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Opinion: Obama Has Divided His Black Base

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President Obama gave his big jobs speech last night and not surprisingly, he’s getting mixed reviews. I would expect conservatives, on Capitol Hill to resist. And liberals, too, are lukewarm on the president’s plan. 

But now, even in the black community, long considered the core of Obama’s base, the tide seems to be turning. What should we make of this? When I attend private functions with the folks, there is an increasing divide: Those who feel it is okay to criticize the president publicly, and those who feel we must stand by Obama, no matter what.

Talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton Professor Cornel West, are in the former group. West, who campaigned for Obama in 2008, has made no secret of his disappointment, in the years since. And no doubt, when he teams up with journalist and PRI radio host Tavis Smiley, on their weekly broadcast, this week, will bemoan the President’s plan for a lack of specificity. 

To be fair, Smiley and West know of what they speak.  The two have just completed a 14-city Poverty Tour, traveling around the country, in advance of the president’s announcement, to shine a light the plight of America’s poor. In so doing, the pair pointedly criticized the Obama Administration for failing to stand up for America’s poor.

I tangled a bit with Brother West on this issue while on WNYC, earlier this year.  To be clear, I have tremendous respect for Dr. West.  In fact, I first heard him speak in Washington DC, back in 1993, met him the following year, and have closely followed his writings and his career, ever since.  But as I respectfully suggested on the Brian Lehrer  Show, to criticize President Obama for abandoning his base dilutes the larger message – here, an important message - on poverty, opportunity and the lack of jobs.

To their credit, Dr. West and Tavis Smiley visited towns and met with citizens and held town halls, during their Poverty Tour. Their events were ideologically on point. But like the folks in Washington, they too have failed (thus far) to offer specific solutions to the poverty problem – an immense and seemingly intractable public policy crisis that requires concrete and specific policy directives, grass roots organizing and voter registration.  The crisis calls for the sorts of organizational efforts and strategies Dr. King marshaled during his War on Poverty, a generation ago.  It’s nothing new, but it requires real leadership. 

While Smiley and West may not have offered specifics, clearly their hearts are in the right place. They are quite right to be troubled by the forgotten poor.  So, I have to wonder about black celebrities like talk show host Tom Joyner, who dismissed their Poverty Tour as an opportunistic , and comedian Steve Harvey, who accused the two of “poverty pimping.” And I don’t quite understand the reaction of other black folks who suggest that any critique of President Obama by African Americans is unacceptable – even if it comes from progressives within our community, fighting for the community. 

We should not paint black well-meaning black intellectuals who publicly critique their president with the “race traitor” brush, any more than we would a white citizen who criticized president Bush. That is small-minded and intellectually dishonest.

The black community is not monolithic. While I may not always agree with what Smiley and West have to say, I defend their right to say it.  And I commend their effort to place the poor at the center of the president’s agenda. Let’s hope the Mr. Obama listens.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.