Commentary: Why a Poverty Tour Now?

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are taking their show on the road once again. That’s fine, but couldn’t they have planned a little better?

Posted: 09/07/2012 12:11 PM EDT

Last year, disheartened by the amount of poverty in America, especially Black poverty, Princeton professor Cornel West and liberal pundit Tavis Smiley took off on what they dubbed their “Poverty Tour.” The point, they told BET at the time, was “to dramatize the poverty and humanize our perception of poor people in America. This is especially so for the Black poor. Poverty has been criminalized, poor people demonized and what we want to do is dramatize poverty and humanize our perception of poor people to overturn what has been in place for so long.”

Though West and Smiley said directly that their tour wasn’t an “anti-Obama tour,” both men had not been shy about claiming that President Obama had not done enough to help the nation’s poor.

One year later, West and Smiley are set to embark on another road trip, this one called, of course, the “Poverty 2.0 Tour.” This time, while they’re again not calling it an anti-Obama project, the men are being a bit more open about their irritation with the president:

"The Democratic Party platform four years ago, on which Mr. Obama ran, called for the eradication of poverty. Those are their words," Smiley recalled. "The problem is, we haven't heard much from this president or this administration about how we're going to do just that."

West and Smiley have a few suggestions of their own — a 10-part manifesto to be exact, which they've outlined in their book and which they say must begin with the Lyndon Johnson-esque vision to put poverty at the top of the White House agenda and to work to cut the poverty rate in half (or more) within the next 10 to 15 years.

It should go without saying that Smiley and West are free to say whatever the heck they’d like whenever they’d like. But one wonders why they’ve decided to more pointedly go after Obama at this point in time, when it looks as if the election in November is going to be a close one. Yes, going on a poverty tour and criticizing Obama while the presidential campaigns are in full swing is certainly going to garner more notoriety than doing so, say, when politics have left people’s minds in the holiday months immediately following Election Day. But West and Smiley should also ask themselves if they think Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, is going to be better for America if Obama loses.

If the duo were to consider that question, it would probably come to the conclusion, as others have, that the Romney-Ryan ticket could be disastrous not just for Black Americans, but also poor Americans. Nobody, least of all me, is saying that Obama has been perfect in his handling of American poverty. But, alas, America is currently a two-party system, and that means we’re facing a decision between Obama and the other guy. And the fact is that the other guy would be even worse for the poor. Let’s hope Smiley and West include in their criticisms the acknowledgment that Romney wouldn’t be better for America’s destitute.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Tavis Smiley/Facebook)


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