Who put Tavis Smiley in charge?
Over the past two months African Americans have emerged as equal partners in a multi-racial, intergenerational, bipartisan, national coalition led by the most exciting political candidate of the past four decades, who also happens to be the first viable African-American presidential possibility in our history. So why is Tavis Smiley throwing a temper tantrum?
He is mad because Obama has not promised to attend Smiley's "State of the Black Union" next week in New Orleans. At last year's SOTBU Al Sharpton, Cornel West and others joined Tavis is roundly criticizing Obama for not attending. Where was Barack that weekend? Oh yeah, he was announcing his bid for the U.S. presidency. This year, Obama is busy trying to win Texas, which has emerged as the firewall state for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Obama wins Texas; Hillary goes home. But Tavis & Co. think Obama should spend precious hours chatting with them about their agenda?
(Jimi Izrael wondered the same thing about him and the other Popes of Blackness.) Let me be clear: I respect the importance of the SOTBU. Tavis performs an essential public service by creating and reproducing a critical black counter-public through this event. The event is decidedly democratic because it is open to a true variety of black voices. Every year it showcases black intellect, commitment and ideological diversity. All this is great, but it doesn't make Tavis the gatekeeper. It certainly doesn't give him the right to act as King-Maker, or in this case Queen-Maker.
Tavis and his guests have every right to criticize Obama if they have substantive disagreements with his policy, his approach to politics or his viability as a general election candidate. They do not have a right to create a false, racial litmus test. All these black leaders who spent the year telling us that Obama is not old enough, not black enough and not angry enough to earn African American votes must have noticed that Obama can deliver the black vote to himself, by himself, with little help from these self-proclaimed racial power brokers.
I can't quite figure out what motivates Tavis. At least I understand the old guard Civil Rights leaders. They are genuinely unwilling to cede power, believing that they have an authenticity claim based on their proximity to Martin Luther King, Jr. I also understand the frightened Democratic insiders who rely on the remnants of the Clinton machine for their bread and butter. But Tavis is not in either category. He is a part of a new generation of journalists who have carved out their own constituency. I am actually surprised to see Smiley join a pile-on led by his former boss Bob Johnson, who tried to silence him with such an ungracious termination a decade ago.
Maybe Tavis legitimately worries that the policy issues of black America will be lost in the excitement of the multiracial coalition. That is fair. But I wonder why Tavis does not trust us to vote in our own interests. Obama won the votes of the people of Louisiana last week. He stood at Katrina's ground-zero while Hillary blew off the state, assuming she couldn't win it. Now Tavis wants to act as a racial super-delegate by claiming he knows what the people need better than the voters.
Maybe Tavis is just jealous. Maybe it isn't deep at all, just a replay of the old adage about crabs in a barrel.
I do think that Obama should attend the State of the Black Union. I agree with CNN's Roland Martin (which is rare) that Michelle should go. She should listen to concerns, answer questions from the audience and take seriously the substantive concerns raised there. Barack should be in Texas. I don't think anybody in the room will claim that Michelle is not a good enough surrogate for Barack. If Hillary can claim Bill's presidency as her experience, I am pretty sure Michelle can talk to Tavis on the campaign's behalf.
I usually watch this event every year. It is fun, enlightening and inspiring. This year I will have to TiVo it. Why? Because I will be phoning Texas voters to remind them to head out to the polls on March 4.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University