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Part 2: Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West Call on Obama to Host a White House Conf. on Ending Poverty

Web ExclusiveNovember 09, 2012
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We continue our conversation with broadcaster Tavis Smiley and professor, activist Dr. Cornel West about their push for President Obama to address poverty in his second term. Smiley argues the ultimate question now, is: “Are we ready to push?” He and West have organized a symposium to take place on Jan. 17, prior to Obama’s inauguration, to demand Obama call a White House conference on the eradication of poverty.

Click here to see part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. And our guests are Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. Professor Cornel West now teaches Union Theological Seminary in New York. He taught, before that, at Princeton University and, before that, at Harvard University. Tavis Smiley broadcasts on PBS and NPR. He has several shows, The Tavis Smiley Show, and he does a show together with Dr. Cornel West called Smiley & West, as well as his own NPR show, The Tavis Smiley Show. I’m Amy Goodman.

And we’re talking about poverty. Now, this should not be revolutionary to talk about poverty. It shouldn’t be radical at all to deal with a critical issue in this country. But if you look at the last months of this political campaign, of the presidential campaign, poverty was almost mentioned—well, almost not at all. Yet, a new report is warning global inequality has reached a 20-year high. According to the group Save the Children, poverty, that had previously been concentrated in the world’s lowest-income countries, is now on the rise in middle-income countries, which account for 70 percent of the world’s poor. Let’s talk about that, Dr. West.

CORNEL WEST: Well, it’s sad. In America, we are 34 out of 35 of the top industrial countries when it comes to child poverty, ahead only of Romania.

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty-four of 35.

CORNEL WEST: Thirty-four of 35. Twenty-two percent of our precious children of all colors live in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. That’s obscene and profane. No serious talk about it. Now, in the black community, it’s nearly 40 percent; in red, 40 percent; brown, nearly 40 percent of the children.

AMY GOODMAN: How have we come to this point?

CORNEL WEST: Shameful silence on behalf of leaders who do not want to tell the truth about the suffering of poor people.

TAVIS SMILEY: On top of that, corporate greed.

CORNEL WEST: Yes, yes.

TAVIS SMILEY: On top of that, political indifference.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

TAVIS SMILEY: On top of that, a silencing and a sidelining of progressive voices over the last four years.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

TAVIS SMILEY: So there are myriad reasons how we arrived at this place. The ultimate question now is, to whatever extent—to whatever extent there is hope in a second term for President Obama, the ultimate question is—that we raised in our gathering last night here in Chicago—are we ready to push? And that’s why Dr. West and I love that Curtis Mayfield song, “Keep on Pushing.” That’s the only option that we have at this point. You know, we have to ask ourselves, what kind of nation do we want to be? And what kind of demos are we going to be to make the nation that we want to live in? So I’m hoping that those of us on the left, who have been so quiet, are going to start to push this president.

I noted, as we all did very—the day after the election, and to their great credit, the Latino leadership called a national press conference, a national conference call, and they went on record the day after, letting the president and the whole world know what they had done to elect Barack Obama to a second term. And they laid out immediately what their expectations were, what their demands were. So there’s a long line wrapped around the White House now to push him. But the Latino leaders, they get it. They didn’t waste any time saying, “We got you re-elected, and here’s what we expect.”

AMY GOODMAN: So talk more about what it is you’re going to do, this convening you’re going to be doing in Washington, right at the time of inauguration.

TAVIS SMILEY: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Inauguration is on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.

TAVIS SMILEY: Twenty-first of January. And so, just three or four days prior to that, on the 17th, we’re gathering at George Washington University for a live symposium on C-SPAN and on PBS and on public radio. But we’re talking specifically about how we get this president—demanding, in fact, that he call a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. To his credit, the first thing he did when he got elected four years ago was to sign Lilly Ledbetter. We’re demanding now that he call immediately a White House conference on the eradication of poverty, bring together all the experts, from the left and the right, and let’s craft a national plan to cut poverty in half in 10 years, to move toward eradicating it in 25 years. This is not a skill problem; it’s a will problem. Do we have the will to do this? And he ought to take a page out of Lyndon Johnson’s playbook. You know, if he wants to hit—if he wants to aim for the fences, you know, if he want to be a great American president, if he wants to leave behind a legacy—and we read in the New York Times, from all his private talks with these historians, that that’s what he wants to do: he wants to leave a legacy, he wants to be a great transformational president—we say take on the issue of poverty, so that all of America benefits. So, January the 17th, we’re going to have this national conversation, pushing him and demanding—and all these leaders have bought into this. I mentioned Jeffrey Sachs and Marian Wright Edelman and Cornel West and Jonathan Kozol and others, who are coming together. And we’re going to have, obviously, an opportunity for folk to go online, as they watch this symposium live, to sign the letter to the president that he get serious about calling a White House conference to eradicate poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you end poverty in America?

CORNEL WEST: Well, you have to have an awakening, and you have to have people who are willing to put their bodies on the line. I think what is happening now, moving into the second term, the black prophetic tradition has waken up. What’s the brother from Howard? Brother Keith, open letter

TAVIS SMILEY: Mm-hmm, to the Washington Post.

CORNEL WEST: —to Obama in the Washington Post. Strong. Fredrick Harris, Columbia, Price of the Ticket, strong. Boyce Watkins, already strong. Julianne Malveaux, bell hooks, Black Agenda Report with Glen Ford and Bruce Dixon and Nellie Bailey. There is an awakening that’s—and when the black prophetic tradition wakes up, you got something, because then you got Jamal and Leticia on the block beginning to say, “I need to talk politically, not be addicted to this cultural, superficial spectacle.” And that’s what we’re about.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you have the whole discussion now about the bipartisan consensus. Republican House Speaker John Boehner told newly re-elected President Obama he wants to see Obama succeed.

HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led—not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans. We want you to lead—not as a liberal or conservative, but as president of the United States of America. We want you to succeed. Let’s challenge ourselves to find the common ground that has eluded us. Let’s rise above the dysfunction and do the right thing together for our country.

AMY GOODMAN: So there you have House Speaker John Boehner.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, I—I appreciate the sentiment. But their words, at the moment, we will see what kind of truth there is, what kind of authenticity there is behind those words, when the president, now back in Washington, sits down Republicans to deal with that word that I hate—sequestration—when we start dealing with these cuts that are on the table. We’ve said many times that budgets are moral documents. Budgets are moral documents. When they get into the weeds about these numbers and about the budget priorities, we will see how strong that sentiment comes through.

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely. Yeah, my spontaneous response is, if I believe those words, I’m the flying nun of Eskimo origin. But everything’s possible.

TAVIS SMILEY: There’s always hope.

CORNEL WEST: Everything’s possible.

AMY GOODMAN: But you see how the—


CORNEL WEST: I’m a Christian. Everything’s possible.

AMY GOODMAN: The crackdown happens from the beginning. The discussion is all about how far right do you go. And groups who are concerned about issues like poverty, issues of social justice, are being told, “You’re going to be lucky—you just have to be quiet right now, because we are talking about these massive cuts.”

CORNEL WEST: Yeah, don’t do it.

AMY GOODMAN: “Do not undercut the president.”

TAVIS SMILEY: Well, they—that’s the same thing we heard the first term. And we see where we are now. And we—part of the reason why the race was as close as it was, getting down to the wire, is because too often in the first term, the president compromised, capitulated, caved, and oftentimes negotiate against himself with Republicans. And so, I hope that we’ve learned a lesson—that he’s learned a lesson, the White House has learned a lesson, from the first administration, that sometimes you’ve got to draw a line in the sand. And as my grandfather said, there’s some fights that ain’t worth fighting even if you win, but there are other fights you have to fight even if you lose. So I would love this notion of bipartisanship to come to the fore in Washington, but if that doesn’t happen, the president has to stand on a—on some immutable principles and try to advance the conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe it’s the bipartisan consensus that’s the problem in Washington, not the gridlock, right? I mean, the bipartisan consensus—

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —you see reflected in the presidential debates. There’s no debate over drones.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s no discussion of poverty, absolutely no mention of climate change. And yet, does this represent the majority of people in this country? Hardly, I think this election shows.

CORNEL WEST: Not at all. Not at all. You got the far right, and then you’ve got the center-right—the Republican Party, Democratic Party. And without no one who’s really progressive on the left telling the truth about the suffering. But, you know, the truth is, is that, you know, if 40 percent of white babies were going to bed every night either starving or not having enough to eat, it would be a different discussion. And each baby has the same value, but we’ve got 40 percent of the babies of color who are going to bed without, and we’re told to be silent and somehow capitulate to a debate about deficit, when we know we need massive investment for jobs with a living wage, massive investment for public housing, massive investment for public education, and we’re getting privatization on each front? There’s no way we’re going to be silent. You would have to crush us to the earth and introduce us to the worms before we’re going to be silent.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a protest that happened this week. Hundreds of people gathered at the University of Mississippi on Wednesday to denounce racism on campus, one day after a heated protest against President Obama’s re-election. After the results were announced on Tuesday night, a crowd of several hundred gathered in anger, with some people reportedly shouting racial slurs. At least two people were arrested. What type of backlash do you expect against President Obama’s re-election?

CORNEL WEST: I think it’s going to be intense, as it was before. But the important thing is not to focus on that. That’s lunatic fringe. You focus on the suffering and what can be done about the suffering. As long as we focus solely on the xenophobic, right-wing fringe, there’s always going to be one. We’ve got 1,100 white supremacist militia groups in America, coming at us all the time. We can’t be obsessed with that. We’ve got to be obsessed with trying to do something that’s positive and changes the world, you see.

TAVIS SMILEY: In 10 seconds, racism is still the most intractable issue in this country. And I know you saw this report a couple of weeks ago, just before Election Day, that finds that racial attitudes in this country have not changed at all. In four years, the needle has not moved on race relations. So, so much for the post-racial America that Mr. Obama’s election was going to usher in. It’s still the most intractable issue in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I flew into Chicago, and I was sitting next to a man, African-American manager in a large company, manufacturing company. He said he was afraid to go to work the next day. He said these are all his friends that he works with. He loves his company. He does happen to be the only black person in the company. And he said he’s very loved in the company. But he was afraid to go to work on Wednesday, after Election Day, because he knew that everyone in the company voted for Romney, and that when they saw him, they would see President Obama’s face, and he just didn’t want to bother them. He didn’t want to disturb them. And he was a little bit afraid, though he loved them.

TAVIS SMILEY: It’s a serious burden around, Doc. I—wow.

CORNEL WEST: But he’s much better off than those kids that got to deal with the bullets coming at them all the time and going to funerals 12 and 13 times before they’re 17. And that is what we’re dealing with in terms of the massive number of poor folk in these chocolate cities. So I pray for the brother, and I know he’s got some challenges, but he’s not a priority.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, your book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, which has come out in paperback, why did you write it? Talk about your poverty tour, and talk about your conclusions from the book.

CORNEL WEST: Brother Tavis’s idea, Brother Tavis’s vision. I was glad to go along with him.

TAVIS SMILEY: OK, brother, talk about it, please.

CORNEL WEST: And we had a magnificent time. Started with indigenous peoples on the reservation. We went to white poor, brown poor, black poor, yellow poor, trying to allow all the voices to be heard. Color of Change, De-incarcerate, Janitors for Justice—all the different organizational groups that are bubbling from below, of all colors, especially younger generation.

AMY GOODMAN: We haven’t even talked about prisons, and they certainly rarely talk about prisons, except the other way: locking people up.

TAVIS SMILEY: That’s why we call it A Poverty Manifesto. In the back of the book, the last part of the book, 10 specific things that can be done, that must be done, to eradicate poverty in this country. And one of those 10 is taking on this prison-industrial complex. And we hope that the president and that those in the White House who are serious about creating his legacy, whatever that means, will consider doing something about poverty in this country. It is threatening our democracy. It is now a matter of national security. When people have no hope for the future, they have no power in the present. Something must be done to save this democracy by doing something about this growing gap between the have-gots and the have-nots, about this gap between the rich and the rest of us. And we’re going to keep pushing the president, lovingly, respectfully, but keep talking about this issue.

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