Annette John-Hall: Cornel West, Tavis Smiley to undertake poverty tour

Posted: August 05, 2011

I'll let you in on a little secret: When it comes to black folks having political disagreements, we don't like to air our dirty laundry.

This approach, I'm sure, was born out of cultural necessity. Historically, we've been oppressed so much, why inflict the same treatment on each other? Plus, the civil-rights movement taught us to always present a united front. With unity, we could overcome.

Certainly African Americans have presented a united front in the wake of all of the slings and arrows being tossed at President Obama. After all, we know racism when we see it.

When members of Congress call the first black president of the United States a liar, send racist images of him in e-mails and depict him as a tar baby, the most recent slur, our natural reaction is to try to support him through all the vitriol.

But lately, some African Americans are starting to wonder out loud if blind support for the president is going against their own interests.

As the economic gap increases between white and black Americans, and the 16.2 percent unemployment rate among blacks is much higher than the national average, the number of Africans Americans who support Obama's policies has dipped from 77 percent to just over half, though overall support remains high.

That's why the difficult discussion that panel members had Thursday about the president and his policies at the National Association of Black Journalists convention, which drew thousands to Philadelphia this week, was right on time.

Black journalists, already underepresented in newsrooms and on the air, have seen their numbers dwindle as well.

Criticizing Obama

In Thursday's plenary session, "Black Out or Black In," author Sophia Nelson, former Republican National Convention chair Michael Steele, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Princeton University professor Cornel West went at it over Obama - albeit respectfully.

(The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of Obama's most strident supporters and an MSNBC analyst, was scheduled to appear but was a no-show. Seems Sharpton believes he was disrespected by NABJ's vocal criticism over the lack of black journalists getting prime-time hosting slots - but that's dirty laundry for another day.)

West has been one of Obama's most vocal critics. Chastising the president recently as "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats," the professor didn't back down from his comments.

"I try to tell the truth," West said. "When 40 percent of our children are going hungry, I'm going to get morally outraged at that. I'm an angry brother. Barack Obama is not angry. . . . He's a different kind of brother."

Even Steele, who seems to have tempered his Republican cheerleading after his own treatment, acknowledged that African Americans are "always eating at the margins."

But Reed argued that the president's race precluded him from implementing policies directed at African Americans.

Obama, he said, walks a racial tightrope like no other president before him, not to mention the overwhelming and unrelenting challenges he's faced. African Americans tend to have his back because of that.

"If he were working with a [lower] approval rating, he would not be able to function at all," Reed said.

Tour for poor

Nevertheless, beginning Friday, West and PBS host Tavis Smiley will take to the road with a 15-city "Poverty Tour" to raise awareness about the plight of impoverished people.

They'll visit soup kitchens, public housing projects, and farms. They'll stay with low-income families and along the way they'll try to assess whether Obama's policies are working.

"This is a way to galvanize as opposed to complain," West said. "Both parties have rendered the poor invisible. The only thing we have left is to dramatize their plight."

With a president who seems to be catching it from all sides, I'm hoping the tone of the discourse will be civil.

Because what some of us haven't yet learned is that support and criticism don't have to be mutually exclusive.

"I hope we don't miss the point," Reed said. "That we can do both."


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or @Annettejh on Twitter.

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