Tavis Smiley has a problem. The problem is one that is rooted in egregious miscalculation, poor target selection and mild delusions of self-righteous grandeur. As Tavis plans his symposium this week to define the black agenda in America, most of us are wondering if it’s Smiley’s agenda that will be highest on the priority list. While Smiley presents himself as a consistent political figure who has held all politicians equally accountable, many view his gathering this weekend in Chicago as a Barack Obama bashing festival.
Let’s be clear: It’s not easy to objectively criticize President Obama when his approval ratings in the black community remain above 90 percent. At least half of my articles about Obama have been critical, and I always have to make sure that I am not haunted by the ghostly spirit of Obama-mania, which is just as bad as Obama-haterology. Dr. Julianne Malveaux and Rev. Jesse Jackson have done a very good job of holding Obama accountable in a way that does not appear to be driven by personal motivations or latent hostility. Tavis Smiley, however, can’t shake the perception that he has a personal vendetta against the president, for it is quite rare to see a prominent public figure so obsessed with the career of another person.
The Your Black World Coalition monitors the political mood of our supporters when it comes to issues that matter to African-Americans. With 60,000 African-American members nation-wide, we have the ability to put our fingers on the collective pulse of black America through various forms of statistical sampling. In our analysis, a few things remain abundantly clear: Most of our followers love Barack Obama (probably more than they should), and a large percentage of them, to be quite frank, can’t stand Tavis Smiley. What makes matters worse for Smiley is that many of those who refuse to buy his books were once loyal fans – meaning that he has engineered the double loss of turning many of his friends into enemies. This is enough to make any publishing house or corporate sponsor run in the other direction, undermining the power of the Tavis Smiley brand. With such a terrible approval rating, Smiley wouldn’t even be invited to sell predatory loans for Wells Fargo.
In a recent commentary, Smiley mentioned that his latest book, Accountable didn’t go anywhere near the New York Times best-sellers list. What is most remarkable is that Smiley seems to honestly believe the reason his book didn’t sell well is because African-Americans are suddenly uninterested in having their issues on the table of our American government. Sorry Tavis, but the reason your book wasn’t a hit is because people have felt that your critiques of Obama come from a disingenuous place. Black people do not need to read Tavis Smiley books in order to understand their own issues. As Jesus is considered the only path to God, Tavis somehow seems to feel that he should be the only path to black liberation. He reminds me of the Baptist minister who only wants you to serve the Lord if you attend his church and keep him in power.
As we critique our president and find ways to hold him accountable, it appears that there are two camps emerging in black America: The camp that wants Barack Obama to stay in the White House and the camp that wants Obama to jump in a lake. Those who want Obama to remain in power must find a way to analyze his presidency the same way you confront a sibling: You never allow him to neglect his responsibility for supporting the family, but you should be careful not to attack him in such a way that you empower his enemies to destroy him. We know the Republicans want President Obama gone, and we know that many paternalistically racist liberals have attempted to hijack his seat in the White House. Working with Obama is going to require a mass re-education of the African-American community on how to play the political game without being the underdog. I am not sure if it makes sense to sabotage the first black President all so we can picket, protest and complain about the next white one.
In the classic film, The Wiz, Michael Jackson sings a song called “You Can’t Win.” I would love to go to Smiley’s house, and have a quartet serenade his front porch with that very same song. For even pragmatic reasons, Smiley should understand that the Obama train is too strong for him to stand in front of it. While most of us agree that Obama-mania is bad for the black community, consistently attacking Obama in black America is like telling a child that their absentee daddy is a horrible person. While the child’s father may certainly be worthy of criticism, the child eventually notices the biases of the mother, and may even assume there to be bias when no such bias exists. I am not completely certain of what motivated Tavis Smiley to be so focused on “holding Barack Obama accountable” before Obama’s butt had even warmed the chair in the Oval Office. But the reality that Smiley must confront is that this just doesn’t look good.