My Problem with ‘Poverty Tours’

My Problem with ‘Poverty Tours’

ON THE ROAD: Dr. Cornel West and journalist Tavis Smiley recently concluded their 14-city "Poverty Tour" to bring attention to the plight of America's poor.

“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” – John 12:8

Last week media personality Tavis Smiley and his radio show sidekick, Princeton professor Cornel West, wrapped up their seven-day 14-city “Poverty Tour,” for which they caught plenty of hell. Launched to raise awareness to the plight of America’s expanding poor in this depressed economy, critics, from regular folks on social networking websites, to bloggers, to media personalities, labeled Smiley and West everything from “Obama haters” to “cry babies” to “poverty pimps” and worse. Comedian and radio show host Steve Harvey recently branded them “Uncle Toms,” on air, the ultimate diss for black people who are disloyal to their race — in this case their criticism of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black President.

As a journalist, I’ve met both Smiley and West on occasion but don’t know either of them personally. Still, calling them “Toms” seems overboard. Both men believed their critique of the president and cause for the poor is just and in the spirit of their Christian faith. They deserve praise for using their platforms to take action. Attendees at their tour stops reportedly showed love. What concerns me as a Christian and observer is why these two intelligent brothers chose to advocate in a way they know won’t move the needle one bit for the poor. Why a model that more resembles what Glenn Beck would do than what Jesus would? 

Servant Leaders or Advocate Entrepreneurs?

Smiley and West could’ve chosen the servant leader model, exemplified by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other disciples of the civil rights movement. Through nonviolent passive resistance, they raised the nation’s consciousness and got policies changed. King was unfortunately assassinated in 1968 in the midst of leading the Poor People’s Campaign calling for an economic Bill of Rights (sound familiar?) to end poverty among all Americans. There’s also Mohandas Gandhi, the Hindu philosopher who inspired King. Through nonviolence, hunger strikes, and skillfully mobilizing peasant farmers, Gandhi led India to independence from Great Britain. A trained lawyer, Gandhi eloquently confronted Britain’s most powerful, yet related equally to the poor, though, like King, he was of a higher socioeconomic class.

Jesus Christ — the ultimate divine servant leader — inspired both King and Gandhi and obviously changed the world. Servant leaders succeed because of their moral fortitude, skillful planning, and ability to inspire and empower people in concrete ways. Most importantly, they are committed to self-sacrifice.

That’s the problem with Smiley and West.

As Smiley complained of perceived slights, such as Obama being the first president to not invite him to the White House, and West whined that Obama didn’t hook him up with a ticket to his inauguration, their self-absorption became blatantly clear. Could you picture King or Gandhi voicing such drivel? If advocating nationally for the poor is truly your calling (it’s not mine) why not lead a hunger strike or a fast? How about camping out in a tent near the White House or Capitol Hill until change comes? How about organizing and mobilizing voters in the way the Tea Party advocates have done to elect politicians who would pass a poor people’s Stimulus Bill? You both evoke King’s words concerning the poor, why not his manner?

Smiley and West’s method was more like Beck, the multimillion-dollar right-wing media mogul/talk show host who fashions himself as an evangelical bullhorn for angry whites. Beck has done road shows, packed auditoriums, and even held a rally on the National Mall on the day commemorating the historic 1963 March of Washington. Beck’s is the “Entrepreneur Advocate” model, where the speaker to the crowd is the only one whose wallet gets enriched. Beck has mastered this hustle. Smiley has long been associated with it, too.

So what are Smiley and West really peddling?

Besides selling books and a Poverty Tour TV special and DVD that I suspect will be released later, I believe Smiley and West’s goal is to hustle their way into President Obama’s inner circle. The tour was part of their angling for a “come to Jesus meeting” like the “beer summit” that Henry Louis Gates Jr., West’s black contemporary at Harvard, enjoyed after his spat with a white police officer made headlines. Smiley and West would love to commune with the prez at the White House on red wine, crackers and cheese. They likely would want to broadcast the meeting/interview on Smiley’s TV show.

Don’t be shocked if it happens close to Election Day 2012.

And, in the meantime, the poor will remain among us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the writer and are not necessarily the views of or Urban Ministries, Inc.

Who’s Fault Is the Achievement Gap?

Who’s Fault Is the Achievement Gap?

On August 28, a monument to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. will be unveiled in our nation’s capital, but two new polls suggest that White Americans still see the African American experience through a privileged lens.

Cross-Racial Consensus/Discord

With the African American unemployment rate twice what it is for Whites and the wealth gap wider than ever, Colorlines publisher, the Applied Research Center (ARC), conducted a nationwide poll of 2,400 adults to get a sense of whose fault people think this is. What ARC found is that “there’s cross-racial consensus that hard work generally leads to success in this country and that lack of success doesn’t mean an individual didn’t work hard,” but “very different explanations for the most glaring failure of our entire society—the persistent racial disparities in achievement and well-being.”

When asked if they agree or disagree with the statement: “In the United States, people who work hard generally succeed in life,” overwhelming majorities of Americans agreed.

When asked to respond to the statement: “In the United States, people who have not succeeded in life generally failed to work hard enough and/or failed to take advantage of opportunities to better themselves,” 34 percent to 43 percent of Americans agreed, depending on their race/ethnicity, but in no group did a majority agree.

When asked about three potential factors in the achievement gap: individual initiative, race and class, respondents’ opinions varied across racial groups. Twenty-four percent of Whites said individual initiative is the only factor, while no more than 13 percent of other groups agreed with this statement. Conservative political ideology was “the most reliable predictor” of who would attribute the achievement gap to individual initiative alone. Whites were also the only group for whom a majority disagreed that racism is a factor in the achievement gap. Only 37 percent of Whites said racism is a contributor.

“The data show that even controlling for other factors, clearly African Americans are more likely to see race as part of the explanation. That means that while White liberals were certainly more likely than White conservatives to believe racial disparities were caused by race-based discrimination or lack of resources, they were less likely to believe so when compared to Black liberals,” Colorlines reported.

Class was “the only one of the three factors suggested for driving disparities that garnered majorities of all four racial and ethnic groups—Whites, Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans,” the article said.

Finally, among respondents aged 18-25, only about 65 percent are as likely as older Americans to see individual initiative as the sole reason for success. “Like Blacks and Latinos, they are also more likely to select more than just one type of explanation. Nuance is not our enemy, and with proactive efforts, it can be our collective future consensus,” Colorlines concluded.

Adding to the Consensus/Discord

Meanwhile, a nationwide USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people that was conducted in advance of the King monument dedication found that approximately nine out of 10 Americans say civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes, but when it comes to hiring, Whites see “a level playing field” while a majority of Blacks say discrimination persists.

My Take

These conflicting views remind me of something a White leader who worships and serves in a majority Black context said to me earlier this year. He said he is and probably always will be a recovering racist because, by virtue of being White, his is a privileged point of view.

In 12-step programs, the first step toward recovery is admitting we have a problem. These poll results indicate that we do. White Americans do not clearly see the suffering that discrimination inflicts upon people of color and appear to hold these neighbors to a higher standard than they do themselves.

I’m also reminded of the Apostle Paul who lamented his own inability to overcome sin. “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing,” Paul says in Romans 7:19. “Who will rescue me?” he asks. Jesus Christ, of course, is the answer. I pray that rather than discourage us, polls like these correct our vision and lead to repentance.