The Professor Who Schooled Tavis Smiley

Illustration for article titled The Professor Who Schooled Tavis Smiley

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.

"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.