Princeton professor Cornel West and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, both vocal critics of President Obama, will embark on a “poverty tour” this weekend that will take them to 16 poor communities across the nation. It kicks off Sunday in Obama’s hometown of Chicago. Although according to West, “it is not an anti-Obama tour,” it does seek to highlight what they say is lack of effort by both the president and Congress to address the needs of the Americans who have been hardest hit by the recession. West (pictured above, right) recently discussed the road trip’s goals with BET.com, as well as some of the criticism he’s received for speaking out against Obama.
BET.com: Why are you embarking on the poverty tour and whose idea was it?
West: Tavis Smiley and I had been talking for a year about how 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. When he came up with this idea for the tour I thought it was a magnificent idea.
BET.com: What are some of the stops on the tour?
We’re going to an Indian reservation in Wisconsin, we’re going to hit the brown barrios, the Asian poor communities, white poor communities, the Black hoods and we’re ending in Memphis to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s fundamental commitment to sanitation workers there, and of course his assassination.
BET.com: How are you going to share your observations and some of the things you’ll see while on the tour?
We’ve got an embedded reporter from The Washington Post, camera people who’ll be keeping track and of course you’ll be able to follow most every second of it on the Internet on the tavistalks.com and smileyandwest.com. And there will be documentary filmmakers so we can keep the story going after. I think we’re going to see great dignity, great suffering and great resiliency.
BET.com: A recent Pew Research Center report highlighted the widening wealth gap between whites, African-Americans and other minorities. To what do you attribute the growing disparity?
West: I think it’s tied primarily to greed and power among our oligarchs and plutocrats. I’m sure that the shattering of so much of the American middle class, but especially the Black and brown middle class, had to do with the Wall Street greed that led to the financial catastrophe in 2008—predatory lending, fraudulent behavior, insider trading—just criminal activity that has yet to be investigated or prosecuted.
BET.com: What kinds of policies would you like to see put in place to remedy some of the economic downturn’s adverse effects.
West: We need massive job creation programs and massive investment in public housing, education, transportation and health. The health care bill was an attempt to move in that direction, it’s weak, but it’s better than nothing. It’s a billion dollar giveaway to private insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies that mandate people to buy their products. It extends the number of people who can become part of the health care system, but the reason why we needed transformation in the health care system is because you’ve got 30 percent profits at the top. If you had Medicare for everybody, you’d only have three percent Medicare profits at the top and private insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies would no longer be in the driver’s seat.
BET.com: You’ve mentioned massive investments in domestic areas, but with the nation still in an economic crisis, where would that investment come from?
At the moment it’s very difficult now that the oligarchs and plutocrats have checkmated Congress and the White House and put them in a corner, so you end up having a debate about budget cuts rather than investment.
BET.com: In a recent NPR interview, President Obama was asked if he has a special responsibility to Black people and he gave his standard he’s the president of everyone answer. Do you think that he should have a special responsibility to African-Americans, given that community’s economic state?
West: I think that every citizen in a democracy has a moral obligation to be concerned about the weak and vulnerable and the president of the United States is a citizen. When he says he has the exact same responsibility to every member of society, I just say it’s not true, he’s lying. It’s clear that he has more commitment to investment banks than he does to poor people. It’s just clear because when they got in trouble he gave them $700 billion; he subsidized them. They have not made poor people a priority. That’s why we’re going on the tour.
BET.com: Do you wish you’d expressed some things differently so that people wouldn’t focus so much on your personal feelings about Obama and more on your message?
West: If someone had asked me only political questions about public policy, I would have responded only to that because I believe in telling the truth. Someone asked me a personal question, I believe in telling the truth about my personal relationship. I did 65 events and he didn’t say “thank you.” I don’t like that; that’s not decent to me. That’s true for anybody. The sad thing was that the personal truth did get in the way of the political truth, but I would phrase both of them the same way.