Smiley, West and Obama

September 30, 2011

It's been a while since pals
Tavis Smiley and Cornel West took up the task of challenging President Obama
from his left flank. The talk-show host and the philosopher have taken some
heat for their criticism of the president, notably from political scientist
Melissa Harris-Perry, who argued this spring that West's beef with the
White House "is clearly more personal than ideological"--he's been openly disappointed
by his lack of access--and that he "offers thin criticism of President Obama
and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black
leadership class."

But ego issues aside, one can
think of far worse things Smiley and West could do with their celebrity than go
on the road
to drum up support for fighting poverty, a word most
elected officials simply talk around. The question of Obama's culpability is complicated, but the problem itself is quite clear.

The Smiley and West vs. Obama
story is a complex one, and the best and fairest treatment I've seen came
out last week. It's by Adam Serwer, whose writing is airy enough to include
lines like "West and Smiley's relationship can fairly be called a bromance" but
also this incisive:

West was incredulous [when
Steve Harvey called him and Smiley "Uncle Toms"]. "How can you be an Uncle Tom
when you're defending poor and working people?" he says. "It doesn't make any

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?

Elsewhere, Anthea Butler didn't much like Obama's speech to the
Congressional Black Caucus this past weekend:

Why is it that every time
the president speaks to a predominately black audience, he goes into a
preacher's cadence, and starts to speak as though he were at a pulpit? Why is
it that he never gets "righteously angry" with the white folks as
often as he does at the black folks?

If you think I am harsh,
consider a segment of the president's 2010 CBC speech: "I need everybody
here to go back to your neighborhoods to go back to your workplaces, to go to
churches and go to the barbershops and go to the beauty shops, and tell them
we've got more work to do."

Damn. I think most black
people I know do more than just work, go to church, and get their hair done.



Leave Obama alone, stop doing the white man's job.