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As U.S. Inequality Widens, Scholar Cornel West and Broadcaster Tavis Smiley Launch Poverty Tour 2.0

StorySeptember 13, 2012
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New government data shows economic inequality continued to widen in the United States last year. The Census Bureau reports the wealthiest Americans increased their share of total wealth by 4.9 percent, while the median income reached its lowest level since 1995. Some 46.2 million Americans were classified as living in poverty. We’re joined by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, who are attempting to start a national dialogue with their new Poverty Tour 2.0, visiting four battleground states: Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. West is a professor at the Union Theological Seminary and prolific author. Smiley is an award-winning TV and radio broadcaster who hosts the PBS TV show, “Tavis Smiley.” Together they are co-authors of the book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 19, 2012Tavis Smiley & Cornel West on “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: New government data shows economic inequality continued to widen in the U.S. last year. The Census Bureau reports the wealthiest Americans increased their share of total wealth by 4.9 percent, while the median income reached its lowest level since 1995. Some 46.2 million Americans were classified as living in poverty. The census also shows that the number of uninsured in the U.S. dropped for the first time in three years, with 1.3 million people obtaining insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by two guests: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley. They’re currently on what they call “Poverty Tour 2.0,” visiting four battleground states: Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. Professor Cornel West, Tavis Smiley are co-authors of the book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. Professor West teaches at Union Theological Seminary, has come from Princeton University. Tavis Smiley, award-winning TV and radio broadcaster, hosts PBS TV show Tavis Smiley and two other radio shows, The Tavis Smiley Show and Tavis—and Smiley & West, which he hosts with Cornel West.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! You’re on this tour. Tavis Smiley, tell us why you’ve chosen these states and what you’ve found.

TAVIS SMILEY: Amy and Juan, nice to be on. Thanks for having us back.

We’ve chosen these states, one, because it’s about being at the right place at the right time with the right message. Last year, nine states, 18 cities, and then another 20 cities on the poverty book tour, and now back out to these four battleground states—as you mentioned, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida—to try to put a spotlight on this issue. You take last Friday’s dismal job numbers, Amy, you combine that with what Juan just laid out from the poverty numbers yesterday, and you get a very clear picture here. Poverty is the new norm in America. Poverty ought to be abnormal, but it’s now the new American norm. And we’re just trying to beat the drum, ring the bell—pick your metaphor—to make sure that between the Labor Day and Election Day sprint, that this issue does not get lost. In the last presidential race, three debates between Obama and McCain, the word “poor” or “poverty” didn’t come up one time. Obama didn’t raise it. McCain didn’t raise it. The moderators never asked about it. Respectfully, two of those moderators from 2008 are back on the stage in 2012, while America is bottoming out vis-à-vis poverty. So we want to make sure that the moderators put poverty in the debate this year, and we want to make sure that the candidates address the issue. And more broadly, we want to make sure that our leaders start to make poverty a priority.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and Cornel West, how would you respond to maybe some of the strategists for President Obama’s re-election campaign saying you’re playing a discordant note here as they’re trying to focus on the middle class and to assure a victory for the president in November?

CORNEL WEST: No, I mean, we would say that the mendacity and mediocrity of Romney is such that it’s fairly clear that Obama will win. The problem is, is that Obama himself, though better than Romney, is still very much part of a system that has failed poor and working people. It’s fairly clear capitalism is not working for poor and working people in America. And we have to bear witness to that. We have to tell that truth. Of course we’re very sensitive when it comes to the fear of a right-wing takeover of the White House with Romney, would be catastrophic. But as I have also noted, so far, Obama has been disastrous. So the question is, how do we acknowledge that this suffering is real, keep track of not just the statistics, but the precious humanity of the folk who are catching hell?

AMY GOODMAN: Cornel West, I wanted to ask you about a New York Times profile of Valerie Jarrett, perhaps the most important adviser to President Obama. And in it, they talk about a moment where she calls you up to, well, basically chew you out, to ream you. Can you explain what this was about?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think it had to do with a—both an interview I had given that reflected on the president and then my claims, of course, that the president was a—what was the language, though, Brother? Was it a—

TAVIS SMILEY: A black mascot and a puppet.

CORNEL WEST: A black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. I was talking about the Wall Street government of Geithner and Summers and others two-and-a-half years ago. And she asked me to take it back. I said, “No, I thought I was speaking the truth.” And she then went at me and tried to just keep me in line. I said, “No, I’m not that kind of Negro. I’m a Jesus-loving free black man who tells the truth and bears witness, be it in the White House, crack house or any other house.” And then I had heard that she called me crazy and un-American. And I said, “Well, you know, under many circumstances, being called un-American is a compliment.”

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

CORNEL WEST: That I am anti-injustice in America. Usually if you’re anti-injustice in America, you’re often viewed as being un-American or anti-America. So that’s a compliment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tavis Smiley, do you feel that the president has in some sense moved on some of these issues of wealth inequality? Certainly he did appear in the earlier years of his administration to be much closer to the banking and financial community than he has in recent months. I’m wondering your assessment of that, of any change in his—at least in his rhetoric, if not still in his direct actions.

TAVIS SMILEY: That’s a great question, Juan. He certainly sounds much more populist themes now than he did earlier in his administration. We’ve made—we’ve been very clear about the fact that he obviously made Wall Street a priority, but not Main Street, and said nothing of the side street. So, yeah, at campaign time, he of course sounds much more, again, populist now than he did before.

But let’s go back to what he said in 2007 and 2008, when he was running, Juan. He said then that he—he campaigned on a platform, in fact, of eradicating poverty in America. That was his phrase, not—we use it, of course, in our book and in our work, but this is Barack Obama saying, “My platform is one of eradicating poverty in America,” when he ran in 2008. This is Barack Obama saying in 2008, “I want to raise the minimum wage to at least $9.50 an hour.” On the minimum wage, nothing. The Democrats controlled Congress for two years, when he first got elected, and they were weak on pushing this issue of increasing the minimum wage to a living wage. We’ve got to go to $10 an hour just to get back to 1960s levels, when you adjust for inflation.

And so, the fact of the matter is that we haven’t heard much about a living wage. We haven’t heard much about eradicating poverty. We’ve talked only about the middle class. And we’ve said before that you have the perennially poor, you have the near poor, folk who are just a paycheck or two away, and you have the new poor. And we argue that the new poor are the former middle class. So, yes, he’s sounding much more populist and hitting a lot of the right themes now, but at the end of the day, poverty still has not yet been made a priority. We want a president like Lyndon Johnson, who will use the bully pulpit to get America serious about eradicating poverty. It can be cut in half in 10 years. We could eradicate it in 25. This is not a skill problem; it’s a will problem. Do we have the will?

AMY GOODMAN: And, Cornel West, what do you think would be the most important actions first to take?

CORNEL WEST: Well, you know, I think it has to be multidimensional. Tavis and I are accenting the fightback. That’s why we’re highlighting what’s going on in Chicago and our deep solidarity with the teachers there against the unjust treatment by Rahm Emanuel; the stop-and-frisk that’s going on, the 10,000 whistles that will be blown in so many different sites today all over New York City dealing with the connection between the military-industrial complex, the new Jim Crow that Michelle Alexander talks about in the treatment of our young people; and then the ways in which we can link it to quality education, quality housing, jobs with a living wage, worker cooperatives, workers having more control over their conditions of work. So this is a multi-pronged fightback that we’re highlighting. So when we talk about poverty, it really is a connection to a critique of the oligarchs and plutocrats of our day and the ways in which everyday people can more and more live lives of decency and dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, who have you been traveling with?

CORNEL WEST: Just the two of us.

TAVIS SMILEY: With each other, for starters. But we’ve been traveling to these states with a small crew, of course documenting what we’re seeing. Last year we went to those nine states and 18 cities, Amy. We documented that, and it became a week-long PBS special. Trying to figure out what I want to do with the footage we’re collecting now, but it’s important for Americans on radio and on television, those of us in the media—and that’s why I celebrate what you and Juan do every day—but it’s important for us to tell this story. The moderators, these four moderators, need to make sure that poverty is asked and debated in these upcoming debates. But those of us, more broadly, in the media have not done a good job of keeping these kinds of important issues front and center. So we’re traveling with a small crew trying to document what we’re seeing, but we’re seeing all kinds of Americans who are wrestling with poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tavis and Cornel, we want to thank you for being with us, to stop by with Democracy Now! Their book, The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. And that does it for the broadcast.

We are also on a 100-city tour, Democracy Now!, on our Election 2012 Silenced Majority community media tour, continues this week. Today at noon, I’ll be at the Philadelphia Free Library, speaking there. We then go to Pittsburgh at the McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University. On Friday at 5:00 p.m., we’ll be in Cleveland at Visible Voice Books; 8:00 p.m., Oberlin College, the First Church at 106 North Main Street. On Saturday, we’ll be at Kenyon College at noon at the Gund Gallery. And then we’ll move on to Columbus and then on to benefit1091”>Cincinnati.

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Tavis Smiley & Cornel West on “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto”

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