I am friends with Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, so it has been hard for me to watch and hear the often nasty attacks leveled at them both. While no person is above criticism, and I would not have used some of their words, much of what I'm hearing about them just leaves me shaking my head in wonder about where we are going as a nation that has so many needs. The Smiley and West "poverty tour" has presented their critics with another opportunity to accuse them of everything from grandstanding to undermining President Barack Obama. That is nonsense and reveals a more significant truth with which we all must deal: some people so hate the messenger that they can not accept the message no matter how important it may be. It has gotten to a point where their critics seem to be saying "if Smiley and West are for it, then I am against it."
Who can reasonably argue against greater governmental action on poverty or leveling the economic playing field for all Americans? Who really believes it is a bad idea to call attention to the millions of people now living near or below the poverty line? And we can afford to be picky about which public figures spend their time trying to draw attention to this crisis? Really?
Consider this. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 45 million Americans live in poverty. Imagine a state the combined size of California and Virginia in which every person lived in poverty. Wouldn't that warrant attention? Also, more than 20 percent of American children live in poverty and 2009 saw the largest single year increase in the U.S. poverty rate since the U.S. government began calculating poverty data in 1959. America now has record numbers of food stamps recipients and nearly 17 percent of Americans are now participating in at least one anti-poverty program. And, oh by the way, it is not like living just above the poverty line means you are fine.
I am not hearing very much talk about this from our leaders or media, particularly among black hosts. I know some are but we hear more talk about how Tavis hates the president than what should be done about poverty (I guess talking about negativity is more interesting). So when are we supposed to raise a fuss about this situation, after President Obama leaves office? When congressional Democrats get some backbone or their Republican counterparts get some compassion? If not now, when?
Tavis and Cornel have been criticized on a number of fronts. One criticism I hear often is that they focus too much on President Obama. I have never discussed this with either of them, but I think there are at least three reasons for focusing on a president.
First, when a president speaks on an issue, it is instantly legitimized and congressional allies are emboldened to push legislation. Conversely, when a president is largely silent on an issue one would expect him to push, it is seen by his political opponents as indifference so they can continue to ignore the issue.
Second, congressional Republicans could not care less about poor people, poverty, and anything else that relates to the downtrodden. They just pushed a debt deal that will cut funding for many of the lifeline social programs that are now overflowing with people in need. They have a "blame the victim" mentality about poor people which makes it easier to demonize and marginalize them. I do not think it is a stretch to say most congressional Republicans believe people are poor because they are lazy. They see poor people as low wage grist for the mill of American capitalism and disposable beings unworthy of dignified consideration. Poor people will find no help among the Republicans in Congress, which brings us to the third reason.
Senator Barack Obama ran on the theme of change. His compelling personal story and charisma presented America with a real opportunity to move in a new direction, one that would make a difference for everyone. Given the choice, where would you focus your attention?
I know the president has to dance with the Republicans but I believe he has spent too much time trying to curry favor with people who hate him and are actively trying to make him fail. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are not among those people. They do not hate the president. They do not want him to fail. They see the enormous potential for change President Obama represents and want him to live up to it. They are not just happy that we have a black president. And I am glad they are calling attention to such a critical issue as poverty. And to their critics: don't let your dislike of them lead you to turn away from the importance of their message.
Michael Fauntroy is associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.