Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sharpton-Smiley Fight Reveals Rift In Black Leadership Over Obama

Sharpton-Smiley Fight Reveals Rift In Black Leadership Over Obama
By Dr. Boyce Watkins

11:09 AM on 02/24/2010

I sat at my desk, as frozen as a block of ice, listening to one of the most heated conversations I've ever heard on the radio. Tavis Smiley and Rev. Al Sharpton were mad, and you could hear it in their voices. This wasn't "radio mad," where you pretend to fight in order to get ratings. It was "I'm coming to your mama's house to get you" mad, the kind of anger that normally doesn't spill over to the American public. 

The contentious dialogue was rooted in Smiley's recent attack on Rev. Sharpton for a New York Times article in which Sharpton was quoted as saying that he feels the president is wise not to "ballyhoo" a black agenda. In a platform granted to him by The Tom Joyner Morning Show, Tavis put Rev. Sharpton, NAACP President Ben Jealous, Urban League President Marc Morial, Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree and even Dorothy Height on "super blast," arguing that these individuals have not shown sufficient evidence that they care about the interests of the African-American community.
Bad move Tavis. Very bad


The conversation was rocky from the start, and you could tell that Sharpton was livid. Tavis Smiley was a bit calmer, and deserves credit for calling in to Sharpton's show to have the discussion. Smiley kept saying the words "I love you," to Sharpton, which is usually another bad sign. When Smiley says, "I love you," that typically means that he's apologizing for attempting to remove your testicles. Sharpton, like other New Yorkers, won't say he loves you if he doesn't, which made the conversation that much more awkward. What is also interesting is that Smiley, for some reason, is convinced that he can present himself as an objective observer of the Obama administration when he has spent the last three years doing everything he can to undermine Obama's political progress. Rush Limbaugh couldn't have done a better job. 

Rather than following the lead of Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has embraced passionate advocacy over obsessive confrontation, Smiley has chased President Obama to every corner of the globe, like a 12-year old pursuing a bully who stole his bike.This has not worked to Smiley's benefit, and I am not sure if the "anti-Obama" crusade is something that even his fellow Obama critics can understand or support.

The great black divide appears to be a spillover from hard feelings in the Democratic primary, where "Team Clinton" was tossed to the side in favor of the new black face on the block. Smiley and others had access to the Clinton White House, and now a separate team of coordinated civil rights leaders have access to President Obama. Like most politicians, Obama prefers to deal with those who didn't undercut his rise to the White House, which makes Al Sharpton, Marc Morial and Ben Jealous preferable to Jesse Jackson, Tavis Smiley, Michael Eric Dyson and others who've been critical of his political decisions. I don't agree with this approach, but that's what politicians do. While I've rarely heard Rev. Jackson say a negative word about Obama (other than the infamous slip of the tongue nearly two years ago), it seems that Smiley has made a career out of criticizing the president. 

Let's be clear: there are a long list of reasons to seriously critique President Obama and his advisors. Obama's desire to reach across the aisle while excusing the inexcusable has helped add to a growing list of African-American political defeats. The employment gap has widened during the recession, and there is very little evidence that his economic "experts" understand or appreciate the importance of vigorously pursuing true equality. But these critiques must not come from those who seem to attack the president for their own personal gain. Smiley's challenges may have some element of truth, but his analysis of Obama has as much credibility as the Republican obstructionists who attack everything that the president does.

What was also interesting about the fight between Sharpton and Smiley were the subtle ways in which Smiley kept taunting Rev. Sharpton to appear at a forum he plans to hold in Chicago. Like a rapper promoting an upcoming album, Smiley mentioned the forum in every other sentence, telling Sharpton that if he has something to say, he should come to the forum and say it. Perhaps Sharpton's appearance would increase attendance and make Smiley's corporate sponsors happy, since I am not sure how many people would be willing to come out just to see him (Obama's win badly hurt his popularity). I'm admittedly perplexed by the Smiley concept of "Black Leadership brought to you by McDonald's," but I digress. I noticed that Smiley engaged in the same taunting exercise with President Obama during their fateful back and forth during the Democratic primaries, and again to Republican presidential candidates who refused to attend his televised debates. One has to wonder if the objective of the Smiley forum is to ask honest questions or to strengthen the platform of Tavis Smiley. It's ok if both objectives are on the table, but if Smiley truly wishes to renew the honesty of his political advocacy, he will allow Sharpton, Jackson and others to choose the moderator, date and location of the black public conversation.

As Tavis Smiley presses forward with his demand that President Obama have a "black agenda," I must ask this question: Did Bill Clinton also have a black agenda or was he given the "ghetto pass" that some are denying Barack Obama? Given that Smiley has referred to Clinton as "the first black president," it seems that Clinton's black agenda would have been loud and clear. The truth is that it was not. In fact, Bill Clinton thinks so much of black men that he told the late Ted Kennedy he believes Barack Obama would have been "serving him coffee" a few years ago. Additionally, Smiley failed to articulate that Sharpton, Morial, Jealous and Height were not arguing that a black agenda should not exist.They were simply arguing that the agenda does not have to be advertised and heavily promoted by a black man attempting to govern a racist society.

Tavis Smiley may need to change the name of his political accountability forum to the "Anti-Obama Tea Party for Black Folks." By smoking out the president and attempting to "punk" him into taking public positions that will surely undermine his already troubled presidency, Smiley is behaving as a Fox News commentator arguing that President Obama should hold a joint press conference with Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While Pastor Wright should be respected by the president, Obama does not have to make that the centerpiece of his activity.

Here are some final thoughts about the fight between Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton:

1) This fight should never have happened. Before blasting Sharpton on the radio, Smiley should have called him on the phone. Additional discord among African-American leadership is not going to help any of us. Since Smiley struck the first blow on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, I can only assume that he was the one who punched at Sharpton first. Tavis should know better than that.

2) There should be a forum on the Obama presidency, but Tavis Smiley should be the last one to moderate it or even choose the panelists. That's like allowing a Klansman to run the NAACP. If black America is going to have this conversation on politics and race, it should be held with genuine advocacy for the people and meaningful respect for the fact that millions of black folks love Barack Obama. It is not our job to decide if they should love him, but with every critique of the Obama presidency, we must provide a relevant solution that does not short circuit his ability to lead all Americans. 

3) The discussion on political accountability should not only be focused on President Obama, but must also study the actions of a multitude of political figures and civil rights organizations. Barack Obama is not the only politician on the Beltway who should be expected to acknowledge the black agenda (whatever it happens to be). We should put the heat on everyone, including members of Congress who take money from corporations that hurt the African American community, and organizations who need to be encouraged to do a better job. It's not personal, it's politics, where only squeaky wheels get oiled. Black people must learn how to squeak like hell to get what we deserve. What must also be accepted is that we are not always going to squeak in the same voice.
While the battle between Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton makes for good radio, it does not make for good black leadership. Both men should talk it out, walk it out and find a way to a resolution. But the idea that all black leaders are going to be on the same page is as silly as thinking that all white leaders think alike - being of the same race and political party no longer means you see the world in the same way: Welcome to the post-Obama America. 

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit

On W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio:
2010 State Of The Black Union
“It Ain’t About Tavis, It’s About Us, & It's About Time!”

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