We have a tendency to refer to members of the African Diaspora as a community, despite the fact that it is filled with people that have wildly different perspectives and experiences. Race supposedly unites all Blacks, but the hierarchy within the so-called community means that there will always be some voices that are louder than others. The master’s tools are omnipresent in every social justice movement.
Last week, for example, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley engaged in a very public disagreement. Smiley attempted to take Sharpton to task for not being open about the meeting he attended with President Obama in conjunction with NAACP Chair Benjamin Jealous, National Urban League chief Marc Morial and a host of other “Black leaders.” Tavis particularly took umbrage with reverend Al’s support of Obama’s race-neutral approach to policy making.
At the heart of his argument, was Sharpton’s statement that President Obama “is wise not to ballyhoo a Black agenda.” Though this attack was publicly aimed at Sharpton, Tavis has a history of criticizing President Obama, and has written a book in which he demanded that Blacks hold Obama accountable to the community.
Obama has never pandered to old Civil Rights leaders and this means that their ability to influence his policies is very limited. When Obama was elected president, it was to represent all Americans and not the specific minority group that he is a part of.
White presidents have always taken actions to support White supremacy, but even their polices strictly benefited a minority that possessed class privilege, rather than White people as a whole.
Obama’s largest policy push has been revamping healthcare and though this has not specifically been targeted as an initiative that is directed at Black people, they certainly stand to benefit from having greater access to doctors and preventive care. Obama is very aware that in order to win in 2012, he must always appear to represent all people, because the votes of Blacks are not enough on their own to secure a victory for him.
Sharpton and Tavis are dependent upon the dissatisfaction of the Black community in order to earn a living. Unlike Sharpton, Tavis does not have strong Civil Rights credentials. Not only did Tavis support Hillary Clinton during the election, he rejected the appearance of Michelle Obama at his Negro Super Bowl (read: State of the Black Union), when Obama was unable to attend due to previous commitments.
According to CNN, Smiley claimed to have received angry e-mails and death threats. He further claimed that his brother and mother were also harassed at the time. The backlash was so virulent, that Smiley resigned from his position at the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” Since that time, Smiley has been critical of Obama’s administration at every opportunity.
Tavis has always held this so-called meeting of the minds over the head of would-be Black leaders as a way to wield power, while promoting his latest book in the process. The participants seem to find the opportunity to pontificate on a large platform irresistible and therefore participate in the deification of Smiley. Self-promotion is quite possibly Smiley’s greatest skill, despite all of the gibberish about setting a so-called “Black agenda.”
If the well-being of Black people is at the forefront of his mind, why is he publishing R. Kelly’s biography?
After cancelling the State of the Black union in the wake of a scandal regarding funding, Tavis realized that he had given up his best opportunity for self promotion and re-organized the Negro Super Bowl at the end of March giving little warning to the Black Popes (read: intelligentsia) regarding a date.
Such is the arrogance of Smiley, that he expected all would be participants to rearrange their schedule in order to grace the hallowed stage of The State of the Black Union. As always, Tavis is not allowing any previous commitment to be offered as an excuse for an inability to attend.
Obviously, Reverend Al’s failure to be a part of this year’s State of the Black Union on such short provided a degree of impetus for Smiley’s sudden concern with the ways in which Sharpton is engaging in activism.
Even though the Reverend Al has far better credentials than Smiley, he is not above partaking in the fight to be head Negro in charge. For some members of the so-called Black community, Sharpton is seen as little more than a loud-mouth ambulance chaser.
Before Jessie Jackson’s highly controversial attack against Obama on Fox News, Jackson and Sharpton battled back and forth for the right to lead the community. In the wake of the backlash against Jackson, Sharpton has emerged as a defacto leader, taking meetings with President Obama on the needs of the community.
As much as Black leaders claim to be excited about the election of Obama, there is also the fear that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Structures that once bound the Black community together in solidarity, like segregation, are no longer in force.
This is not to suggest that we should return to this form of social divide, but to point out that we are no longer sharing the same the neighbourhoods and shopping at the same stores en masse. While the end of segregation lead to positive results, we must acknowledge that the unintended consequence of such progress was the breakdown of a large part of African American solidarity.
The argument between Tavis and Sharpton is not about setting a so-called Black agenda and it is dishonest of both men to suggest that this is the genesis of the disagreement. This is about power.
Tavis has always dreamed of having a large platform from which to promote his forays into activism. Sharpton is finally getting the respect from the establishment that he has long sought after with Obama in office and he clearly views Tavis as a usurper. This was a long-winded pissing contest for the world to see, and while these men acted like a couple of overstuffed hens, they forgot about the very people on whose behalf they were supposedly advocating.
There has been much discussion on Black blogs regarding this public disagreement. Many commenters have openly chastised both men, but personally, I believe that this presented a wonderful opportunity for people to consider the self-serving aspect of professional activism.
We will always need people to speak out against racism, but we should always bear in mind that no matter how brilliant or committed a person is, there will always be an aspect of arrogance and power-seeking in their work. Such is human nature, particularly in a society so dedicated to hierarchy.