Sunday, August 14, 2011

Smiley: Poverty tour not an anti-Obama rally

Tavis Smiley delivers startling statistics about the nation's poorest Americans. (Photos by Wiley Henry)
    Seeing poverty upclose and personal was the impetus that talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornel West needed to sound an alert that the nation's middle-class is finding it difficult to hold on to the American Dream: a job, home, automobile, and savings.
    On the last leg of "The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience," a nine-state, 18-city bus tour that began on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian reservation in Wisconsin and ended at St. Andrews AME Church in Memphis (Aug. 12), Smiley and West painted what they believe to be realistic and futuristic pictures of the dire circumstances gripping the nation's "newest poor": the middle class, the majority of them African Americans.
    "This is a life-altering experience to see poverty upclose and personal," said Smiley, who, along with West, spent the night before with a poor white family in Mississippi on public assistance with "nine kids, a dog, and two kittens." The two had embedded themselves in the muck of poverty in homes or on the streets before each town hall.
    The poor comes in all colors, said Smiley, who echoed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s sentiments about the nation's poor and downtrodden and the Memphis sanitation workers, for which King had championed before an assassin's bullet fell the revered civil rights icon.
    "We closed in Memphis because Dr. King gave his life fighting for the rights of poor and working people," said Smiley before asking the audience of more than one thousand packed in the church's sanctuary, "Are we gonna side with the weak or the strong?" The strong, he referred to, would be the policy wonks in Washington -- whether they're Republican or Democrat -- who make career and life-altering decisions that impact the majority of Americans.
    Smiley began in earnest the conversation with an explanation for the tour and cited some grim statistics that caused many in the audience to cringe and shake their heads in utter disbelief, or nod their approval, as Smiley delivered a message laden with inescapable consequences if America doesn't redress its problems.
Princeton professor Cornel West points to the problem with America.
    "We're here to put a spotlight on poverty in America," he explained to the predominantly African American audience. The few whites sprinkled throughout grabbed hold of the message as well and internalized its impact on America's future.
    Afterward, the talk show host cited some statistics to buttress his compelling argument: "Forty-two percent of young black men are unemployed in New York; one percent of people in America control more wealth than 90 percent of other Americans; the top 400 riches Americans own and control more wealth than 150 million Americans."
    As Smiley expounded on poverty levels and disseminated information like a college professor, West, the controversial go-to college professor himself, waited quietly for the second half of the two-hour town hall to wow the audience with more straight-laced, in-your-face, no-holds-barred commentary and criticism that elevated the statue of both men over the years.
    West is an author, critic, philosopher, actor and civil rights activist who teaches African American Studies and religion at Princeton. He also is a prominent member of the Democratic Socialist of America, an organization seeking "a more free, democratic and humane society."
    Aside from his talk show duties, Smiley is an author, liberal political commentator, philanthropist, entrepreneur and advocate. He said the poverty tour, his brainchild, was mapped out at West's mother's house in California where he and West brainstormed to bring poverty to the forefront of America's conscience.
    "During three presidential debates, poverty and poor didn't come up at any time during the 90-minute debates," said Smiley, aiming his criticism at President Barack Obama. "This is not an anti-Obama rally. If he's going to be a great president, not a garden variety, you got to push him."
    The duo's push apparently prompted comedian Steve Harvey on his syndicated morning show in weeks past to cast Smiley and West as "Uncle Toms" for vehemently criticizing President Obama's handling of the sputtering economy and his alleged inattentiveness to African Americans.
    The feud between Smiley, West and Harvey, host of the television game show "The Family Feud," has reverberated across the Internet, pitting the popular comedian against two reputed activists with a penchant for critical thinking and asking tough questions.
    Besides Harvey, radio personality Tom Joyner and the Rev. Al Sharpton have taken potshots at Smiley and West.
    "Barack Obama ain't Jesus. He doesn't walk on water. He is a public servant," said Smiley, looking straight-face and unflinchingly into the audience and making it a point to quell the rumor mill that he has an ax to grind with President Obama.
    "I've never called the President a name or demonized him," he said. In fact, "I have nothing but 'Respect' for the President. I will 'Protect' him, but then I will 'Correct' him if he's wrong. Right now he's off course. We got to get him back on course."
    West recently called the President a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs" and again on Friday evening as he paced in front of the pulpit pointing and gesturing to make his point, this time with Smiley sitting quietly and approvingly in the background.
    West admitted unabashedly that he's an angry black man. "When they put me in the grave," he began, "I'm gonna have the same righteous indignation that brothers Martin and Malcolm and Medgar Evers had, because too many folks are suffering, not just black people, but white people and red people and yellow people and brown people."
    However, West said too many black people love everybody but other black people. He encouraged white people in the audience and any other ethnic group to love themselves as well. "I love my black momma, because that's where I came from. You better love your momma," he said.
    He talked about the outsourcing of jobs overseas and Washington spending an exorbitant amount of money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rather than on education. "You find money for jails," he said. "You find money for prisons... where are the jobs?"
    Poverty, he said matter-of-factly, has been downplayed in the last 30 years.
    Consider more startling statistics for the poor posted on The Poverty Tour web site:
    • There were 43.6 million poor people in 2009 compared to 39.8 million in 2008.
    • The nation's official poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3 percent, up from 13.2 percent in 2008.
    • The poverty rate in 2009 was the highest since 1994, but 8.1 percentage points lower than the poverty rate in 1959, the first year for which poverty rates were available.
    • 19 million Americans (6.3 percent) live in extreme poverty, meaning their family's cash income is less than half of the poverty line, or less than about $11,000 a year for a family of four.
    • The poverty rate for blacks increased from 24.7 percent to 25.8 percent between 2008 and 2009.
    "You talk about the power of poor people, you are confronting the most powerful force ... but they'll crush you like insects if they can get away with it," said West, railing against the powerful in Washington and elsewhere.
    "We're at a critical junction at our nation's history," said Smiley. "Either we eradicate poverty or poverty will eradicate us. This is our last best chance to get it right."
    Although Smiley and West drew inspiration from Dr. King for the poverty tour, "a lot of folks don't want to see poverty," said Smiley, telling the story that a white woman in one city where the tour bus made a stop refused to acknowledge that poverty is just as rampant in that city.      

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