condemn him. He has to face the discipline of electoral politics. He has to get enough votes to win.”

Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School

Watch the full episode. See more Tavis Smiley.

I usually like smart black men who are adept at intelligently articulating their political positions, even if I don’t agree with their policies, so you would think, given the great interest Cornel West and Tavis Smiley  profess to have for the less fortunate among us, that their kind of populist rhetoric would be right up my alley. But West’s insistence on clinging to his Signifying Monkey theatrics and Smiley’s infantile need for attention, combined with a need by both of them to be catered to by the Obama Administration often obscures the intent of any message they have. In fact, I am having a hard time figuring out the purpose of their latest attention getting stunt, where they plan to collaborate with Ralph Nader to launch a slate of symbolic Democratic primary challengers against President Obama in order to give progressive issues more of a voice in the next election.

“You’ve got to make noise. You’ve gotta make noise. But you have to make noise again being keenly attentive to the discipline of electoral politics. It would be a tremendous error for progressives to prompt the president, or demand that this president act in ways that would cripple his ability to be re-elected. On the one hand you’ve got to push him, you’ve got to change the electoral landscape, but you’ve gotta do it in a way that enables him to get the votes he needs in order to be re-elected.”

Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School

Are West and Smiley so hypnotized by the lights on top of network TV cameras that they have lost all sense of proportion? Granted, it is harder than it looks to turn your back on the studio lights, roll up your sleeves, and hit the streets day after day to try to teach our African American middle class the kinds of life strategies and techniques that will help us to deal more successfully with the socioeconomic blight in our own communities. It’s even harder to use your imagination to get beyond the idea, as my friend Michael Ross of Short Sharp Shock puts it, of insisting on “singular, identity based attention” and into a twenty first century mindset that can grasp how much more important it is to engineer structural changes in our institutions that finally begin to level the entire playing field, and not just the strip of ground we happen to be standing on today.

 “It seems to me that a very important question has to be asked here.What is the presidency worth? If you think that the presidency is not worth the compromises that Barack Obama has made in order to win it – to win the White House, I understand your point.

On the other hand, the presidency is a very powerful influential position, in which people are making – the president’s making all sorts of decisions that nobody ever hears about. Hundreds of appointments that don’t make it to the front page, don’t make it to any paper. If you think that having a person who is closer to your politics than the alternative – again, compared to what? Compared to John McCain? Sarah Palin?”

Randall Kennedy, Professor, Harvard Law School

Behind the scenes structural changes are not sound-bite material. They are not single issues we can wave around like a victory flag. And there are no peel and stick “black agenda” labels slapped all over these changes so we can be sure to see exactly what the White House’s actual intentions were. In my opinion, The Root did a fantastic job last year of articulating just how some of the structural changes in our government will affect black Americans.

Part 1: What Health Care Reform Means for African Americans  

Part 2: How Obama's Green Policies Benefit Blacks  

Part 3: How Obama's Economic Policies Affect Blacks  

Part 4: How Obama's Educational Policies Benefit Blacks  

Part 5: How Obama's Civil Rights Policies Are Benefiting Blacks

The inequities that persist between our community and mainstream America are as real today as they were last year, and the year before that. For West and Smiley to continue to promote an adversarial relationship between black America and the Obama Administration is like insisting that a dial-up internet connection is faster than broadband.

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