The Professor Who Schooled Tavis Smiley

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

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.

“Race aside,” Kennedy answered, “many black people, on ideological grounds, would have been drawn to Obama anyway … as a wonderful, vivid way of repudiating our white-supremacist past.” Then the Yale-trained lawyer exonerated the mass of black Democrats of the “tribalism” charge, singling out as practitioners instead those black, conservative Republicans who crossed party and ideology lines to vote for Obama chiefly because of the pull of group identity — and likely peace at home.

With no such inter- or intra-party policy differences between the two Democrats, Smiley and the other black Clinton devotees chose to stick with Hillary and the stable personal comforts of what Kennedy described as “the white-supremacist past” boldly rejected by Obama supporters.

Why exactly do so many key black Democrat leaders remain so steadfast in their immutable opposition to President Obama? Faced with similar opposition from key black leaders in the 1920s, wildly popular black nationalist Marcus Garvey recalled the adage that “a thief does not like to see another man carrying a long bag.”

Adrift now among their brethren, with scars to show for it, Smiley and these diehard Clinton loyalists seem vested not so much in trumpeting Obama successes as they are in whooping about failures in order to redeem themselves with “I-told-you-so’s.”

When Smiley dismissed Obama’s successes as “symbolism,” the Rhodes scholar zapped him with this insight: “A lot of black people realistically understand that symbolism can be quite substantive.” Illustrating this point with staged sit-ins, mass arrests, suggestive images of truncheons, fire hoses and snarling dogs, Kennedy based his symbolism-as-substance paradigm on the transcendent fact of the black first family climbing “the Mount Everest of American politics” to the White House.

A roundly unimpressed Smiley laid down the gauntlet to “respect, protect and correct” the sitting U.S. president, with tongue-lashing emphasis on “ko-reck.” After resisting every nudge for reason and restraint during Kennedy’s 26-minute clinic on the Obama presidency, the host offered the professor no choice but to flunk him respectfully as a cocksure student dead wrong on every key question.

Seldom has such baloney passed through the grinder with such melancholy ignorance.  

Les Payne is a frequent contributor to The Root. 

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