Tavis Smiley and Cornel West Aren’t "Traitors"

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West Aren’t "Traitors"

Say what you will about the politics of the pair’s “poverty tour,” but name-calling is totally useless.

Published August 15, 2011

If you’ve paid attention to the news at all lately, you know that Cornel West, the celebrity Princeton professor and author, and Tavis Smiley, the well-respected PBS host and pundit, recently embarked on a nationwide “poverty tour.” Beginning in Chicago, West and Smiley traveled to 16 separate poor communities throughout the United States in order to shed light on the wealth disparity currently plaguing the nation. As West told BET.com, the duo’s ultimate goal was to “decriminalize” poverty.


“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,” he said. “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.”


As you might imagine, West and Smiley have been chastised a lot for their tour. A Florida Courier headline asked if the tour was a “betrayal” against President Obama, whom West has made no bones about calling a “Black mascot” for “Wall Street oligarchs.” Steve Harvey even went so far as to suggest the two were “Uncle Toms.”

Say what you will about the content of West and Smiley’s arguments; it’s totally reasonable to disagree with their political stances, and many people do. But Uncle Toms? I think not.


Easily one of the best things about being white is that you’re allowed to disagree with other white people without outsiders saying that you’re a traitor to your race. White people in the news, media, and politics are always bickering about differing opinions, but nobody would dare say that those people are “betraying” their white community. To do so would be ridiculous and offensive—so why do so many African-Americans engage in that practice?


Again, say what you will about West and Smiley’s political opinions, and their criticism of Obama. That’s totally fair game, and it’s important for the democracy to critique others’ positions and make progress. But what’s not progressive at all is calling Blacks with whom you disagree Uncle Toms. Racist Americans love to see Blacks fighting amongst themselves; it makes oppressing them easier. To slander each other for no reason other than conflicting opinions isn’t just stupid; it’s also wildly harmful to forward motion.

(Photo: Robert Pitts/Landov)

Written by Cord Jefferson


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