Cornel West and Tavis Smiley Embark on the Poverty Tour

Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman recently conducted an interview with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, who have embarked upon a fifteen city tour to promote what they call “A Return to Conscience:”

The full transcript is here, but below are the segments I found most interesting.

The bottom line is that our body politic—I want to be clear about this—both Republicans and Democrats, both Congress and the White House, and for that matter, all of the American people, have got to take the issue of the poor more seriously. Why? Because the new poor, the new poor, are the former middle class. Obviously, the polls tell these elected officials, these politicians, that you ought to talk about the middle class, that resonates. Well, if the new poor are the former middle class, then this conversation has got to be expanded. We’ve got to have a broader conversation about what’s happening to the poor. And the bottom line for me is this, Amy, with regard to this legislation and all others that are now demonizing, casting aspersion on the poor. There’s always been a connection between the poor and crime, but now—between poverty and crime, but now it’s become a crime, it would seem, to be poor in this country. And I believe this country, one day, is going to get crushed under the weight of its own poverty, if we think we can continue to live in a country where one percent of the people own and control more wealth than 90 percent. That math, long term, Amy, is unsustainable. We’ve got to talk about poverty.[…]

AMY GOODMAN: A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found 86 percent of African Americans expressed approval of the job President Obama is doing, even as support for him has slipped among other groups. This is from the Washington Post. The view is nuanced, though: “Among blacks, approval of the president’s economic policies has weakened, with only 54 percent saying the policies have made the economy better compared with 77 percent in October.” Cornel West, you have been both a supporter of Senator Obama in becoming president and a fierce critic. These polls are shifting, even among his hugest support group. What about what has happened, and where you think President Obama is trying to take the country, and where you think it needs to go?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think, on the one hand, large numbers of black people rightly want to protect President Obama against the vicious right-wing attacks, the Fox News-like attacks, the lies about him being socialist, Muslim and so forth. On the other hand, the suffering intensifies. It’s very clear that President Obama caves in over and over and over again. He punts on first down. If you’re in a foxhole with him, you’re in trouble, because he wants to compromise, you want to fight. He doesn’t have the kind of backbone he ought to have. So black folk find themselves in a dilemma: how do we protect him against the right-wing attacks and at the same time keep him accountable, especially when it comes to poor and working people?

Unfortunately, Tim Geithner and his economic team have nothing to do with the legacy of Martin King, have indifference toward poor and working people. He listens to them, hence he’s rightly associated much more with the oligarchs than with poor people. We hope he changes his mind. We hope he gets a progressive economic team, even though, as you know, many of us are exploring other kinds of possibilities in the coming election, given his lukewarmness.

It’s well worth a full listen, particularly as article after article has dropped on our completely unsustainable plutocracy, particularly the unbelievably high racial wealth gap. However, I am withholding a full analysis until a bit later in the year – long time readers will remember that my initial decision back in 2008 was based on the candidates proposed poverty plans. Once the GOP field stabilizes, we will take a look at what all candidates (including Green and Independent) have advocated for in terms of legislation around poverty.

In the meantime, West and Smiley are attempting to spark a conversation on poverty that is long overdue. However, their credibility as messengers is a bit skewed – both Smiley and West have had public falling outs with Obama over matters that are equal parts policy driven and ego driven. Still, I don’t think we can afford to ignore their pointed message. London is on fire, financial markets are in a crisis, and at some point, Americans will have to acknowledge our debts to each other or lose our children to the Pied Piper.

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  • Btrump

    How can I get a copy of Tavis Smilet’s remarks on poverty on “60 Minutes” last month?

  • happy trails

    “Tavis Smiley and I had been talking for a year about how to dramatize the poverty and humanize our perception of poor people in America.” C West They’ve only been discussing poverty for a year when this problem has been going on for decades. Steve Harvey’s question ” Where was the poverty bus tour during the Bush years” is a very good question. Also, why are these two behaving as if poverty began under Obama? Why are these two only blaming Obama and not the job killing policies dating back to Reagan? West and Smiley are failing to address the historical problem of poverty(which dates back to the reconstruction period read Du bois- The Souls of Black Folk), while remaining silent on how the u.s poverty rate was driven to this low point today. These two are reminders of the traveling snake oil salesmen found in earlier americana, where one guy presents the “healing to sick” theme on a soapbox to an audience while the other guy selling bottles of whatever on the side. The keyword is “selling” these two are surely selling books and themselves while professing to unmask the face on poverty….are they giving their profits from the book sells back to the impoverished people they interviewed?

  • natthedem

    Wells Fargo should’ve destroyed Tavis Smiley’s credibility to be a messenger on poverty long before his beef with President Obama did. 

    • Anonymous

      Co-sign! I remember reading somewhere that Black folks should actually lay off blaming Smiley for his deal with Wells Fargo.  And the silence is awfully loud around Smiley and his Wells Fargo deal…