The Professor Who Schooled Tavis Smiley

Harvard's Randall Kennedy used the TV host's show to debunk his rants about Obama.

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Bristling in the face of the calm scholar, Tavis Smiley was having none of the lesson that Randall Kennedy was teaching on Smiley's TV show in early September. So the Harvard law professor contented himself with taking PBS viewers to school on the complex relationship between the first black U.S. president and his African-American constituency.

Kennedy weighed in with the scholarship of his new book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, noting that President Barack Obama has mastered the dual audience so troubling to black seekers of high office. African-American voters broke for him in the '08 primary after largely white voters in Iowa favored him over John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.

Already, Kennedy argued, Obama was overcoming skepticism among grassroots blacks wary about his upbringing by a white mother and her parents. He heaped praise upon Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders and displayed the requisite level of "comfort with black history, black culture, black rhythms, black colloquialisms."And whereas Obama did not choose his parents, the young politician had chosen a "very distinguished black woman, Michelle Robinson" as his wife.

None of this swayed host Smiley. Nor did it sway many prominent black political and church leaders at the time, including California Rep. Maxine Waters and half the Congressional Black Caucus, where Obama was a card-carrying member. All favored Sen. Clinton over Obama. Indeed, New York Rep. Charles Rangel, then the most powerful African American in Congress, had projected that one of his top career achievements would be the election of Clinton, who happens to be white, as the first female president of the United States.

One of the overlooked intrigues of American politics is how securely the Clintons have fastened their ring in the noses of so many key black leaders and how, even now, it seems difficult for some to remove it! Last week Smiley was still defending Clinton's chances against Obama in the '08 primary: "Hillary was still ahead of him 2- or 3-to-1 in most polls, until the overwhelming numbers of white voters in Iowa gave him that victory and then said it was OK. What [does] it [say] about black folk along that color line that they didn't break for Barack Obama until white folk essentially -- my words, not yours -- gave them permission?"

The question, of course, could just as glibly have been asked, Why indeed did Tavis Smiley and key black leaders await the white woman's permission to support a black presidential candidate? Professor Kennedy was too dignified, however, to slide down into the mud with his host. Instead, he answered that the commitment to Obama after Iowa was based upon the grass roots' perception of the young senator as a "winnable" candidate.

Such pragmatism recalls the 1969 mayoral primary in Atlanta, when black voters favored the Jewish candidate, Sam Massell, over his highly touted black opponent, Horace Tate, because, as Julian Bond pointed out at the time, Massell was considered a "winnable" candidate.

"Black folks are like other folks," Kennedy told Smiley. "They like winners." An unpopular Republican had occupied the White House for eight years, and when Obama won in the white Iowa electorate, Kennedy said that it signaled, "Hey, this guy can win. After all, the electorate in the United States is mainly a white electorate."

Also, policy issues were essentially equal between Clinton and Obama, both being "centrist, liberal-leaning Democrats," and the value-added "difference [was] Barack Obama is black ... many thought this would be a wonderful and extraordinary thing, for a black family to occupy the White House."

The disagreeable Smiley disagreed. He demanded that Kennedy explain "to Hillary supporters [like himself] who were disappointed that black folk were siding with Barack Obama because they were tribal." And he stated, quite erroneously, that the community organizer-turned-Illinois politician, whom some considered the most liberal in the U.S. Senate, brought only his color to the concerns of black constituents.

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