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Tavis Smiley on his “We Count!” Conference and why America needs the Black Agenda

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By Kathleen Wells, political correspondent for Race-TalkwecountTavis Smiley will moderate a conversation on Saturday, March 20, at Chicago State University on the issue of a black agenda.The conference, We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda, will be nationally televised live on C-SPAN beginning at 8:00 a.m. Kathleen Wells: On March 20, you will convene 12 prolific African-American thought leaders, opinion makers, scholars, analysts, and elected officials in Chicago for “We Count! – The Black Agenda is the American Agenda.” Talk to me about your motivation to have the conference, why the necessity for this conference, and what would you like to see accomplished?

Tavis Smiley: I feel compelled to moderate this conversation about the need for a black agenda, how you do that in the era of Obama, and especially in a so-called post-racial America. When there are black leaders who start to suggest, publicly, that this or any President doesn’t necessarily need to address the black agenda – the concerns of black people, uniquely – that’s troubling for me, and, again, the troubling nature of it compelled me to have this conversation, because I’m not so sure -- that we -- black folk agree with that.

Not that black folks are a monolithic, but certainly a conversation needs to be had, I think, about whether or not it is a good strategy for us to ever tell any President that he or she doesn’t need to address a black agenda, because I don’t think that moral authority is like a set of keys that you just lay down and pick back up at your convenience when you need them. If you give one President a pass, it’s going to be hard to come back to the next President and demand accountability of him or her.

So this conversation is not one that I wanted to have. It wasn’t on my docket this year. It was not on my schedule. It’s caused some consternation amongst my staff because we’ve had to ramp up pretty fast around here. But when these kinds of comments are being made, particularly given that black folks are getting crushed at this very moment – everybody in America is challenged by this economy, but the numbers are clear – black folks are getting crushed. And for people to suggest – for anybody to suggest – that the President doesn’t need to focus on a black agenda, I think it’s pretty simple. With that disproportionate pain requires a disproportionate response. And that’s why we are going to Chicago State. I could be wrong about all of this. I could be wrong about all of this, but I think it’s worthy of a conversation.

Kathleen Wells: What would you like to see accomplished from this conversation?

Tavis Smiley: What I have said consistently when I conduct these conversations: Number one is information is power. I believe that knowledge is power. So people need to be empowered. Information, number one. Number two, I think, good conversation. Conversations at their best challenge folks to reexamine the assumptions that they hold and to expand their inventory of ideas. Number three, I say consistently about these conversations that I am not interested in running an organization, starting an organization. That’s not my calling. My calling begins in trying to help people to reexamine their assumptions, that is, and expand their inventory of ideas. But I think it is also important to know that people understand that they are the leaders that they have been looking for. I think it’s, beyond that, important for black folks specifically to understand – given that black folks make up the most loyal constituency in the President’s base – it’s important for them to understand that merely electing Barack Obama won’t do it. That was a start. That’s the start, but it’s not the end-all, be-all.

So electing him was a significant thing – helping to elect him. Let’s put it that way, because black folks alone didn’t do this. But helping to elect Barack Obama as President is a significant thing to have accomplished. But the real work is now. Campaigning is one thing; governing, as we all know now, is quite another.

And it’s not just that the President – it’s a combination of four things, in no particular order. Number one, black folks are getting crushed right now. The numbers are clear about that. Number two, whether one agrees or disagrees or likes or loathes the President, it’s clear that he is not trying to step to any agenda that has race at the center of it. That’s just not the way he operates, and I think that’s pretty clear to most Americans. It’s not an indictment; it’s just who he is. So, one, black folks are getting crushed. Number two, you have a President that really doesn’t want to address these kinds of racial disparities. That’s not the top of his agenda. Number three, then you have certain black leaders coming out to say that he doesn’t have to address an African-American agenda. Black folks, number four, are the most loyal part of his base.

The question is simple for me: How, then, do black folks expect that their concerns are going to get addressed?

And the point of the conversation, I think, is to raise, in part, this question which is what are black folks being asked to do? Black folks were asked to do a whole lot of things to help Obama get elected. They were asked to give money. They were asked to walk precincts. They were asked to tell a friend. They were asked to host coffees and teas in their homes. They were asked to show up at rallies. There were a whole lot of things that black folks were asked to do during the campaign. But the President has not said to black folks: “I need ya’ll to help me do this to push an agenda that will help your concerns, specifically and uniquely.” Black leaders have not come to black people and said: “These are the three or four things we want to get done in this first term, and this is how we are going to get it done, and we need ya’ll to do X, Y and Z.” That hasn’t happened.

So what has essentially happened, then, is that black folks have helped to elect the President and, I think, we are sitting back and expecting miracles to be wrought and that’s not how politics works.

Kathleen Wells: Give me three of your top priority things that you’d like to see addressed in the black agenda?

Tavis Smiley: I’ll give you an entire book. It’s called The Covenant with Black America. That’s the agenda that we laid out before we got to the 2008 elections. We laid out this text that everybody in black American agreed to. It went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and everybody else’s list and stayed for weeks. They couldn’t keep books in stores. We had two Presidential debates in primetime, the first time ever Democrats and Republicans running for the White House had to show up on primetime television to address a black agenda.

All of this was done prior to the 2008 election. Once President Obama won the Iowa race and white folks gave black folks permission to say, “This brotha is okay; maybe you ought to support him.” Because at the time, you will recall, Kathleen, Obama was trailing two-one, three-one, depending on which poll you look at. He was trailing two- and three-to-one in black votes until he won Iowa. When he wins Iowa, then black folks give Barack Obama a second look. And once they give him a second look and it appears the brotha has a chance, all of a sudden black America – or at least many in black America – no longer want to address these ten issues that were laid out in the book that was part of the plan that we agreed to so that, when we got to 2008, we would have an agenda – finally – to hold everybody accountable to moving forward. So the issues were already there. Many of these issues that were laid out in that book we see the President grappling with now.

So the answer to your question is this: The issues were laid out before we even got to 2008. It’s just that many are now worse, given the recession.

Kathleen Wells: So you are saying that some people don’t want to address them (the agenda issues) now that he is President. Why is that?

Tavis Smiley: You have to ask the people who felt that way. It threw me for a loop as well, because everyone – all across black America we were in agreement that Bill Clinton, on balance, has been a good President for black people. But there were a number of failings that Bill Clinton had. We recall his sandbagging Lani Guinier at the Justice Department after he nominated her. He signed that crime bill – that racists crime bill – that instituted as law what amounted to this 100 to one crack to powder cocaine discrepancy. He presided over, as a result of that, the fastest growth of the prison-industrial complex in history, incarcerating more black men and black women than at any point in time in history.

And most damning of all, he moved way too slow, by his own admission now – moved way too slow getting into Rwanda where ethnic cleansing was taking place between the Tutsi and the Hutu. So he moved too slow into Rwanda. Bill Clinton had his failings. We thought, at the end of his term in 2000, there was concern that Al Gore wasn’t going to be even as progressive as Bill Clinton was. So we started talking about how to hold Al Gore accountable.

Well, Bush wins that election, and we know what happened during the Bush years. So it was during the Bush years that we came up with this idea to have an agenda – a ten-point plan. Many of the African-American leaders wrote in that. I didn’t write the book; I edited it – put it together - and convened these annual conversations on C-SPAN. But all kinds of black folks and black leaders and black analysts and experts helped put this agenda together, and all of black America seemed to be behind this agenda, which, again, led to these live Presidential debates. But when Obama, this black man, appears that he has a shot to win, folks wanted to abandon holding him accountable to that agenda. And now, a year after being in office, there are certain African-American leaders who are saying he doesn’t need to have – doesn’t need to address – a black agenda. Those two things just don’t square.

Kathleen Wells: Speak to me about the title of the conference. How is the black agenda the American agenda?

Tavis Smiley: I read your conversation with Dr. Cornel West, and I think Dr. West spoke to this brilliantly in his conversation with you. So, one, I refer you back to him. I can’t put it any better than my mentor and my teacher.

But I think the point is that the black agenda is the American agenda because the black agenda is all about democracy. The black agenda has always been the best of the American agenda. We celebrate Dr. King. I regard him as the greatest American we’ve ever produced; but the reason why we celebrate and revel in the contributions of this man named King is because, while he fought for the best interests of black people, it was about democracy for everybody.

And that’s always been the case. The black agenda, at its best, has always been about uplifting everybody. It’s been about making real the promises of democracy for all Americans. And that’s why, when we say that the black agenda is the American agenda, what we mean to suggest is that anybody who thinks that this term, the black agenda, is pejorative or punitive or racists or divisive or exclusionary or reductionist or negative – anyone who thinks that doesn’t understand what the black agenda is all about. Black people have always been the conscience of this country.

And so, simply put, when you make black America better, you make all of America better, and that’s why the black agenda is the American agenda.

Kathleen Wells: So that goes to the issue that critics will offer, which is that President Obama is President of all Americans, not just black Americans, so you basically touched on this. But also, critics will say that you are asking for special treatment for blacks. Your response?

Tavis Smiley: Not at all. The reason why “don’t ask, don’t tell” is in the process now of being reversed is because the gay and lesbian community forced the President to address that issue. And, I might add, correctly forced him to address that issue. He promised to do it during the campaign, and they are making him live up to it. That’s why it’s being addressed, because they have activated themselves on that issue.

The White House just recently announced that they are going back into four months of dialogue – new negotiations in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Why? Because the Jewish lobby has been pressing the President on that issue of getting these parties back to the table in the Middle East.

President Obama went to Copenhagen. At first he wasn’t sure if he was going to go. Why? Because the environmentalists forced him to that table in Copenhagen. Even though they weren’t happy, necessarily, with the outcome, they forced him to the table in Copenhagen, and things could have been much worse had the President not gone there to do what he did. But he was pushed into that meeting in Copenhagen.

The point is, if you don’t speak up, then you get left out of the conversation. Black folk have, for too long, sat at the back of the bus, and I don’t think that being the most loyal constituency in the President’s base ought to relegate you to the back of the bus.

He is the President of all of America, but this President would never stand up and say – Barack Obama would never stand up and say, as he has about the black agenda – he would never stand up and say: “I am not the President of Jewish America; I am the President of all America.” He would never stand up and say: “I am not the President of gay and lesbian America; I am the President of all America.” He would never stand up and say: “I am not the President of Hispanic America; I am the President of all America. Only when it comes to black folks do we hear this refrain: “I am not the President of black America.” Well, yes, you are. You are not exclusively the President of black America, but black folks are Americans, too. So you are the President of black America and Jewish America and Hispanic America, etc., etc., etc.

So this notion that somehow black folks need to just wait their turn – Whatever happened to, to the victor, goes the spoils?

Kathleen Wells: So it’s not either-or, it’s and…

Tavis Smiley: It’s both-and.

Kathleen Wells: Exactly. Also, critics will say that the black community talks a lot, but where’s the action? So what are we going to get from this conference, other than talk?

Tavis Smiley: I always love these questions because it allows me to correct people about a couple of things. Number one, talk is important. Talk is very important, particularly when you have a people who for 400 years have been taught to hate themselves. And particularly when you have a people who, after 400 years of being taught to hate themselves, have now helped to elect an African-American President. It’s dangerous for us to think that we can rest on our laurels of having elected this President, because what we will end up with is symbolism but no substance.

Dr. King once said that change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. People have to make decisions. They have to understand that there can be no dichotomy between what they do and what they believe. We must always do what it is that we believe.

So to get together and to have these conversations is critical. For people who think that talk is cheap, when I offered this commentary a couple of weeks ago on national radio – an eight-minute commentary that has erupted in a firestorm of talk all across the country – that means something. Black people are now engaged in a conversation about how we are going to move forward. They are engaged in a conversation now about how we are going to do this dance with the President. So I’m not one who believes that talk is necessarily cheap. As I said earlier, knowledge is power, so we have to empower people with information, one, that can aid and abet the conversation that we need to be having. That’s number one.

But beyond the fact that the conversation is important, I’m trying to get folks to understand now what I’ve always tried to get folks to understand, which is that they are the leaders they have been looking for. Black folks were asked to do a great deal during the Obama campaign. As I said earlier, they were asked to walk precincts. They were asked to donate money. They were asked to tell a friend. They were asked to hold coffees and teas. They were asked to engage their sororities and fraternities and other social organizations. They were asked to do things through their black churches. They were asked to come to rallies for Obama. Black folks were asked to do a lot of things during the campaign. But what are black folks being asked to do now to help the President become a transformational President? It’s not just about electing him and catching hell for the next few years. We can’t get jobs. We can’t get healthcare. We are losing our homes. And nobody has said to black people, “Here’s what we must do now to get behind the President, to help push him into his greatness.”

And that’s what is going to come out of this conversation -- trying to get folks to understand that you have agency, that you have power. How do we turn our compelling power into some strength? If we could come together and help elect the President, why can’t we come together now and help push him into his greatness and help push him into an agenda of accountability for the best interests of black people?

Kathleen Wells: So a return on our investment.

Tavis Smiley: Absolutely. If I’d taken your phrase, I could have ended that answer about four minutes ago.

Kathleen Wells: So, tell me, who will be participating in the event and why these particular participants?

Tavis Smiley: Two good questions. People like Cornel West; Michael Eric Dyson; Jesse Jackson, Sr.,; Louis Farrakhan; economist and college president, Julianne Malveaux; Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink; Dorothy Tillman, Chicago city councilwoman; some students from Chicago State (you always want to involve young people); Professor Ron Walters and others are the kinds of folk that will be assembled at the table.

Why these persons? Because they have perspective. Some of them have perspective -- Jesse Jackson, with Dr. King. Dr. King understood best how to push our agenda forward. Jesse Jackson can give us some insight on how we did it then and the lessons that we need to learn from that and engage now. Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Ron Walters – they teach these issues. They can help us understand better how to create a framework that allows folk to understand the power that rests in what is a black agenda.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a leading black economist. A leading economist period, who happens to be black. But you can’t have this conversation these days without talking about how the economy impacts us.

Angela Glover Blackwell is perhaps one of the leading public policy experts in this country. We want her insights into how we can engage good conversation around good public policy, etc., etc., etc.

So everyone around this table and the young people. -- Barack Obama could not have been elected, obviously, without so many young people getting excited and engaged and involved in his campaign. We want to hear from those young folks now. So getting students from Chicago State in this conversation is important, etc., etc., etc.

Kathleen Wells: Ok, it sounds wonderful. And I expect that I will be attending and I look forward to it. Is there anything else you’d like to address?

Tavis Smiley: Nope. You asked a lot of good questions, and I hope I gave you what you needed.

Kathleen Wells: Sounds perfect and thank you very much.

Tavis Smiley: Thank you.

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Kathleen Wells, J.D., is a political correspondent for Race-Talk. Kathleen is a native of Los Angeles and has degrees in political science and law, from UCLA and UC Berkeley, respectively. She writes/blogs on law and politics. Follow Kathleen on Facebook.