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Dr. Boyce Watkins

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Harvey's "Uncle Tom" Remark to Cornel and Tavis Disrespects the Nation's Poor

Posted: 08/11/11 06:14 PM ET

Steve Harvey has decided to throw himself into the ring as a critic of the Poverty Tour of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West.  This week on his syndicated radio show, Harvey went in on West and Smiley in ways that turned heads.

"I was a huge fan of Cornel West," he said. "Tavis, I seen him coming a mile away. His anger started when he had a town hall meeting, President Obama couldn't come because of the campaign trail and he sent Mrs. Obama.  He has held that grudge every since."

Harvey cited the fact that Cornel West has mentioned not getting tickets to the president's inauguration. "Have you ever been invited to the damn inauguration?  Did Bush send for you? Did Clinton send for you? Did Reagan send for you?"

He also said, "You don't have any real basis behind your dislike for this man... you keep masking it saying it's not about hate. Then what is it about? Poverty existed before January 20, 2008. Where was your damn bus then?"

Harvey also had a lot to say about the fact that Tavis suggested that President Obama sit down with him and West for two or three days to discuss poverty in America. Harvey said, "Who in the hell got 2-3 days for your ass? I ain't got time to sit down with your monkey behind for two, three days, let alone the President of the United States. We got three wars going on, the economy crashing and we going to sit down with Tavis ass for three days?"

Harvey alluded to a more sinister motive for West and Smiley's Poverty Tour, asking, "Where are you getting the money for these buses?" He ended his rant by saying that he'd spotted an Uncle Tom driving a bus and that Cornel West and Tavis Smiley were "poverty pimps."  While listening to Harvey, I could not help but get the impression that he's concluding that by speaking up on behalf of the poor and challenging political leaders to modify economic policies (which have clearly served to strengthen corporate and upper class America), you are pimping the poor rather than helping them.  I guess that would make me a poverty pimp too, so perhaps I'd better just remain silent.

Steve Harvey is doing a good job of campaigning for President Obama.  Harvey was recently invited to President Obama's birthday party, putting him squarely in the camp of black public figures who've been recruited by the White House to help discredit anyone who speaks ill of the Obama Administration.  Rather than asking whether or not Smiley and West's issues are relevant, Harvey, Tom Joyner and others know that it's easier to simply smear the credibility of the messengers.  In American politics, character assassinations are typically preferred to actually dealing with the issue itself.

When it comes to the state of African American affairs, there are at least a couple of camps:  Those who've been affected by the downturn, and those who have not.  Those who have jobs and plenty of money in the bank have little reason to care for the poor, since America as a capitalist society teaches us that poor people simply don't matter.   Those who are concerned about the recent loss of 40 years of African American wealth are typically not those who have New York Times best-selling books and multimillion dollar radio and TV syndication deals.

By working to discredit the message of Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, Steve Harvey is effectively throwing millions of impoverished and out-of-work Americans under the bus.  By killing the messengers, you are also successfully killing the message and those whom the message represents.  There is clear and undeniable evidence that government policies have a direct impact on wealth distribution and if there are no voices for the downtrodden, they will continue to be ignored.  Most of those listening to the words of Tavis and Cornel do not hate President Obama; they simply want him to grow a stronger spine when dealing with those who care nothing about our most vulnerable citizens.

Harvey and others like him must confront the fact that President Obama was the first Democratic president since Harry S. Truman to not mention the poor in his State of the Union Address.  This is not an assault on the president himself, but rather, a call to all Americans to speak up on the distorted values that have been embraced by our selfish and myopic political leaders in Washington.  Their decision to ignore the poor in favor of the financial and educational elite (notice that all members of the Supreme Court went to school at Harvard or Yale at some point) is reflected in the fact that America's disparity between the rich and the poor is reaching levels that may ultimately shake the foundation of our Democracy.

It's easy to see that Tavis Smiley may be playing petty politics in his confrontation with the Obama Administration.  I've long felt his concerns to be a bit too personal and destructive from the beginning and I am not comfortable with his close relationship with Hillary Clinton.  At the same time, Cornel West has been consistent for the last 20 years when it comes to speaking up for the poor and while Smiley may be biased, that doesn't mean his critique is invalid.  At the very least, both Smiley and West have certainly done more advocacy for poor Americans than Steve Harvey.   For Harvey to suddenly make himself into an ad hoc political pundit is no different from Cornel West trying to become a comedian -- Steve needs to get back to telling jokes without making himself into one.

As we analyze the issue of poverty, joblessness and economic inequality, it might help us to put aside our personal feelings about Cornel West, Barack Obama or anyone else.  Instead, let's focus on the issue at hand.  If Harvey, Joyner and others are concerned about the plight of the jobless, the homeless and the poor, they should simply outdo Smiley and West with their own attack on the poverty.

Harvey's comments about Smiley and West were not only uncalled for, they are ultimately destructive. As much as Harvey might want to interpret the Smiley West Poverty Tour as an assault on the Obama Administration, they should at least be given credit for speaking up for those who've lost their political voice. Obama's strongest defenders have long argued that the president can't do everything himself. So, we can't then turn around and criticize those who are taking urgent matters into their own hands.

Times are serious and economic despair is hitting millions of Americans far and wide. But Steve Harvey doesn't feel any of this economic pain because rich men have the luxury of playing politics.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

 

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