It is has been a simmering issue percolating its way from the realm of talk radio to the wide public discourse of the general media and the Internet.
Tom Joyner, the host of Black America’s top morning radio show, has lodged a very public complaint against author, political commentator and his former radio colleague, Tavis Smiley, and Cornel West, a noted educator and author, for their highly public criticisms of President Barack Obama.
In a letter he released publicly, Joyner said he was “disgusted with Smiley and West, two brothers who I did have expectations of.” He said that their criticisms of Obama have helped create the environment that encouraged Mark Halperin, a senior political analyst on MSNBC, to use a vulgarism in describing the president’s performance at a press conference.
Smiley and West have indeed been critical of the president. During a recent interview on the “Today” show, Smiley said, “I think he’s given too much time, too much attention to the rich and the lucky, [and] not enough attention to the poor. Not enough focus on jobs. Again, there’s a lot on his plate and I’m empathetic towards that. But, ultimately, are you gonna side with the weak or are you gonna side with the strong?”
Here is a comment made by West regarding the president: “I think he does have a predilection much more toward upper-class white brothers and Jewish brothers and a certain distance from free Black men, who will tell him the truth about himself as well as what’s going on in Black communities, Brown communities, red communities and poor white and working-class communities.” There’s nothing subtle here.
Public disagreements among celebrated African-American figures are nothing new. Perhaps the best known in the nation’s history was between Booker T. Washington, the educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, and W.E.B. DuBois, the intellectual and cofounder of the NAACP. In his 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” DuBois offered a public critique of Washington’s philosophy on racial accommodation and gradualism.
In this case, many of West’s comments, which have included labeling the president as “a Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” who has a “certain fear of free Black men” and no “sense of decency,” seem personal, divisive and decidedly over the top. Smiley, on the other hand, offers far more measured criticisms that, in the end, are far more constructive. Joyner’s criticism of Smiley and West, though passionate, misses the mark in the respect that it fails to convincingly make the case that criticism by the two men about Obama’s unemployment policies fall in the same category of a reporter offering a stunning demonstration of bad manners in talking about the president.
Nonetheless, it speaks to an undeniable schism within Black America in the age of Obama. Moreover, it reflects a schism not just in the public discourse about the president, but also within the minds and hearts of many African-Americans toward the first Black man in the Oval Office.
There is a deep sense of pride in the historic accomplishment of Obama’s presidency, and a recognition that it remains, to many, nothing short of a miracle. More than anything, we want him to succeed. Yet, there are aspects to his presidency that cause us to pause: His near obsession with compromising with a Republican Party that is united in its desire to undermine and topple him. And there is little rhetoric from Obama-let alone action-that is aimed at alleviating the stubborn, unrelenting crisis of unemployment in the nation’s Black and Brown communities.
In a speech in Indianapolis last week, Smiley made his own case. He pointed out that he regularly criticized Obama’s immediate predecessor, President George W. Bush, on a host of issues, from his handling of the economy to the war in Iraq. He added that he had been particularly critical of President Bill Clinton, from his welfare reform policy to his withdrawal of his nomination of Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general for civil rights. “It’s important to be consistent,” Smiley said.
There is a sense of reticence for many Black Americans criticizing a president who is being pummeled by the minute by the Republican right. It’s tough to watch the frenzied right wing of the Republican Party do everything from attacking Obama’s legitimacy to hold office to depicting him as a chimpanzee in their literature. Every move made by the very Republicans whom the president seeks to court is aimed at making him appear indecisive.
So, what’s a brother or sister to do? Who can feel any satisfaction at piling on in this kind of onslaught? At the same time, the criticisms within Black America about unemployment and repeated concessions to Republicans are heartfelt and fundamentally legitimate.
The answer lies in the adage that has become a staple of the Black church: “To tell the truth in love.” In the end, it is important to hold the president’s feet to the fire on the issues that are most important to the communities that have been the most excited and energetic segment of his political base. They are also the people who are the most vulnerable to the recession-which is nowhere near being over in their communities-people for whom the pain and despair of joblessness is unrelenting.
In the end, the criticism from Black America, if it remains focused intelligently and constructively on matters of policy, can be an important nudge to Obama. And if the president takes those criticisms seriously and acts on them, it would make political sense. It would help reignite the enthusiastic support of the very people who make up his most loyal and reliable constituency.