by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Your Black World
In a recent interview, Tavis Smiley took issue with being described as a critic of President Barack Obama. Smiley made it clear that he is not a critic of the president, since he has never criticized him personally.
“Your facts are wrong because I have never leveled a personal critique against the president ever. I’ve never said anything personal about Barack Obama,” Tavis said to TheGrio.com.
“I detest when people suggest that I’m an Obama critic. I’m a member of the media and my job like yours—if you’re doing it well—is to hold the president accountable. That doesn’t make me a critic,” he said.
Most of the Your Black World writing team couldn’t hold back the laughter when Smiley made his statement. Perhaps I risk being considered a Tavis Smiley critic for saying this, but a critique does not need to be personal for you to become a critic. Movie critics don’t usually make personal critiques of the director, food critics don’t make personal remarks about the chef, the list goes on and on. In fact, being a critic is not always a bad thing – it’s being a “haterologist” that gets you into trouble.
Yes Tavis, your actions have defined you as a leading critic of President Obama (and until recently, a textbook haterologist), and this wasn’t a good move on your part. A leader is supposed to guide others based on his vision for the future, not spend all of his time engaged in a wide-eyed obsession over the activities of another man. While all of us have space for commentary on the actions of black public figures (I’ve evaluated the president regularly), your two week tirade against the president back in 2008 was beyond awkward.
To balance the perspective here, I firmly believe that Tavis Smiley has the black community’s best interests at heart. He and Cornel West have done a wonderful job of highlighting American poverty, which is one of the most significant and unaddressed problems in America right now. The Obama Administration and Congress must be held accountable for the fact that black unemployment and poverty are worse than they’ve been in 30 years. President Obama’s team of Wall Street-based economic advisers didn’t necessarily cause this mess, but they are responsible for not doing all they can to fix it. As a Finance scholar, I can say that the “rising tide will lift all boats” solution in replace of targeted economic policy is the reason that black unemployment has gone up dramatically while white unemployment has dropped. As a result, both white and black people are very upset at the president right now.
Tavis Smiley’s perceived role as an Obama critic didn’t start when he began “holding the Obama Administration accountable.” It began in 2008 after a series of temper tantrums Smiley threw on national radio after President Obama refused to appear at his convention. Had President Obama shown up for Tavis’ event, I’m sure that the public tirade would never have taken place. That, quite honestly, is one of the things that made the issue personal. Tavis forced black America to make a choice that they didn’t want to have to make, and Tavis Smiley was not the winner.
Since the 2008 Obama/Tavis debacle, Smiley has creatively and intelligently morphed his critiques of President Obama into a series of passive-aggressive remarks. A case-in-point would be Smiley’s note that President Obama is the “first president in my professional career to not invite me for anything” or that Tavis has a concern that “Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and others are getting interviews and invites to the White House,” but he cannot. Tavis knows that people are listening to his words with careful ears, but in spite of this, he has a hard time getting away from his apparent disdain for all things Obama.
Sometimes, the first impression can taint all impressions made afterward. If a man calls his wife a “fat, ugly woman,” these words will ring in her psyche long after he explains that he simply wants her to take better care of her health. Tavis Smiley made a horrible political calculation three years ago by convincing himself that he was powerful enough to make the African American community believe that Barack Obama was a disingenuous political figure for not coming to the State of the Black Union convention. Tavis’ comments (even if they were well-intended) came off as self-righteous delusions of grandeur, as Tavis seemed to believe that black people could not think and make decisions for themselves.
Tavis’ reputation as an Obama critic appears to be connected to his close relationship with Obama’s arch Democratic nemesis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Tavis correctly notes that he has never been invited to the White House, I’m sure he’s been invited to the State Department several times. Also, if Hillary ever gains the audacity to run against Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tavis gives her an endorsement.
In good old-fashioned American politics, people choose sides and the victor gets the spoils. Obama was the victor, so those who stood by him during the campaign (i.e. Al Sharpton, Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey) get all the spoils. Everyone else (including Tavis Smiley and Jesse Jackson) gets to eat dinner on the back porch of the White House. This is unfortunate, because President Obama should be listening to both Smiley and Jackson on some level – this might have helped the Obama Administration avoid some of it’s black public policy mistakes. Smiley might do well to take notes from Rev. Jackson, who has found more dignified ways to express his concerns about the Obama Administration.
Voices like that of Tavis Smiley are critically important to our community. His recent work to highlight the struggles of black boys in the educational system is the kind of thing that isn’t going to be done on Capitol Hill. He has also used his platform to shine a light on other matters within the black community that you aren’t going to see addressed in mainstream media. Having a black president and Attorney General has, thus far, only made matters worse for our community, in large part because people falsely assume that the success of Barack Obama and Eric Holder is a replacement for genuine civil rights advocacy. The fates of poor black people are not, in almost any way, conjoined with the outcomes of black men who graduated from Harvard and Yale.
My assessment of Tavis? His ego sometimes interferes with his ability to make rational choices. He also appears to be a bit self-absorbed, as if it’s his God-given mission to eventually control the earth and all surrounding planets. But he’s also principled and determined to lead those who believe in him, and for that he has my respect. Yes, Tavis Smiley has been an Obama critic in the past, but I am hopeful that he won’t remain an Obama critic in the future. Smiley’s voice is too important for him to spend all of his time worried about the actions of another man. I’m sure that Tavis would agree, at least in public.