by Dr. Boyce Watkins
This week, Roland Martin conducted an interesting interview with radio host Morris O’Kelly about the cease and desist order that was sent to him by Tavis Smiley. I’m not sure what the situation is all about, but it sounds unfortunate.
I was shocked to see that Tavis took it to the courtroom, since I’d not heard O’Kelly say anything that appeared to be all that defamatory. When I read that O’Kelly once worked for Tavis, that’s when my ears perked up. Typically, people get into nastier fights when they have a history of bad blood with one another, so my assessment is that at least 75% of this is personal.
With that being said, I must confess that I agree with O’Kelly that it’s ironic that Tavis has made a career out of critiquing public officials, and then files a legal document against O’Kelly for attacking him. That’s like Jay-Z suing Nas for dissing him in a song, and it kind of breaks the rules of public discourse. I’d love to hear Tavis Smiley’s side of the story and I’ll share it if we speak and he gives me the right to do so.
At the same time, this back-and-forth is an easy battle for O’Kelly, since so many black people are already angry at Tavis for not being a cheerleader for President Barack Obama. The unconditional disdain that many people have for Tavis is problematic because talking about Tavis gives people an excuse to not talk about poverty. But the data proves that both Tavis and Cornel West are right: Poverty and wealth inequality have risen to an excruciating level, and our community continues to be harmed because our politicians are feeding us mind-numbing Kool-Aid instead of substantive economic policy.
It appears that the gist of what O’Kelly is saying about Tavis and Cornel’s poverty tour is that the tour comes off as a complaining exercise that is not accompanied by any real policy recommendations. While I can’t speak to whether or not this is the case, I can say that Tavis can easily dismantle this critique by pointing to a set of policy recommendations that he would like for President Obama to consider. O’Kelly also had something to say about Tavis’ decision to sign R. Kelly to a book deal even though Kelly has a shady reputation of harming young women. I don’t have much to say about that…you know how I feel about R. Kelly.
I sincerely doubt that Tavis has spoken about poverty in this many venues, to this many people, and never mentioned a set of policies that could accompany his critique. Also, even if he has no policies to recommend, Tavis and Cornel are doing important work by at least increasing awareness of the severity of the poverty problem and reminding us to push our politicians to address it. Unfortunately, most of our alleged civil rights leadership has little interest in speaking to any issue that hasn’t been approved by Valerie Jarrett.
The point here is that everyone has a role, and no one is expected to do everything. On a football team, the lineman doesn’t throw the ball and the running back doesn’t play defense. So, even if Tavis isn’t doing everything for everyone, we must give him some credit for at least trying to do something. Most of those who attack Tavis haven’t done anything except sit back and engage in the simple task of referring to him as a “hater.”
Simultaneously, O’Kelly’s critique may actually help the poverty problem, even if it doesn’t help Tavis himself. By laying out his concerns in a public forum, O’Kelly reminds us all that presenting an agenda to President Obama is a better strategy than simply cheering when he gets elected, signing off on every human rights violating foreign policy and marveling over how cute his daughters are. Sometimes, criticizing someone makes them defensive, which in turn makes them believe they have to prove you wrong. So, court order or not, O’Kelly has already made an impression on the actions of Tavis Smiley.
But for those who don’t think that there is a black agenda or that one was miraculously created last month by Rev. Al Sharpton, the fact is that there has always been an agenda for black America. Since 2008, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Cornel West, Father Michael Pfleger and even I have clearly stated that the president and Congress must address the following issues: Violence, mass incarceration, black unemployment, poverty and unequal educational systems. Not only have these recommendations been made on a consistent basis, they were accompanied by specific policy avenues through which these matters could be addressed.
This begs the question: If a black agenda and policy recommendations have always been in existence, why do so many people think that African Americans don’t know what they want? It’s because certain people in the White House (not all of them white) made a conscious effort to only invite those individuals who would not ask the president to do anything meaningful for the black community. That’s why Jesse Jackson was never invited to sit with the president, even as Obama has co-opted Al Sharpton and turned him into a defacto employee. The interests of you and your family have rarely made it onto the table of discussion at celebrity White House social gatherings, since nearly every black public figure remains intoxicated by the glam of being “down with Mr and Mrs. Obama.” In fact, I dare say that if the Sandy Hook massacre had occurred on the south side of Chicago, not a single gun law would have been changed.
With regard to O’Kelly and Tavis, this is just one of many small skirmishes that have taken place in the black public sphere during the age of Obama. Divide and conquer has been a great strategy to keep our community from progressing under the authority of a black president, all of this because we’ve been so busy either loving Obama or hating him and not spending nearly as much time giving a damn about ourselves. It’s time to refocus and make ourselves and our interests the center of attention, and not allow those interests to be succumbed by the career ambitions of any one public figure.
O’Kelly and Smiley both care about black people and have different ways of showing it. Perhaps from that point, they can find their common ground. The same thing goes for the rest of us.