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Tavis Smiley on the State of the Black Union, Economic Inequality and the Obama Administration’s Boycott of the World Conference Against Racism

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On the last weekend of Black History Month, more than 6,000 people gathered in Los Angeles for the tenth annual State of the Black Union convention. We speak with founder and organizer Tavis Smiley. Smiley is host of Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show from PRI. His latest book is Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Billie Holiday, “God Bless the Child.” She’s one of the people featured in America I AM Legends: Rare Moments and Inspiring Words, put together by Tavis Smiley, as we go now to Los Angeles to speak with him.

There was another large gathering this weekend, the last weekend of Black History Month. Over 6,000 people gathered for the tenth annual State of the Black Union convention. Speakers included Jesse Jackson, Sr., Al Sharpton, Congress member Maxine Waters, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, and writers Michael Eric Dyson, Lani Guinier, Van Jones, Randall Robinson and Cornel West. President Obama also addressed the conference via video.

Tavis Smiley is the founder and organizer of the annual gathering. He is host of Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show from PRI. Earlier this year, he launched the first national traveling exhibition dedicated to the 400-year struggle of African Americans. It’s called “America I AM: The African American Imprint.” Tavis Smiley is also the author and editor of over a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Covenant with Black America, The Covenant in Action, and What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America. His latest book is the third in the Covenant series. It’s called Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise. Tavis Smiley joins us now from Los Angeles, California. He was supposed to be in New York, but it is snowing mighty hard here.

Welcome, Tavis. It’s good to see you in Los Angeles, at least.

TAVIS SMILEY: Hey, Amy. Nice to see you. Sorry I’m not there, but the minute we finish talking, I’m on my way there. We have a book signing in New York tonight, so I’m headed there in just a matter of minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tavis, thank you for joining us. The State of the Black Union, talk about where African Americans are today in this age, in this era of the first African American president.

TAVIS SMILEY: We’ve been having these conversations, Amy. We’ve talked about it before on this wonderful program, Democracy Now! We’ve been conducting these conversations for ten years now. I could not have imagined back in 2000, when I convened the first conversation, that ten years later we’d still be doing this, and I could not have imagined also — oh, I should say, I neither could have imagined that we’d be having this conversation in year ten against the backdrop of, to your point, the first African American president. For that matter, I could not have imagined ten years ago that the head of the Republican Party would be an African American. Two black men as the head of the two major political parties in this country, you could not have imagined that ten years ago. So, clearly, progress has been made.

On the other hand, we now have to battle against this notion that the mainstream media and others want us to buy into, that because we have an African American president we live in a post-racial America. America may very well be less racist, given that so many of us — black, white and others — voted for President Obama as a candidate. We may be less racist, but we are not post-racial. And I don’t want us to hasten to believing that just because we have an African American president in this multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America, that there isn’t work to be done on behalf of those who are disenfranchised politically, socially, economically and culturally, persons most often of color. So there’s work to be done.

There’s an ally in the White House, perhaps, that can help us advance this agenda, but only if we hold him accountable. President Obama made promises when he ran. There are other issues that really didn’t get addressed in this campaign. And while I celebrate him — I revel as an African American man in the first black president, Amy — I understand that there’s honor in accountability. I understand that great presidents aren’t born; great presidents are made. I want him to be a great president. I believe he can be, but only if we help make him a great president by holding him accountable.

Last year, when I tried to raise these issues of accountabilities — I’ve always done it, every presidential race – there were some people who wanted to give me some pushback about this accountability talk, as it were. The irony of it now is that in every speech the President gives, including the one he gave to us over the weekend, he’s talking about what? Accountability. For him, for Congress, for Wall Street, for the auto industry, the message is accountability, and that’s what this third and final book in the Covenant trilogy is all about.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you think President Obama rates so far in these first two months of his administration, if that — we’re not even at two months?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah. I think they’re going to have an interesting — they’re going to have to increase the size of the book for his first 100 days, whatever will be said about him, given how aggressive he has been in the first thirty or forty. I think he’s off to a great start in terms of being aggressive, in terms of inspiring the American people, letting them know he’s on the job and that he’s on the case every single day while on the job. So I think he’s off to a great start and being aggressive. It takes time. I don’t believe in a grace period for any president. No grace period. You’ve got to get to work on day one. That’s why we elected you, particularly in these economically perilous times. But I think he’s off to a very aggressive start. And so, I celebrate that.

But again, this is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. And what this book Accountability does is two simple things, but I think two poignant and powerful things. It lays out on the top ten issues that matter to so many Americans what Obama promised as candidate. We want you to know what he promised on these major issues, like health and education and the digital divide and the criminal justice system, etc., etc. These top ten issues — economics, of course — what did he promise as a candidate? That’s what the book lays out in detail, with citations and sources, when he said it, where he said it, in what context he said it. So the book lays out in a very detailed way what he promised as president. Promises made ought to be promises kept.

But right along in this — with these facts and this data, Amy, we lay out what we, everyday American citizens, can do to help advance that agenda. So it’s about him; it’s about us. I believe that his accountability and, quite frankly, that of all elected and otherwise persons known as leaders, our responsibility is their accountability. Put another way, their accountability is our responsibility. And that’s what the book lays out as a book has never done, especially at this critical point, at the start of a president’s administration, so we can follow along, have a playbook, a guidebook, a checklist, for what they’re doing and what they’re not doing and staying on top of that. That’s what accountable is.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, Tavis Smiley, African American unemployment is about 12.6 percent. For young black men, it is far higher. What is the solution?

TAVIS SMILEY: In a single word, jobs. We need jobs. We need jobs now. We need jobs to come out of this stimulus package. And unlike the TARP money, we need these jobs to actually trickle down to the persons who need them. I celebrate the stimulus package. I think it’s a step in the right direction. And I’m like most of — every other American, I suspect, Amy. I’m not excited about the banks getting more money, but I respect the direction the President is moving in. I appreciate the fact that he’s being aggressive about this. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of talk in Washington that never becomes transformative, it never trickles down — pardon the pun — to the people who actually need it. And so, the answer, in a word, is jobs. We need them, we need them now, and we need an abundance of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Among the issues discussed at the State of the Black Union conference this weekend was US policy towards Africa. I wanted to get your response to Glen Ford, who is with the Black Agenda Report, who said what you have with Obama is US corporate empire with a black face, and that could be destructive, he said. Your response, Tavis?

TAVIS SMILEY: Well, I think every president heads a corporation. The truth of the matter is, if we want to be honest about this, America was a corporation before it was a country, so that every president — black, white, Republican, Democrat — is really the head of a corporation, and we’ve got to be honest about that. Business — was it Calvin Coolidge who once said the business of America is business? That’s just a reality. We have to deal with that. It’s part of what makes the American empire what it is. It’s the greed, quite frankly, on corporate America’s part that’s got us in the mess that we’re in right now. So, there’s no denying, there’s no arguing, that America, again, is run by, in so many ways, these corporations, so that Obama — I guess the point I’m making here is I don’t want to cast aspersion on him as opposed to any other president who inherits a country that is run by corporations.

I will say that I’ve been disappointed, was disappointed, when President Obama was passing out some of these cabinet appointments, with the number of people from Wall Street that were pulled into the economic team. I just don’t think that you advance the cause of the country by pulling in the same people who helped get us into the mess that we’re in. Some of the persons on his economic team were part of the deregulation effort over these last, you know, twelve, fourteen years in Washington. Certainly during the Clinton administration, there was some deregulation.

And we just got to be honest about saying that at the end of the day, we have got to pull America out of this malaise. And again, I’m willing to give the President time to do that. Even though I might not agree with members of his team and some of those choices, you know, I’m willing to give them an opportunity to see what happens here.

But we’ve just got to tell the truth about these issues and keep the pressure on the White House to make sure, again, that everyday people do not get left out of this conversation. There’s been so much conversation, Amy, as we all know, about Wall Street; every now and then, some conversation about Main Street; but not often enough conversation about the side street. And these days, too many Americans are living on these side streets, and I just think that we have got to get the help to the weak working class that needs that help. And I, you know — I’m not going to hold my breath about this, and again, I want to give the President some time, but at the end of the day, if the weak working class is not shored up, we’ve still got a problem in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, the comments of another first, of Eric Holder, the first African American attorney general in this country. During a speech in Black History Month, he talked about this nation as being a nation of cowards for not discussing the history of US racism more openly. Do you agree?

TAVIS SMILEY: Yes. He told the truth. Every one of us has the right to choose our own language, and some of us, some persons, might not have used the word “coward” or “cowardly” or any derivative thereof. But at the end of the day, the evidence abounds that we do not like, we are not comfortable, discussing the issue of race in America. It is the very reason that the mainstream media was so quick to try to promulgate this notion of living in a post-racial America just because we have a black man in the White House. As I said earlier, or intimated earlier, America may be less racist, but we’re not post-racial.

Clearly, a lot of white folk voted for Barack Obama to be in the White House. Black folk couldn’t have done that alone. So, America may be less racist, and I celebrate that, obviously, but we’re not post-racial. And Eric Holder was right to suggest, in his language, that we just aren’t comfortable having the discussion of race in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. I don’t know what the brouhaha was all about that. He told the truth. Many of us live in cities that are too segregated, the evidence in housing, in employment, environmental racism you discussed earlier on this program. At the summit that took place in Washington this past weekend, Van Jones talked powerfully about how we have to green the ghetto first — he and Majora Carter.

The evidence abounds that racism is still the most intractable issue in this country, and many of us, most Americans, like to stay in our own corners. We don’t want to venture out. Many of us don’t have a circle of friends that includes people of color, etc., etc., etc., and we want to act like Eric Holder was playing politics, that he was being provocative, that he wasn’t telling the truth? He told the truth, and I just don’t get all the brouhaha. The truth will set us free, if we’re willing to deal with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, I wanted to ask you about the latest news, that the Obama administration has announced the United States will boycott the World Conference Against Racism in Geneva next month, unless its final document drops all references to Israel and reparations for slavery. We were just talking last week on Democracy Now! to Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, the former head of the UN Human Rights Commission, who was the head, one of the heads, of the Durban Conference I, that happened right before the September 11th attacks, when the US walked out. What’s your response?

TAVIS SMILEY: I think it’s a mistake. We have a bad and spotty track record as the United States of America of boycotting too many of these conferences and boycotting for the wrong reasons. I don’t know how in the world that we can justify boycotting a world conference on racism, as I said a moment ago, when in this country, racism is still the most intractable issue in America. It is, quite frankly, a disappointment.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you support reparations?

TAVIS SMILEY: I support reparations. The question is, how do we define reparations? And you don’t get to these conversations by boycotting them, and that’s the point of why you have to show up and engage in dialogue. And so, the answer to reparations is about how, in my mind at least, Amy, we define it. Do I support giving a check to every black person in America? No. Do I support giving us forty acres and a mule like they originally promised? No. You know, or talked about at least. No, that’s not the answer.

But there has to be a concerted, concentrated, laser-like focus on the African American community, given the legacy of white supremacy that we still see playing itself out 400 years later, even after the election of an African American president. And so, yes, I support reparations, depending on how we define it. Education vouchers? Yes. Housing opportunities? Yes. There are so many issues on which we need to get some traction where black people specifically are concerned, since that’s what tends to come up when we talk about reparations. But for me, it’s about how we define it.

To the first issue, about Israel, this is a tricky and thorny situation. But let me just be clear about this, as clear as I can be, at least, very quickly here. Israel is an important ally. I think in this last round of fighting, they did a less-than-admirable job of calibrating the use of their power in this latest round of fighting. Every powerful country, every country with weaponry, including us as compared to Iraq, including Israel as compared to Palestine, has got to be clear and considerate about how they calibrate the use of that power, and I don’t think Israel did a good job of that the last time around. And yet, I recognize that they are an important and strategic ally, and I don’t begrudge the relationship that we have with them in the region.

Our problem is that I think we’re starting to lose the capacity to be an honest broker in this process of bringing peace, given how we treat one side as compared to how we treat the other side, given that the Bush administration didn’t even want to really engage this process. We have got to be honest brokers, and we do that by seeing the world as it is, not necessarily as we want it to be.

And for both of those reasons, on Israel and on reparations, it’s tragic, and I think shameful, that here we are again boycotting a conference that we ought to be at. You don’t make progress by not talking. And it seems a bit inconsistent with candidate Obama’s talk about Iran, for example, and all — remember the fighting that he and Hillary had about the conditions for who you would talk to and when you would talk? Many of us celebrated President Obama for a position of being willing to show up and talk. And that ought to be the case with this conference.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, finally, the traveling exhibit that you have going across the country, talk about what it is.

TAVIS SMILEY: It’s called “America I AM: The African American Imprint.” It is the first exhibit of its kind to ever, Amy, comprehensively tell the contributions — the story, that is, of the contributions that African Americans have made to this country. We just wrapped, of course, African American, Black History Month. The great black intellectual many, many years ago, W.E.B. DuBois, asked this question: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” You start extracting the blackness out of America, there goes Barack Obama, there goes your Motown soundtrack, there goes Jackie Robinson, there goes Muhammad Ali, there goes Ralph Bunche. I could do this all day. America simply would not be the country that she is — no Thurgood Marshall — without the contributions of African Americans.

And this exhibit tells the almost-500-year journey that we have been on in this part of the world to help make America the great country that she is. Over 300 artifacts, twelve galleries, four theaters, 15,000 square feet of space, the exhibit will change your life. It’s now at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia through May the 3rd. June the 7th, we head to Atlanta, then to Los Angeles, then to New York. It’s traveling, Amy, for four years, all the details at americaiam.org. But it’s an exhibit that you have to see. And I promise you, it will change your life, or your money back.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, I want to thank you for being with us. I know you have to head to that plane.


AMY GOODMAN: Tavis will be at the Borders, Columbus Circle, tonight, hopefully at 7:00 for his book Accountable: Making America as Good as its Promise.

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