Smiley and West poverty tour draws criticism, support

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Talk show host Tavis Smiley and academic activist Cornel West embarked last week on a poverty tour to highlight growing inequality in the U.S. Both West and Smiley are vocal critics of President Obama's policies.

The bus tour, which expects to stop in 16 cities, opened in Chicago on August 6. It seeks to address the failure of Washington's leaders to confront an across-the-board growth in poverty but particularly among African Americans.

Dr. West, who claims the tour is not anti-Obama, in an interview on BET said, "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. This is especially so for the Black poor. Poverty has been criminalized, poor people demonized and what we want to do is dramatize poverty and humanize our perception of poor people to overturn what has been in place for so long."

West has referred to the president despairingly as Wall Street's "mascot," drawing sharp criticism from many quarters for personalizing important political issues. Both tour promoters have complained of alleged affronts from the president - Smiley for Obama's not showing up at the now defunct State of Black America gathering in 2008, and West because the president did not provide a personal "thank you" for support during the 2008 campaign.

During the Aug. 6 Chicago meet, Smiley drew applause from the crowd when demanding, "Say the word 'poor,' Mr. President. We want to hear you say it!"

Writing at the Thegrio.com Zerlina Maxwell pointed out that a brief review of the president's recent speeches shows Smiley's claim is groundless. Maxwell wrote, "Smiley and West seem to have missed President Obama's prepared remarks on July 25th in the middle of the debt ceiling debate to the National Council of La Raza where he said, 'Not only is it not fair if all of this is done on the backs of middle-class families and poor families, it doesn't make sense. It may sound good to save a lot of money over the next five years, but not if we sacrifice our future for the next 50.'"

The anti-poverty tour is taking place at the same as the Congressional Black Caucus is holding jobs fairs and public hearings across the country dedicated to addressing the very problems highlighted by West and Smiley. Over 7,000 participated in Monday's Cleveland "For the People Jobs Initiative" event.

The same day, Smiley and West were speaking with homeless veterans in Akron, Ohio, before going on the following day to Kent State University, just 45 minutes away.

President Obama is planning his own Midwest bus tour the week of August 15, where he plans to focus on jobs. The president has "promised to make job-creating measures his top priority when Congress returns from vacation - including pending trade deals, extending payroll tax cuts and overhauling patent laws," says the Associated Press.

Labor and civil rights groups, and even sections of the business community, however, have been urging the president to fight for public works jobs, extending unemployment benefits, and an infrastructure bank.

President Obama on the other hand has since the State of the Union address signalled the deficit as a priority, an unfortunate concession, some say, to the right.

The AFL-CIO plans to launch a petition drive seeking 800,000 signatures demanding jobs and other measures to address the economic crisis.

By comparison the West and Smiley poverty tour, while highlighting critical issues, seems not to provide those affected with tools to advance their demands.

Recent polls show President Obama with overwhelming support among African Americans with some 87 percent voicing approval.

The next stop on the West-Smiley poverty tour is a town hall in Memphis today.

Photo: Cornel West. James Stewart // CC 2.0

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  • There are areas of deficit in this administration for sure. But this administration has accomplished many good things in spite of a vigorous and vicious attack on Obama's leadership.
    I believe Smiley and West have given the right wing of the GOP ammunition to further attack Obama.
    We are in for even bigger trouble if Obama losses in 2012.

    West and Smiley..... hold your fire! Direct it towards those who continue to make the poor....

    Peace will bring prosperity...

    Posted by gabriel Falsetta, 08/21/2011 12:48am (3 years ago)

  • I have always enjoyed the insights of these brothers.
    They are attempting to take the realities of life on main street to the people on easy street.

    Their comments have focused on having elected a mixed raced president from modest means does not mean immediate victory for the working class and impoverished.

    The ultra-right were just getting warmed up when President Obama took office. Their onslaught has only picked up momentum.

    If anything, the efforts of West and Smiley can help energize the left going into the next election cycle and encourage everyone to engage the status quo.

    Posted by Mike Greer, 08/17/2011 4:44am (3 years ago)

  • sounds like a t party game who's paying for all this? in solidarity jim

    Posted by jim, 08/15/2011 9:59am (3 years ago)

  • I attended the event in Memphis. The audience consisted of whites and blacks talking about the same issue, there are no jobs. I regret I could not ask the question, what can we do to get corporations to invest in America by returning the jobs from overseas to America.

    Posted by Anglea Williams, 08/13/2011 3:47pm (3 years ago)

  • Suspect is the work of these two "intellectuals" who seem not to seek a way to organize with forces like the Congressional Black and Progressive Caucuses.
    Remember this Dr. Cornell West who "found" and decried evidence of "racial discrimination" in Cuba-while completely silent on right wing and extreme right wing and C I A sponsored terrorism on and of the tiny island-the travesty of the Cuba 5, along with the well documented policies to remove racism, along with its vestiges by the Cuban government. West did not bother to consult Cuba's working class and its intelligensia on Cuba's racism.
    It is doubtful that these two will or have consulted the intellectual community of the U. S. working class, many of whom are represented in the above mentioned Caucuses.
    A right wing and far right assault were averted with the election of Barack Hussein Obama by the united American people in 2008. Tavis Smiley had trouble seeing the danger apparently, as a result of the public pressure to have all "leaders" see this, Dr. Smiley was pressured off the popular Tom Joiner Morning Show.
    Maybe these two favor "shows" of democracy over democracy.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 08/12/2011 5:29pm (3 years ago)

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