This piece from our October 2011 issue won an award from the National Association of Black Journalists on June 24 for best magazine commentary/essay.
It's a packed house at St. Sabina's Church on the South Side of Chicago. The pews are full, and attendees who didn't come early on this August Sunday must huddle in the back, though they don't have to strain to hear the speakers, media maven Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West.
Chicago is Barack Obama's home court, yet this is the last church meeting where you'd find the president, lest he confirm the right-wing fantasy that he's a fellow traveler of leftist radicals. Fruit of Islam bodyguards stand in their pinstriped suits looking like the Secret Service outfitted by Al Capone's tailor, fingers pressed to their white earpieces as the man they're protecting, Minister Louis Farrakhan, sits in the front row. Next to him is Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina's, whose caustic remarks about Hillary Clinton prompted the Obama campaign to issue one of its many "disappointed" press releases used to distance Obama from some of his old supporters. Farrakhan and Pfleger are the kind of critics that Obama's people are happy to have, if only because they remind the nation that the president doesn't belong to the radioactive fringe of black urban politics.
Smiley and West, though, cannot be dismissed as fringe. By any definition, they belong to the mainstream -- one is a fixture of public television and radio, the other a celebrity academic. Together, they've emerged as the loudest voices of dissent in a community where support for the president is stronger than anywhere else. The stop at St. Sabina's is part of day two of what they've dubbed the "Poverty Tour," a cross-country campaign aimed at telling a grim tale of a punishing recession and a painfully slow recovery. Poor and working people are being bled dry by "corporate plutocrats and Wall Street oligarchs," West tells the crowd, enunciating every syllable in "plu-to-crats." A heartless Republican Congress is cutting programs for the needy, assaulting unions, and kowtowing to the rich. A nation that can always find money for war is convinced it must cut Medicare and Social Security.
This sounds like the standard tale of liberal woe. What makes it different, though, is the villain at the heart of the narrative: President Barack Obama. What makes it noteworthy is that his critics are recognizable black progressives, not the usual conservative hired guns. Three years of unceasing economic distress has whittled away at the hope that drew a million revelers to the inauguration of America's first black president, so it's a narrative that the black community might be ready to hear. Maybe.
At the podium, Smiley has traded his soothing NPR baritone for the chanting voice of a preacher: "He's got to stop being afraid of saying the word 'poor.' Say it, Mr. President. Say the word 'poor.' Say it, Mr. President. Say the word 'poor.' Say it, Mr. President." The audience cheers.
One-on-one, West speaks in a gravelly whisper, as if conferring a secret. Standing in front of the pews, though, in his characteristic three-piece suit, which he calls his "cemetery clothes" ("If you love poor people you better be coffin-ready"), he is electric. His words for Obama are both harsh and personal: "We've had so many leaders who have sold out. ... Their version of the crack pipe: Just call it success. They want to be a successful leader. You see, Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't into success. He was into greatness. If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, we don't want successful leaders." The audience erupts.
For all their tough talk, West and Smiley are walking a tightrope, and they know it. "For those that think this is an anti-Obama tour, let me, in love, check you right quick," Smiley says to murmurs of approval from the audience. "It's not personal -- it's principle."
Smiley assures his listeners that he and West are on the president's side. "This is really about aiding and abetting the president. It's about helping the president," Smiley says, recalling the apocryphal story of Franklin Roosevelt telling union and civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph to "make him do it," to shore up his left flank with populist protest. The audience cheers in affirmation, and one attendee cries out, "Yes, yes, that's right."
"I still love my brother," West vows. "I will protect him against vicious lies told by Fox News, vicious lies told by conservatives. They claim that he's a socialist, how can he be a socialist when he got Tim Geithner -- " West's voice rises, but the audience drowns him out, whooping in recognition at the mere mention of the Treasury secretary.
Smiley and West's harsh assessment of Obama has exposed them to considerable criticism from within the black community. They have been tarred as hypocrites and haters, self-aggrandizing public figures with a personal beef against the president, eager to point fingers at Obama for being a corporatist sellout while they maintain their own questionable connections to the moneyed elite. Smiley is seen as the aspiring gatekeeper to power in black America and West as a publicity-seeking academic whose role as a civil-rights leader is as much science fiction as his cameos in The Matrix films.
Smiley and West, however, see their role as one rooted in a tradition of black protest, best exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr. "The black prophetic tradition has been the tradition that has renewed American democracy even given its imperial practice," West says. "And the sadness of the age of Obama is that there's an attempt to silence the black prophetic tradition."
It is this tradition of principled opposition to American power, of forcing the country to examine the gulf between its ideals and its reality -- decades of American apartheid, the impact of American global hegemony -- that Smiley and West say they are trying to preserve. It is because the president is a black man -- not despite -- that they see their mission as urgent.
West and Smiley's relationship can fairly be called a bromance. Sitting close to each other in St. Sabina's conference room before the program begins, West grips Smiley's hand when Smiley makes a remark West feels is poignant. West says he "loves" Smiley's "courage." Smiley says he's glad to have his "formulations built upon" by West's "intellect." The two men are happy warriors, fighting what Smiley says is an "attack, this assault, this war against the poor."
The number of poor Americans, and in particular poor black Americans, has certainly risen since Obama became president. The housing crisis wiped out the efforts by previous administrations to expand minority homeownership -- according to the Pew Research Center, black wealth dropped by 53 percent between 2005 and 2009, and the black-white wealth gap is now higher than it was in the 1980s. White unemployment lingers at 8 percent, but black unemployment is almost double that. The old saying is that when white people get a cold, black people get pneumonia. But what happens when white people get pneumonia?
Despite all this, black support for President Obama has never dropped below the high 80s. His popularity rests on the recognition that circumstances were growing dire long before he took office and the conviction that Obama has been doing his best against a recalcitrant Republican opposition and a resurgent white identity politics that refuses to accept the legitimacy of a black president. The black community remains protective of Obama, even though it recognizes that some of the hopes for a better world -- where prosperity and race are not so closely intertwined -- that were wrapped up in his candidacy have not come to pass.
"A lot of people are trying to undermine what he does," says Diondai Brown-Whitfield, a community activist in Chicago who remembers meeting Obama when he was running for Senate. Huddling in the archway of St. Sabina's entrance to avoid a summer cloudburst, she tells me, "We need to stop blaming the president and look at the whole picture of how we came to be here. A lot of it is racism, because he's African American. He's getting beat up from everybody."
In a 2007 interview with Smiley, Obama anticipated that "the day I'm inaugurated, this country looks at itself differently and the world looks at America differently. And if you believe that we've got to heal America and we've got to repair our standing in the world, then I think my supporters believe that I am a messenger who can deliver that message around the world in a way that no other candidate can do."
This vision of reconciliation, in which Obama's race would play a central role, was more than he had any right to promise. At the time, though, it sounded plausible even to Smiley himself. Instead, we spent three years debating the existence of Obama's "long form" birth certificate. It's almost too obvious to state that Obama's election was never going to resolve the vast structural imbalances that have evolved over centuries of systemic and social segregation. Yet believing that Obama could "heal America" requires only a little more faith in magic than believing that his saying the word "poor" could break a Senate filibuster.
Much of what Smiley and West are saying isn't all that different from what many disheartened liberal Democrats are saying -- which is exactly what makes Smiley mad. "When our white progressive friends make the same observations, they're courageous, they're taking the president on," he says. "When we say something, we have a beef with the president. It's a personal thing."
Their criticisms have been personal, though, and their disappointment does stem in part from a belief that Obama's background demands he be a more progressive president. West in particular seems unable to avoid calling out the president on grounds of racial authenticity. West drew headlines in May when he told Chris Hedges of the liberal website Truthdig that he believed Obama had "a certain fear of free black men" and was "most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy, and very effective in getting what they want." (West's preferred Obama economic team, incidentally, is made up of Nobel economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz as well as American Prospect co-founder Robert Kuttner -- smart Jewish men all.)
This is where Smiley and West's claim that their criticism is no different from that of white liberals rings hollow -- they sometimes sound less like inheritors of "the black prophetic tradition" and more like a pair of Black Power Mean Girls, leering at President Obama and his supporters while shooing them away from the black table in the cafeteria. Few of Obama's white liberal critics, for instance, would dare suggest the president has a fear of "free black men." If many black folks are harsh in their response to Smiley and West, it's for the same reasons of ethnic solidarity that drive Smiley and West's disappointment with Obama. Each side sees the other as selling out the community, violating established norms of blacks' responsibilities to one another.
The popular comedian and radio talk-show host Steve Harvey accused West and Smiley of pursuing a "lucrative hustle" with their poverty tour, defending the president on his radio show. "He is not the president of The Hood. He is the president of the United States. But if you look at what he's pushing, no one could benefit greater than our community. Health care? Who is lacking in health care overwhelmingly than anybody else? Who is that? Who is lacking in education overwhelmingly than anybody else? And who -- who do you know could stand a tax break above anybody else?" In the same program, Harvey called West and Smiley "Uncle Toms" and "poverty pimps." Harvey later apologized for the epithet but stood by his characterization of the tour.
West was incredulous. "How can you be an Uncle Tom when you're defending poor and working people?" he says. "It doesn't make any sense."
It doesn't, but it represents the strange dynamic at work with the presidency of Barack Obama -- the first time a black man could be called an Uncle Tom for criticizing the president of the United States. Smiley and West are, in many ways, flawed spokesmen for the dispossessed. But if the president himself is constrained by racial realpolitik from explicitly representing the interests of the black community, shouldn't someone be out there doing it?
Harvey is not the only black public figure rankled by Smiley and West's criticisms of the president. On MSNBC in April, West told the Reverend Al Sharpton, a White House ally, "I worry about you, brother, because you can be easily manipulated by those in the White House who do have the interests of Wall Street oligarchs, who do have the interests of corporate plutocrats, and you oppose." Sharpton, the newly crowned moderate who long ago traded in his jogging outfits for bespoke suits, sniffed that he was out there protesting with labor, and that "a lot of people are sitting around inside their ivory towers, talking."
"Do you have a critique of Obama?" West demanded. When MSNBC host Ed Schultz cut to commercial several minutes later, the two of them were still yelling at each other.
West's question, though, goes to the heart of the identity crisis among black leaders over President Obama and his uncertain legacy. For decades, the leadership of the black community represented the conscience of the United States, the voice articulating the contradictions between the nation's stated ideals and the present inequality -- speaking "truth to power" as King once did. Now, the "power" to whom truth must be spoken is a black man named Barack Obama, and the black-rights movement finds itself facing a complex contradiction in the presidency, in which a black man has ascended to the summit of American power even as the community as a whole remains without the power or influence to demand that its interests be addressed. To be true to that historical legacy, West and Smiley believe that opposition is the only moral course -- and that uncritical support for the president is indefensible moral compromise.
"Our job is to make the world safe for the legacy of Dr. King," Smiley says. "King is a prophet, Obama is a politician. So there are black folks who are well meaning, want to make the two synonymous. It's impossible. Barack Obama as president is not the fulfillment of King's dream. He's a really good down payment, but he's not the fulfillment."
"Tim Geithner," West adds, "does not represent the legacy of Martin Luther King."
The timing and target of West and Smiley's critique, though, strikes their detractors as suspect -- they see the two as setting themselves up as the sole authentic voices of the black community. "It suggests they're the black agenda setters, so if you don't sign on to their covenant, then you're not doing what's right for black America," says Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry. She points out that more than a few members of the Congressional Black Caucus could benefit from some principled opposition from black leaders. "It lets white policy-makers off the hook. ... They're not so much interested in advocacy as they are in their own relevance."
Then there's the perception that Smiley and West are attacking the president out of pique. West has been ridiculed for expressing anger that he and his family, after campaigning vigorously for Obama, did not receive inauguration tickets. Smiley and Obama used to be friendly, but early on the Poverty Tour, Smiley complained on C-SPAN that Obama was the first president in his career not to invite him to the White House.
Critics charge that Smiley's relationship with Obama grew frosty in 2008, when Hillary Clinton attended one of Smiley's State of the Black Union events and Obama didn't. The event's sponsors consisted of, well, quite a few plutocrats, including ExxonMobil, Allstate Insurance, and Wells Fargo, which was sued by several states for marketing what internal memos called "ghetto loans" (subprime mortgages) to "mud people" (black people). Smiley had done a number of "wealth building" seminars for aspiring black homeowners on Wells Fargo's behalf and only cut ties with the company in 2009 in the aftermath of the lawsuit. (The NAACP also sued Wells Fargo in 2009 but settled, and a year later, the bank sponsored the organization's annual conference.) Referring to one of Smiley's many black agenda-oriented confabs, Sharpton coyly reminded West at a conference in June that he and Smiley had participated in an event "that was sponsored by oligarchs and plutocrats ... so I can't have a floating standard."
Still, Smiley and West's critique of Obama has been consistent. Speaking at Smiley's State of the Black Union event in 2007, West warned that Obama had "folk who are talking to him who warrant our distrust. ... He's got white brothers and sisters that have fears and anxieties, and he's got to speak to them in such a way that he holds us at arm's length enough to say that he loves us but doesn't get too close to scare them. ... My criteria is the same -- I don't care if they're running for office or running down the street. I want to know, how deep is your love for the people?"
In January 2007, when most black Americans were still running on the high of watching Obama win in Iowa, Smiley told the audience of The Tom Joyner Morning Show, one of the most-listened-to black radio programs in the country, "You can't short-circuit the process of holding folk accountable just because you fall in love." Swamped with hate mail, he quit as a commentator on the show a few months later.
Sitting in the back of the "Poverty Bus" as it lumbers toward a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., Smiley and West dismiss their critics as haters trying to change the subject. "You end up with a lot of energy focused on 'Are we hypocrites?'" West says. "To make the central discourse about that in the middle of this crisis ... all the black pundits can say is" -- West affects a whiny, nasal voice -- "'What about Wells Fargo?' These black pundits are almost pathological in their envy and their resentment that generates character assassination that ain't got nothing to do with these suffering brothers of all colors who are out here catching hell."
West has a point. At a time when he and Smiley are using their celebrity to highlight the economic suffering to which Washington is indifferent, it's odd to watch them get caricatured as sellouts -- though it's equally strange to watch them complain on national television about Obama not returning their calls. The Poverty Tour, meant to draw attention to the hardship that Americans face as Congress and the president focus on deficit reduction, is West and Smiley's effort to keep the tradition of dissent associated with Dr. King alive. Without it, America loses a crucial aspect of itself -- an alternative narrative to the jingoistic exceptionalism that recognizes U.S. power as exclusively benevolent, a protest language that can point the country toward recognition and resolution of its fundamental flaws rather than a dismissal of them.
This is probably why Smiley and West haven't given much acknowledgment to the structural obstacles to a more progressive agenda. Martin Luther King didn't, either. Discussions of the filibuster don't make for interesting prophecies. Their role, as they see it, is to uphold a moral absolute.
Is it realistic though, to expect any president to "represent the legacy of Dr. King"? Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury says it isn't. "I find West's formulation -- 'lackey,' 'running dog,' 'puppet' -- laughable. Not that it's inaccurate but that he should be surprised that the president is a cheerleader for American capitalism. How could it be otherwise?" Yet identifying Obama as a beneficiary of the prophetic tradition, rather than its heir, is valuable. "The goal has to be to separate his person from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth," Loury says. "That's a precious resource, not only to the African American tradition but to the American political tradition. It can't be put on the auction block of Obama's political ambitions."
The changes Smiley and West seek don't represent King-style radicalism, either. King demanded no less than a fundamental rethinking of black people's place in America, for white people to see black people as full and equal members of society deserving of all the rights and privileges that implied. West and Smiley are considerably less ambitious. If their agenda echoes those of Obama's white liberal critics, that reflects its relative moderation. Smiley and West's tour is a call for higher taxes on the wealthy, more robust and effective public institutions, and expanded social insurance. This isn't Martin Luther King; it's Nancy Pelosi. The attacks on Obama's racial loyalties only make Smiley and West's critique appear radical. Smiley and West want it both ways -- getting personal while feigning detachment, talking revolution but wading through the mainstream, demanding Obama be King-like and then acknowledging that as impossible.
They are not interested in the one thing that can implement the mainstream progressive agenda they seek -- like-minded politicians winning elections. There is no voter-registration drive associated with the Poverty Tour. Smiley, as a journalist, doesn't endorse parties or candidates. West hints that Vermont's socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, should run for president. Like other disappointed liberals, they are dismissive of the idea that the president can only be as progressive as Congress allows. They aim all their fire at Obama, leaving little ammunition for the structural obstacles to a progressive agenda under any chief executive. The Tea Party responded to the 2008 loss with a renewed commitment to politics, taking a white-knuckled grip on the short hairs of every politician a shade to the left of Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Smiley and West succumb to the perennial pitfall of lefty reformers, believing that some new form of politics could transcend the dirty work of winning elections and twisting politicians' arms. For all of what sounds like hard-nosed realism about the president's record, they offer no theory of how to make way for more progressive governance.
"They want Obama to be more defiant, yell, stand up, have courage, but I don't think anyone thinks that if the president somehow 'stood up' against the GOP, they'd do things differently," Harris-Perry says. "It's an immaturity of black politics when you're focused more on the defiance than on the actual policies."
Smiley and West are right, however, that Obama's failures have paved the way for a possible defeat in 2012. Absent a substantial economic turnaround, many political scientists see Obama as barely an even bet for a second term.
"The president keeps saying it could have been worse," Smiley says. "'Hope and change' -- that worked as a campaign slogan. 'It could have been worse' -- that's not a winning campaign message."
Outside St. Sabina's Church, an activist named J.R. Fleming wades through the crowd with a clipboard, trying to sign people up for an anti-eviction campaign. After volunteering what he says were "countless hours" for the Obama campaign in 2008, he has decided to focus his energies on something different this time around.
"My work is more committed towards the people," he says, "and right now the people are more or less concerned how we're going to deal with these foreclosures and abandoned properties, how we're going to alleviate poverty and hunger in our city."
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