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 Kingand 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 UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries, Inc.