BY BLAKE ZEFF
After a News column this week took both campaigns to task for ignoring the issue of poverty, The Rumble was contacted by broadcaster Tavis Smiley and professor Cornel West with a tangible next goal for pushing the problem onto the national agenda.
“We want to beat the drum loud enough so that [presidential] debate moderators this year will have to ask about the issue of poverty,” Smiley, who’s co-hosting a 4-state poverty tour with West next month, said. “There were three debates in 2008, and the words ‘poverty’ or ‘poor’ did not come up once. The issue must be debated this time around. We hope our tour is loud enough so that debate moderators cannot ignore it.“
As they seek to seize the national stage presented by debates, the activists were none too impressed with what they saw at this week’s GOP convention. “The level of mendacity and hypocrisy is overwhelming,” West said of VP candidate Paul Ryan’s claims to be committed to workers, while espousing policies which do the reverse.
“Ryan mentioned poverty two or three times in his speech. To his credit, he is not shy about raising the issue,” Smiley added. “He acknowledges it exists, acknowledges that it’s worsening. The problem is his approach is all wrong. The Ryan budget will exacerbate the problem, and take it from bad to catastrophic.”
But the duo, as it has for some time, saved some of its strongest condemnation of the silence on poverty, for President Obama.
Asked to respond to a much-discussed column in this month’s Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates noting the added challenges Obama faces because of his race, West replied, “Of course being a black president is different from being a white president, just as being a black doctor is different from being a white doctor, in a society with a history of slavery and Jim Crow.”
“The question,” he continued, “is what kind of courage do you have? So far we haven’t seen that from this president. We understand context. But great black leaders and pioneers have stepped forward and pursued justice anyway. We can’t let poor people be demonized.“
Smiley, for his part, said he was “disappointed in [Coates’] apologist work,” adding, “I don’t think that great Presidents are born, they’re made. There’s no Lincoln without Frederick Douglass pushing him. There’s no LBJ without a MLK. You push a president into greatness. You don’t excuse him.”
“Race does not absolve [the President] or abrogate us from the duty to press him,” he continued. “Otherwise, why have a black President? If he’s handicapped and hogtied from pushing an agenda I support, why celebrate? Symbolism? It has to be about substance, too. What is the price of the ticket we pay for entrance? It’s too high if a president can’t help people caught in a spiral [of poverty] through no fault of their own.”
With this goal of forcing poverty onto the national conversation, the pair intends to hit the road from September 12-15 – “the Labor Day-to-Election Day sprint when people are paying attention,” Smiley says — to host town halls in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
“We want fairness and justice for everyone,” West said, noting that the poverty rate is projected to hit its highest rate in five decades. “We’ve got to be thermostats rather than thermometers. If, like a thermostat, we reshape the climate, we can get a different moment.”