by Dr. Boyce Watkins
It has recently been reported that if poverty goes up by just .1% this year, it will be the worst poverty that America has experienced since 1965. Peter Edelman, director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, attributes the poverty increase to a host of factors, including globalization, outsourcing, immigration, and an attack on unionization.
Workers’ wages are not increasing at the rate they once did, jobs are being sent to other countries, and those who don’t want comprehensive immigration reform are more than happy to watch wages drop as illegal workers are exploited by large corporations. The breakdown of unions and even the use of prison labor are changing our economy for the worse and endangering the livelihoods of millions of Americans.
Two men who’ve been consistently blowing the horn on poverty are Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. What’s saddest is that many Americans have been so interested in maintaining their love affair with the Obama Administration that they won’t even listen to policy advocates who have legitimate points of view. Whenever Smiley and West try to bring up poverty, they are shut down, like the cousin who wants to tell grandma that her delicious soul food is going to give her diabetes. People don’t care to actually try to figure out if Cornel and Tavis have a point. Instead, they consider poverty to be a highly inconvenient truth that throws cold water on the Intoxicating Negro Fairytale that is the Obama presidency.
Do either Cornel West or Tavis Smiley have a personal issue with President Obama? I don’t know and I don’t care. Neither should you. The point is not whether their issue with Obama is personal. The point is that poverty is a critically important issue that affects millions of President Obama’s most loyal constituents. In keeping with the expected interaction between a political leader and the people he claims to represent, it is unfathomable that we can get angry because someone wants President Obama to address poverty. We sing and dance when Obama addresses gay marriage, immunity for illegal immigrants and the concerns of liberal white women, yet the matters that impact our community are considered to be too much trouble for such a busy and important person. This point of view is sad, sick and just a little bit creepy.
The whole ridiculous issue of whether West and Smiley were attacking Obama personally is annoying, largely because we are willing to let people starve while we figure out the answer to our petty question. After we finish saying “Awe, them negroes just be hatin on the president,” nobody says a word about whether or not the White House is taking poverty seriously. That’s like a kid telling his mother, “My teacher’s just hating on me, and that’s why she is accusing me of not doing my homework.” If the mother doesn’t verify what the teacher is saying, then she’s a bigger fool than her son.
I know Cornel West after speaking with him on the phone a few times and meeting him in person. I’ve never met Tavis Smiley, nor have I met Barack Obama. I am not in a position to speak on whether or not any of these men have personal issues with one another, nor would I care to be. In fact, I wasn’t even invited to the inauguration (I wouldn’t have gone anyway, voting for Obama was enough). But I do have a personal relationship with the starving families of America who are living in the streets because our people have forgotten to protect their interests. I also care deeply for the families that have been destroyed because the father has been serving a 50 year drug sentence that could be commuted by a presidential pardon, or the black kids dying in the streets of Chicago every single day of the week. That’s where it certainly becomes personal for me.
Poverty is important, poverty must be addressed and the issue must be kept on the table. Any words you hear from (wealthy) black public figures like Steve Harvey, who might allude to the personal nature of the West/Smiley critique, are the result of inside conversations meant to distract you from focusing on the real issues at hand and holding anyone in the Obama Administration accountable for what happens to the African American community. The black elite are wired to protect one another, and this often comes at the expense of regular people. So, after you get done figuring out if Cornel is angry over not getting his inauguration tickets, refocus on the matter at hand and start demanding that all Washington politicians do something about poverty. It’s time to stop making excuses, for hope and change only start with people who demand it.