Smiley and West: Still Fighting for the Poor

A new book by the duo tries to make poverty an issue for the 2012 election.

Smiley Books; Cornel West and Tavis Smiley (Washington Post)
Smiley Books; Cornel West and Tavis Smiley (Washington Post)

Herman Cain: “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

Newt Gingrich: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they have no habit of showing up on Monday … They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of ‘I do this, and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”

Mitt Romney: “I’m not concerned with the very poor. The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democratic Party the plight of the poor. And there’s no question it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor. But [my] campaign is focused on middle-income Americans.”

The book looks broadly at the middle-class implosion. When asked what this moment means for the black middle class, West pointed to a 1957 work that documented a black middle class that was largely invisible to much of the country. Of course, the civil rights movement enabled African Americans to share the country’s economic expansion. But as many of us know, our tenuous wealth has been diminished in the last decade.

“The black middle class is disappearing,” Smiley said. What are the effects? “You wind up with an oligarch society. You also end up with a social structure that looks like a diamond: mass poverty at the bottom. All this talk about American exceptionalism begins to disappear.

“The black middle class played a crucial role in telling the truth about suffering — from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to Martin Luther King Jr.,” Smiley continued. “As that black middle class begins to disappear and find itself unable to sustain itself, then what was the leaven in the democratic loaf makes it stale.”

Steven Gray is a contributing editor to The Root. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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