Opinion: Obama Has Divided His Black Base

Friday, September 09, 2011 - 03:13 PM

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.


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Comments [7]


I find it very amazing that people with so much money can advocate for the poor. Honestly I am disappointed at both of these men who have proclaimed to stand for the rights of minorities and the poor. Speak to someone who has lost their job due to cancer and don't always know how to take care of their children while attempting to obtain a Ph.D. Do you not understand the hand that this man was dealt with this economy? Do you not understand that he is doing the best he can? He is an American president who holds the responsibility of looking out for all Americans. While you criticize him for not looking out for the poor, this man has been considered the "food stamp" president. You may say it's due to the lack of jobs, it is also due to the fact that if a person who does not know what it is like to be middle class would not extend unemployment or government aide. They would have many of us on the street with no insurance and no homes. I have worked with the homeless. Until you donate some of your money, come off of your high horses and put your money into the pocket of the poor you need to stop it. This is jealous and pathetic behavior because you are not president. The way that both of you are acting right now, I would feel bad for this country if you were. You cann't be a president for certain people, you have to serve all the people. Please try to understand that.

Aug. 22 2012 04:51 PM
goodtallviking from Galveston

For insight into the current plight of Blacks in the USA, read the black authors, WE Williams "Race and Economics" or Shelby Steele "White Guilt." They show clearly that the black problem CANNOT be blamed on discrimination. Instead, both show, the white liberal statists/socialists (FDR-LBJ-Carter-Obama) have ruined what was in both pre- and post civil war America, a wonderfully strong, devout, family culture of hard work, nuclear families, and self-sufficiency.

Sep. 11 2011 08:26 PM
Ben(wildboer) from New Jersey

It's not a matter of those who are willing to criticize Obama and those who feel they need to stand by his side, there are those who would freely criticize him BUT they do believe he's doing a fine job considering the circumstances. It's simply ignorant to believe in such a restrictive dichotomy.

Sep. 10 2011 04:58 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

2019 will mark the 400th anniversary of Africans on the North American continent. No other American immigrant group can credibly make the claim that they were brought here by force. American blacks have been shut out of the prosperity that was the American dream. The American middle income worker has likewise been shut out of the growth in the economy for the last 40 years. These are dangerous arcs that we had better work on bending or I fear there may be blood.

Sep. 10 2011 12:48 AM
mysista from Georgia

Here are two perfect responses to the Smiley and West side show:


Sep. 09 2011 07:28 PM
mysista from Georgia

Here are two perfect responses to the Smiley and West side show:


Sep. 09 2011 07:26 PM
Don't care anymore.

Racist black people will never amount to anything. Poverty pimps is right on. This is not my kind of black. They have a right to be stupid and hypocritical. All the players on their side: Farrahkhan, McKinney and West are teaming up to offer their view of how poor people are marginalized, while getting paid to do it. Count us out. No one cares about this crap. It's time to drop the black and white and embrace the all. Want a race war? Keep driving in this direction.

Sep. 09 2011 06:00 PM

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