Broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley has courted controversy in recent months, as he and his friend and mentor, Dr. Cornel West, embarked on a “poverty tour” that included sharp jabs at President Barack Obama.
On Monday, theGrio spoke with Smiley about his upcoming PBS Special “Too Important to Fail,” which debuts on PBS on Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST. The special, and an associated E-book, tackle the issue of education as it specifically relates to the plight of black boys, who statistics show are consistently falling behind their white peers.
During the interview, Smiley voiced skepticism about the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” federal initiative, saying education is a “fundamental right, not a race,” and that “if it is a race,” black boys are losing. He said federal policy should specifically address the needs of black male students, who Smiley said are taught overwhelmingly by “white women,” while he said they need to be talked to and educated in a very specific way in order to achieve success.
Asked about his past criticisms of Obama, and his statements, reported by the Huffington Post, that the president had failed to invite him to the White House or appear on Smiley’s radio or television program, West insisted he has never uttered a personal criticism of the president, and that the statements about not being invited to the White House were simply an answer to the reporters question.
Still, he called Obama the first president of many to not extend such an invitation, though he said he “doesn’t lose sleep about it.”
Smiley insisted that he is wrongly called a “critic” of the president, saying that holding the president accountable is his “job.”
He said he’d done the same when it came to former president Bill Clinton, and former President George W. Bush and his father, former president George H.W. Bush.
“My job has always been to hold presidents accountable to the best interest of all Americans but specifically and unapologetically for [African-Americans],” he said.
He also denied that past comments made by West were either criticisms or inflammatory, saying that when West called Obama “a mascot of Wall Street” and a “puppet of plutocrats,” those were accurate statements.
“People get caught up in the [words Dr. West used],” Smiley said. “The point Dr. West was making is that this president…has been too beholden to Wall Street.”
And he added, “the question is not why Tavis is saying what he’s saying, it’s why you aren’t saying it. It’s not why [Dr. West and I] are doing a poverty tour, it’s why you aren’t doing a poverty tour.”
“It’s just funny to me that people get more riled up and more excited and more angry about what I may or may not say about the president than they do about the crisis in black boys. If Negroes could get half as mad at what black boys are enduring as they do when Cornel West or Tavis Smiley says something, we might get something done.”
Part two of theGrio’s Tavis Smiley interview will be posted tomorrow.