Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton Face Off

Salim Muwakkil

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Criticizing President Barack Obama is a hard sell in the black community. Even with the Great Recession wreaking havoc in every nook and cranny of African-American life, it’s not easy to get a discouraging word from black folks about America’s first black president.

‘A chorus of black leaders have started singing a new song, saying that the president doesn’t need a black agenda,' Smiley said. 'I must have missed that choir rehearsal.’

And those who do utter such words often face community enmity and questions about their motives. African-Americans are intensely loyal to the first of their own, but while this strong sense of racial allegiance is understandable, it’s producing a log-jam in our political culture. 

As the Public Enemy lyric most of our heroes don’t appear on no stamps” makes clear, the personalities most esteemed in black America are oppositional figures. Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, William Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells, WEB Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, etc., all worked to expose the racial hypocrisy at the heart of the American project.

But as president, Obama has had to present our traumatic racial history as a narrative of American majesty. Consequently, he is changing how the black community thinks of itself, which has resulted in a significant change in the configuration of black leadership.

This conflict broke into view during a public spat between former presidential candidate and activist Rev. Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, the commentator and author. On the popular Tom Joyner Morning Show, Smiley told radio listeners: A chorus of black leaders have started singing a new song, saying that the president doesn’t need a black agenda. I must have missed that choir rehearsal, because I don’t know the words to this new hymn. Do we think we can give President Obama a pass on black issues and somehow, when he is no longer in office, resurrect the moral authority to hold future presidents accountable to our concerns?”

That good question was prompted by public comments Sharpton made following a White House meeting that he, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and National Urban League President Marc Morial had with Obama. 

Sharpton reportedly said the president need not ballyhoo” a black agenda. He argued that Obama faced political constraints and could best assist distressed black communities with a broader, race-neutral strategy. Smiley strongly disagreed. And the feud was on. Expecting Obama to become a black exponent of black views” was just stupid” Sharpton told Smiley in one of many testy exchanges.

During Smiley’s criticism of the chorus of black leaders” he announced a gathering of experts in which discussion of a black agenda would take center stage. That event was held on March 20, in Obama’s hometown at Chicago State University, and included 12 speakers, all of whom to varying degrees urged the president to focus on issues important to black Americans.

Sharpton’s National Action Network has scheduled a similar event during its annual conference, April 14 to 17, in New York, and it’s likely the panelists at his event will endorse the president’s race-neutral approach. 

At the heart of the disagreement is the question: Is Obama’s race-neutral approach appropriate considering the many miseries afflicting black America? Why should African-American activists stop pressing for attention to their issues just because the president now is black? Wouldn’t it have been perverse to fight for a black president just so he could ignore or downplay the desperate needs of the black community?

Those in the Sharpton camp argue he should avoid black issues lest it inflame white opposition to a point where it could cripple his presidency. If he pushed a black cause it would empower conservatives seeking to derail progressive legislation. Let us not forget, they note, the United States is just 56 years away from Jim Crow apartheid. 

What’s more, that argument goes, with xenophobic tea partiers ominously waving their pitchforks and assault rifles and screaming for Obama’s political blood, now is not a propitious time for a black agenda.

Sharpton took unusual umbrage at the criticism because in some ways Smiley had usurped his traditional role. Sharpton had been the one on the outside throwing rocks. Now he is an insider and a bit uncomfortable with his new role as presidential apologist.

That’s certainly a change for the brash minister who made his name fighting police brutality and racial assaults on black victims. But it’s just one of many changes wrought by Obama’s historic ascension.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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