today in black history

February 20, 2024

Military leader Idi Amin overthrows the Obote government and becomes the president and ruler of Uganda on this date in 1971.

Poverty Tour as Sideshow

POSTED: August 09, 2011, 12:00 am

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“Me and Tavis, we’re going to remind you who Martin really was.” – Dr. Cornel West

Now that Dr. Cornel West and television personality Tavis Smiley have set out like an Afro-centric version of “Thelma and Louise” on a tour denouncing the Obama administration for what the two decry as a lack of focus on the poor, the only real interest I have is how this road trip ends. Will West-Smiley lock hands and drive over the cliff or are they apt to take us along for the ride and the plunge?

To say that I am disappointed in Dr. West and Tavis is an understatement. During one of the most difficult periods African-Americans have faced in the post-Reconstruction era, we should expect more from Black elites who claim to possess some special anointing to lead the masses. It is not a matter of their criticism of President Obama that disturbs me; it is how they are going about their critique and the sense that much of it is personal and has little to do with the general welfare of our community. There is no question that this administration has a lot of work to do to improve economic conditions for Blacks, every monthly employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reads like an epitaph for Black America. Still, to simply lay all the blame at the foot of 44, when the policies of 43 got us into this mess, suggests an analysis by West and Smiley that is either rooted in ignorance or intentionally misleading. Given the truly historical circumstances that created the present crisis, and the manner in which current inequities have been cumulative, the idea that President Obama is somehow fully responsible for our present condition is absurd.

Sadly, two obviously intelligent Black men are missing a larger point. Many of us have found ourselves in positions of responsibility in hostile environments, where no matter the strength of our convictions the tide of anger and resentment is overwhelming. Multiply our experiences 1,000 fold for this President. Given the multitude of challenges Barack Obama has faced, and continue to face, that are rooted in his being a Black man and the first to hold the keys to the Oval Office, both West and Smiley should have an appreciation for the weight of this President’s cross he is bearing. As the elders in our community would say, “they should know better.” Yet, the stones are thrown at our nation’s first Black President from the privileged comfort of a glass tour bus. Meanwhile, the very real suffering in our community is played out like some theatrical presentation for the amusement of those who are taking considerable delight in our pain.

Dr. West suggests that he and his running buddy are out to remind President Obama of the true legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let me remind the professor that Dr. King was not truly loved and appreciated by many Americans, Black and white, until he was six feet under and his voice was eternally silenced. We have a habit of doing that in this country; we loathe and resent Black leadership until their death and they are no longer considered a threat to the status quo. To mock the President, and use Dr. King to do so, is unfortunate and sad. If he were alive I believe Dr. King would appreciate the predicament of our President, and be the first to draw the distinction between the pressures of the Oval Office and the demands of Black leadership. I think Barack Obama is smart enough to not aspire to be Dr. King, but committed enough to try to find a way to work within the confines of his office to build the prophet’s “beloved community.”

My fear is that after this tour, all that we will have are new books by West and Smiley, media exposure for the two personalities, and a Black electorate that is further dazed and confused. I have grown tired of Black people being used as entertainment, and this “show” has all the makings of bad reality television.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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