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Tavis Smiley’s Black Agenda: outdated, not inclusive

Saturday, March 20th, Tavis Smiley convened a panel to discuss the Black Agenda in the age of Obama. The panellists included such people as Dr Michael Eric Dyson, Angela Glover, Reverend Jessie L. Jackson Sr., Dr. Cornel West, Louis Farrakhan and Dorothy Wright Tillman. The We Count panel replaced Smiley’s annual State of the Black Union conference, but the format remained similar. All participants were members of the Black intelligentsia, with no representation from poor Blacks that the panellists’ expressed such concern for.

Tavis Smiley posed the following question to begin the discussion: “How do we advance and African-American agenda in the era of Obama and how do we do that in what many are calling a post-racial America?”

This question coming from Tavis Smiley is quite interesting, considering that he has a history of expressing displeasure with Obama. The panellists were quick to affirm their own problems with the Obama administration.

In response to Tavis, Ms Tillman had this to say:

“President Obama is not addressing the Black agenda. President Obama has been told that it’s alright not to address our agenda. So if you don’t address it, don’t worry about it, ‘cause they going to be quiet. He been told by the little birds in his ears. Because we are so happy to have a Black face in the White house that we have to get back in that place where they had us before.”

Though this commentary supposedly came from a place of love, the overwhelming message was that Obama has failed to place the needs of African-Americans at the forefront, because he continues to hold a high approval rating among them and received 97% of their votes. For as long as he is beloved, it was suggested that he will not be inspired to act.

Many White Americans believe that the United States has moved to a post-racial state, because it has elected an African-American president. This flies in the face of all of the systemic inequality that continues to exist.

Brother Farrakhan addressed the issue saying:

“The forces around power is always the real power. President Obama does not run this country. President Obama has been chosen to govern White affairs and if in that process we get something, it won’t be because the governing powers want it , it will be because we organized and forced a government to speak to our needs. I like you am very proud that a Black man sits in the White house but I understand very clearly and we should all understand that it is the White house… Do you think that having a Black face in the White house means that we don’t have to make him do it? We have a right to expect something from our brother, 97% of our people voted for him.”

Years of work went into electing Barack Obama. Even as Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation, Blacks were dreaming of the time when they would have a seat at the table. From Shirley Chisom to Jesse Jackson, politicians and civil rights leaders have struggled so that one day a Black face would become the face of America.

Now that the dream has been realized and the cup still remains empty, it is reasonable to suggest that the struggles have not reaped the benefits that were projected onto this President. As Obama has repeatedly said, he is not the president of Black America, but the president of all of America.

Even as the panellists were critical of Obama’s top-down solution to poverty, the irony of the fact that they were themselves privileged was not once remarked upon. Not only did the men outnumber the women, but they were all able-bodied, cisgender and heterosexual. That this basic fact went unremarked upon suggests that perhaps the real agenda is not equality for all but the rise of a Black middle class that rivals the current middle class, which is largely made up of White able-bodied, cisgender and heterosexual people. Repeating hierarchy is not freedom.

Surely, dealing with race and the way it intersects with other isms and complicates the lives of many Blacks is integral to things like education, health care and class mobility. Yet this so-called Black agenda failed to recognise intersectionality, thus reducing what it is to be African-American. Perhaps before demands are made for others, the first and indeed most important agenda is to realize that Blackness can be experienced differently.

Finally, the age imbalance in the panel was extremely telling. Only one young woman was invited to voice her opinion, while the others were well into their fifties and beyond. Many of the concerns articulated sprung from a 60’s civil rights framework, and while these issues still exist, they are being challenged by youth in different ways.

Instead of acknowledging the way that the young have taken to Twitter, blogging and Facebook to fight for change, the panellists talked about “failed Joshuas.” Apparently, despite the work that is done on a daily basis, the young are understood to have dropped the flame that the old (Moses) have attempted to pass on.

There can be no single conversation on the Black Agenda because the community is not a monolith. Each individual may feel the sting of racism, but it acts in different ways, and requires a multitude of solutions. Activism is not always about marching and singing “We Shall Overcome”; it is about reaching the mountaintop together as a people with our individual experiences respected. No one group or person is a leader unless he or she dares to speak to us all, instead of for us all.

15 thoughts on “Tavis Smiley’s Black Agenda: outdated, not inclusive

  1. Pingback: Do we need a Black agenda? | digimedia dev
  2. Disagree that that the call for a Black Agenda is outdated. How can it be when Blacks in America still lag behind. How is it that everyone else’s agenda is relevant, but when it comes to ours it is outdated. The fact that you use that language is “evidence” that our agenda has constantly being ignored.

  3. I had the honor and pleasure to be present doing this meeting
    and I’m proud to say that these brothers and sisters, were on point with there concerns for a Black Agenda, and that this President like any other president be held accountable to our concerns, as Tax paying citizens!! I thank Brother Farrakhan for making it clear that this was not a out right attack against the President or a opportunity for the media to distort the true purpose of this meeting so thank you Brother Farrakhan!!!. For we know that the media can destroy the true intent of something with good intent and trust me this was a well attended meeting with great intention for our people as a whole!!! History as proven that out of the last 43 president of this country black people in America has suffer from the most extreme injustice in this country and in 2010 blacks are being killed out right not only by the Law enforcement we pay taxes for!! but even by members in there own community as America turns a blind eye to whats really going on in our communities.

  4. I have followed the State of the Black Union since its start, and will proudly say that I am a critic of Tavis Smiley and his strong allegiance to the Democratic Party/Clinton Administration. Shamefully, I am a Chicago resident, registered for the event, but opted to stay home this chilly morning to watch the event on CSPAN.org. Ms. Martin, while I will credit you for presenting some sound arguments regarding the absence and imbalance of black representatives, you exaggerate the premise. Tavis has historically kept the panels gender balanced, indiscriminate of sexual orientation, and class neutral. Having only recently heard the ruckus between Tavis Smiley, Al Sharpton, and Ben Jealous, the event was clearly formed without the usual attention and planning as the State of the Black Union events.

    What should be recognized in your critique are the divergence of philosophical ideologies between the panelists, and their actual contributions to public policies. Yes, most of the panelist who spoke were Civil Rights “babies,” and it can be suggested that their analysis is dated. First, the ideology behind their effort was integration. For those of us not born in that movement, integration is a subordinate role whereby the majority population still manages resources and power. Not a position we want to be in. Minister Farrakhan, on the other hand, is a Nationalist with a fundamental belief in the free market. So, his statements were drastically different from other panelist who wanted to focus on King and others. Second, Tavis’ constant referral to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 run for the Democratic Nomination was a weak argument. With the nature of technology impacting political movements, and the shift in industry from the 80s, Jesse Jackson could not do it again nor do what Obama did. Subsequent, what would have been a more compelling argument for you would have been the fact that only two, maybe three, of the panelist actually influences public policy. With the exception of Angela Glover-Blackwell (and…Farrakhan unintentionally), no one on that panel deals with public policy on a regular basis; everyone else is an academic or radio/tv personality. Dorothy Tillman is a new radio personality after a long career in Chicago politics, but got booted because she forgot her roots.

    The Covenant for Black America was referred to throughout the meeting as a source of reference for policies. As someone who does public policy work, I purchased this book hoping to immerse some of the health ideas into my office’s activities. Where the challenge lies is the topic areas are general analysis with no budgetary justifications. If you cannot put a price or value on your products outcomes, don’t initiate them. Even more critical of the meeting is…meeting just to meet. What were the action items or marching orders from this gathering? Again, as a critic of Tavis, I wish he would drop this pontification garbage and to something of substance like use that knowledge and experience at that table to either start a think-tank to impact public policy, generate funding, and a have minority workforce pipeline or start a political action committee. Instead, Tavis has a speaker’s bureau. We have too many black representatives who just like to hear themselves speak. At least the event was free to the public.

  5. Okay…is this some kind of spin article….some damage control…or some attempt make little of the important event that took place at Chicago State. What is improper about addressing the crisis that is happening in the black community. The Latinos are marching for immigration reform, the GBLT community with Don’t Ask Dont Tell, what gives….Tillman is a great lady who has done a lot for the black community. What a cheap shot at her to say she was booted for forgetting her roots when she was targeted by the unions for defeat for requiring a 70/30 mandate for projects in her ward. 70 percent Black 30 percent other.

  6. I fully believe that all elected officials should be held accountable to their constituents. The question is, “What is the Black Agenda?”. I keep hearing these talking heads saying President Obama is not doing enough for Black People. What specifically would they like for him to do? He has championed and gotten a healthcare reform bill passed, which blacks who are more likely to be uninsured than any other group. He passed a job bill. Again, we will all benefit from this. He awarded Black farmers more than a billion dollars for the injustice afflicted upon them. He is overhauling the education system to improve grades k-12, making college more affordable, awarded money to HBC schools. This will help to level the education playing field for our children. He has initiated a fatherhood bill to encourage and give fathers the resources to help them become better fathers (more than 70% of our children are born to unwed mothers and the fathers are more likely not to play a significant positive role in their children’s lives). He has pushed for measures to regulate the banking and financial system. More of us (as a % of our total population) have been caught up in the predatory lending and financial practices than any other group). These are all the major issues that I am concern with. On these basis, I think the President is addressing our concerns and doing a good job. I think it is insulting for these talking heads to marginalize the intelligence of African Americans to suggest that all we are concerned about is the symbolism of just having a black president. We elected him because we like his message and wanted him to make positive changes. He’s doing exactly that. While we are on the subject of holding folks accountable, did any of the talking heads speak about personal accountability. We, individually and collectively play a role in our fate. The biggest problem facing African Americans is the breakdown of the black family. Our fore fathers who were slaves, valued the institution of family and did everything that they could to rebuild the family and past on this legacy that lasted for more than 150 years. Now, no one is forcibly separating the families. We are doing it on our own volition. We will vehemently attack anyone who encourages us to take on personal responsibility such as to be good fathers and mothers to our children…to get more involved in their education…our rate of participation in the PTSA is shameful…to get involved when we see our school system failing…educating ourselves on how to be more financially literate and responsible. Knowledge truly is powerful and can liberate us from saying “I was a victim of predatory lending” to I read, I acted responsibly with my finances so when I received this offer which was not in my best interest, I said, “no thanks”. God gave each of us a brain, a strong and powerful legacy. Let’s stop buying into the “we need someone to rescue us or believing the hype that we are powerless and inferior to empower ourselves. Keep in mind, most of these talking heads make money off of usa by preaching this doctrine. They want to hold on to this. This is why they get angry when others encourage us to not only seek social, political and economic justice for African Americans but that it should be done in conjunction with personal responsibility. Case in point, they built a Kia Plant outside of metro Atlanta. This brought good blue collar jobs to a depressed area where many African Americans lived and could benefit from the jobs. Most of the jobs only required a high schoold diploma. A significant number of African Americans could not even apply because of the high high school drop out rate. Where were the fathers of these children, especially our men when they were school age? Why didn’t they make sure that their children get a good education?

    Again, they criticize anyone who encourages personal responsibility. They vilified Bill Cosby, even though Bill Cosby and his wife have given millions of dollars to black colleges and at risk black families and children. Jesse Jackson wanted to castrate Barack Obama when he spoke passionately based on his life experience on the importance of responsible fatherhood.

    I’m sure I will be critized too… with quotes that black folks are not the only folks who don’t take care of their children. You would be correct. Their are many responsible African Americans mothers and fathers. I praised, thank them, and encourage them to continue. This is not about those who are acting responsibly. This is for those who not being responsible and far too many of our children are suffering and growing up with personal and life long issues because of the breakdown of the African American Families. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best and I am paraphrasing, “Injustice for one is injustice for all”. Let’s give our children the best opportunity to live healthy, loving, productive lives.

  7. I completely agree with the columnist. And, with the very eloquent commentary from one of your readers…I too am a critic of Tavis Smiley. He is so angry and doesn’t do anything positive but talk. The audacity of these so-called leaders to speak on the behalf of an entire race is insulting. Who appointed them anyway? They are indeed outdated and out of touch. And, yet, they are the ones that get on the evening news and CNN to continue their obscene tactics. Who are they talking to? The Tea Party? Because intelligent people are not buying any of what they are saying.
    And, thank you Ms. Martin for pointing out the hypocrisy of the panel make up. When we the Tea Party rising up and spewing hatred, when we hear there are unprecedented calls for assasination of our first Black President, these so-called “leaders” are adding to the hate rhetoric. What they are doing is pure evil. When have they done anything, anything that comes close to what we are seeing in the “house”. Nothing but talk. Health reform, “Don’t ask Don’t tell, immigration, jobs, education…aren’t these all civil rights issues? Have you all lost your minds? Take a long look in your upper middle class mirror and change your ways. You are sickening. What did you do today to save a child, help someone. All you do is talk. And, talk is cheap. Tavis Smiley go away. You are sooo not relevant.

  8. The columnist is way off on this article.
    Tavis has been consistant, hes been on point, and the “We Count”
    forum was a great event, not out dated, it was right on time.
    And Minister Farrakhan even at his age of over 70 and with his teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was right on the money as usual.
    The panelist were some of the best minds of our people and they are not like rap artist with an expiration date, who play out after the attention goes to someone else.
    Most of these panelist were from Chicago and knew Obama, and know that he didnt do anything in Chicago, was never a part of traditional black leaderships, andthe point was made that watch out for Nigros selected before they were elected, and that is what Obama was…Selected….He is being propped up as equal of Martin Luther King, Mandela, MalcolmX and he is not even close….I saw it from the beginning that this guy is pulling some major BS on our people. I lived in Chicago and I never heard of this dude doing anything or being a part of black Chicago in any way.
    Tavis is a great bro for standing his ground while many misinformed Nigros let the media shape their thoughts to believe in Obamas Change garbage.

    Obama looks good, his family is a great symbol, and a great example of Blacness that the world should see, but Thats it…there is nothing else there….Remember Carol Mosley Braun
    she was Obama before Obama…a selected Nigro, who never did anything, but looked good and talked good.

  9. Middle class black agenda. That’s what it sounds like to me.

    The criticism of younger generations reminds me of comments I have heard from second-wave feminists criticizing younger women for dropping the torch or whathaveyou. Could it be that these older generations are simply oblivious, or disconnected with what youth are experiencing on the ground? Because there is a lot going on, if you care to look. Instead of talking smack on the younger generations, why not promote and support the amazing works they are accomplishing?

  10. thats, crazy. Everything that was said by Farakhan needed to be said. I disagree that the real agenda is the rise of the black middle class. You trippin. I didnt see it as a diss to blacks in poverty but a loud siren of awareness to what is to come of this country, the state of the economy and reality of racism/racist people that may want to assassinate our brother Barack. Listen…whatever you feel about his politics (Obama) , none of us want to see him murdered. It was real conversation about the state of the nation and how we as black people feel about Obama presidency versus how the rest of America is portraying him. Two totally different reasons for disapproval, and two totally different reasons to expect more from him because of his race. DEAL WITH IT…ms. Martin.

  11. When Will folks learn, it’s not what you say, feel, or assume, it’s what you can prove in writing. Understand the origins of a thing and you will understand it’s mission. Black Folk, Negro’s, African-Americans, are not even mentioned or defined in the foundational documents which created this matrix. [the Constitution]. So why would you feel that your agenda would have relevance in a contract, compact, or treaty called a Constitution. Wishful thinking and the belief that hard work, dying for, and sacrificing all one has to give can be dangerous when looking for remedy in a contract which doesn’t define the relationship with accuracy. wake up people.

  12. I think that it’s a wonderful idea to have a black agenda in place however, if we as black people are not willing to stand up in unity and fight against the injustice’s of not only America but the world then we are right back at square one, always murmuring, gripping and complaining waiting for the great black hope to come to our aid. We as a people have become lackadaisical in our contributions of time, money and effort to improve the impoverished communities in which we live. We as a black need to be held of accountable and made responsible for our actions or the lack there of. From a biblical standpoint we the black people are those mentioned in the Bible, the Israelites, who were and we are the oppressed. However, because of murmurings, and complaints we have landed in the wilderness and have wondered here for the last 430 years which was originally set for 400 years. God has granted us an additional 30 years in which, we have yet to get it right. If we can discontinue the “crab in a basket” mentality then I do truly believe we may have a chance to take back what belonged to us and turn ultimate doom, into eternal joy and victory over our oppressors who is the modern day enemy of our people. Yes, I do agree that we have suffered a severe injustice, however we cannot allow self pity and over zealous attitudes to continue shaping us as individuals. Because these are the last days, and we have little time before the impending doom, we must learn to come together as a people being united for the Hereafter. Jesus is here, and he tells me to tell you the oppressed and the enemy as well that ” THE HOUR COMETH”. People we must wake up and realize that this is not about political woes, nor is it about racial struggles and or injustices, we are at war and the war is ” A SPIRITUAL WARFARE” . Having a Black Agenda is a wonderful idea, however if we do not properly prepare for what’s to come, an agenda will be obsolete. I do pray that the veil is removed from all eyes, so that we as a people would understand and recognize who “WE” really are. God said ” HE CREATED US IN HIS LIKENESS”, therefore we have the attributes of the Father (ABBA), / (ALLAH), so we have sufficient power to overcome our adversary who is Satan who has come as “A WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING” .

  13. I have watched and listened to the “Black Agenda” three times. While there is some valuable information discussed, and there are MANY different messages as well as MANY different dynamics at work. I have to say that the “overall” feeling I came away with was that this round table discussion was a “Complain About President Obama bitch session” more than anything else.
    I LOVE my Black people but I am of the opinion that I cannot complain to “anyone” for NOT doing for me something I’m NOT willing to do for MYSELF. The people at the round table discussion have HAD OVER 20 years to do SOMETHING significant with the millions of Black people in the US and instead of complaining about THEMSELVES… They would rather complain about President Obama.
    The best thing we can do for ourselves is to come to each other and ASK the question…
    What can we do to help YOU? and How can we best work TOGETHER.

  14. I have also followed Tavis and “The Black Agenda” and other forums around Black Folks. I will never walk away from these forums believing that they are not necessary, or outdated. We will always need these types of forums even after “things get better” simply because we are not unlike any other group of people in any other country. We will always need forums like this because voices, opinions, and minds will always enrich efforts. This is and has never been a forum to achieve political change because it is not made up of only politicians. It is a forum to express opinions and teachings.

    I believe most Black people who attended and/or watched this forum came away feeling good about being Black in America. We must continue to discuss our issues and concerns with diverse opinions, because from it will hopefully sprout improvement. Look for different forums, not just Tavis like forums. Look for discussions around the legal system, mental and physical health forums, etc.

    This columnist’s opinion is again her opinion from which I got a younger person’s outlook. But listen up young folk, these scholars, politicians, talk show hosts, etc. are well connected and are far reaching. Learn what they do in the community; they visit our brothers and sisters in prisons; they help feed our hungry; they have put together some of the best history lessons in our communities, colleges, etc. My suggestion is to petition to be on next year’s forum and don’t let your opinion become a whine.

    One last “fact”, Tavis has always held past presidents “accountable” for Black agendas, and last I checked Obama is our current president.

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