Before President Obama took office four years ago, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, Ph.D. were on the battlefield to bring justice to the poor. The duo, which has always supported Obama, has often been criticized for its persistent efforts to hold him accountable. “I think Brother Tavis and I, in a culture of fleeting pleasures, find enduring joy in loving and serving poor and Black people, even when we’re misunderstood,” West told EBONY.com
During a recent visit to the Johnson Publishing Company’s headquarters in Chicago, the pair shared their thoughts about why they’ll turn up the heat even more now that Obama has won a second term.
EBONY: What are your thoughts about Obama’s re-election?
Dr. Cornel West: I just think it’s a beautiful thing that we stopped a right-wing takeover of the White House. That would have been catastrophic for poor people, catastrophic for Black people. We will continue to put pressure on him and remind him of the legacies of not only Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer but also John Johnson, who was concerned about the dignity of Black people and being respected in the name—not of just interest but of fairness. The Black freedom movement has always been about justice…We want justice for Hispanics, gays, women and Jews.
Tavis Smiley: I was glad he won because I believe in second chances and the president deserves one. He deserves a second chance given the obstructionism he faced in the first term. He deserves a second chance given the headwind that he was up against in the first term…I’m happy he won because I now truly want to see Black people mature, become more politically sophisticated and see whether we are ready to engage the first African-American president on what needs to be done for African-Americans. You noticed the day after the election the Latino leadership had a national media conference call. A good cross section of Latino leadership were on this national conference call the day after and they were very clear to the national media that, “We got this president elected. There are three or four states that we saved him in.” The national media, of course, has already acknowledged that, but the Latino vote saved him in three or four critical states…They went on record within 24 hours laying out their agenda.
Now, we’ve heard for so long that the president doesn’t need to have a Black agenda. We don’t need to press the president. I’m hoping now for all those Black people who kept saying, “Let him get a second term,” that we are mature enough and politically sophisticated enough to lovingly and respectfully push him to be a greater president.
EBONY: He’s said many times before, “I’m not the president of Black America. I’m the president of America.” What are your thoughts?
CW: I think that made a little sense when he was thinking about being re-elected. Now, he should be a free Black man. He’s got four years in office and two years to really do something. I think he’s got to recognize that Black people made America great. There is no America of greatness without blues, jazz, Curtis Mayfield. There is no America without Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin King and Malcolm X. The Black freedom movement has made America democratic and more free. So when you say, “I’m president of all America,” then go to the leaven in the democratic loaf of America. What has made the loaf expand? The Black freedom movement. You got to speak to the new Jim Crow. He got to speak to poverty. He got to speak to dilapidated housing and he got to speak to levels of unemployment and underemployment…
TS:…Black people are not asking for help because they’re Black…I’ve said many times, if you’re in a car accident and they rush you to the hospital and you had head trauma, I hope they would not start operating on your feet first. You go to the part of the body where the pain is most acute. Black America is hurting. Here’s your dialectic here: Black people are hurting the most and we’re his most loyal constituency. Somehow, even at those two polar realities, the most loyal and hurting the most, they still, at the moment, have been relegated to the back of the bus. One thing I do want to warn about is that in this second term, this White House, because they are very smart, we’re going to see even more so than the first term, a lot of symbolism from this administration in the second term. A lot of symbolism and Black people are so easily seduced by symbolism. Dr. West and I both believe that symbolism matters. It matters to young Black children to see an African-American president. It matters to Black families to see a Black family that’s still together. It matters to Black people to see a brilliant Black woman and two beautiful Black kids. It matters. Symbolism does matter.
I want to warn us to not be seduced by symbolism in this second term. If we are, we’re the only folk who are going to be seduced by symbolism. For everybody else who is in that line wrapped around the White House, demanding the president now respond to his or her agenda, starting with our Hispanic brothers and sisters, symbolism is not enough for them. They don’t want symbolism; they want substance. We got to make sure that we don’t fall for that in the second term.
EBONY: Unemployment is at an all time high. What other issues should we expect will be addressed?
CW: Unemployment is a crucial one. Not just jobs with low wages, but jobs with a living wage. I also think he needs to use his bully pulpit to stop the bogus drugs, the war on drugs, and to try to transform the new Jim Crow. See, if we had a president in 1945 who was Black and didn’t say another word about Jim Crow, the symbol would only go so far. But we got a new Jim Crow and this president knows the complex ain’t no joke. It affects our focus. You see it with all of this killing across our cities. You see it with the dropping out of schools and so forth. If somehow we can get jobs and education in there as an alternative to the new Jim Crow, we can have a new America and a new Black America. He’s got to hit that head-on. That’s part of the struggle against poverty that was Tavis’s idea to have the poverty tour.
TS: [President Obama’s] inauguration this year is on the King holiday, January 21. Martin King gave his life for what? Fighting for poor people. This president is going to be inaugurated on Dr. King’s holiday. We’re going to Washington prior to that on the evening of January the 17th for a nationally televised symposium on CSPAN, on PBS and on Public Radio, talking about poverty. This symposium is created for a specific purpose. The panelists include Cornel West and Marian Wright Edelman from the Children’s Defense Fund and just a broad array of experts on poverty. In his first term, the first thing he did was sign the Lilly Ledbetter Act. In his second term, we’re demanding and asking that he establish a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. Bring all the experts together to the White House, from the left and from the right, so that we can craft a national plan that can cut poverty in half in 10 years and move toward eradicating it in 25. It can be done… The first term is all about getting some points on the scoreboard and hoping for a second term…We’re in the second term. He’s iconic already because he was the first Black. But I know Barack Obama, and I know that’s not enough for him. He doesn’t want his major claim to fame to be he was the first Negro president. What he wants to do is be a transformational president. On January 17, in the heat of all the celebration, we are going to say, “Mr. President, we love you. We respect you. We’re glad you won. We support you. In this second term, you’ve got to take a risk.” There is no greater legacy than Barack Obama could have as president than to lift millions of people out of poverty.
EBONY: What do you say to people who are sitting back saying, “Here they come again starting trouble?”
CW: You know what I’d say to them? God is going to trouble the water. We want to be in the troubling waters in order to bear witness. Sometimes God is in that trouble to wake up, to change the world.
TS: Our people, too often, miss this. It is an honor to be held accountable. It means that people have a trust in you, a faith in you, a belief in you, and so they hold you accountable…That’s why we engage in things called contracts. We want to hold people accountable. The contract that the president signs with the American people is a contract [in which] he tells us this is what he’s going to do. We want to hold him to that. We’re not trying to demonize the president or cast aspersion on him. There is honor in accountability. Our people need to understand this. They can hear everything else the president says, but somehow they miss it every time he says, “I need you all to hold me accountable.” This is not Cornel West or Tavis Smiley saying this. He has said repeatedly, “Hold me accountable.” He has said repeatedly, “Be the wind at my back.” Now the president is telling us in a second term to, “Go out and make me do it.” Are we not going to listen to our president? Are we not going to respond to our president? If he’s asking us, telling us to make him do it, Dr. West and I are going to take him up on the invitation.
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Senior Editor, EBONY Magazine