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Tavis Smiley and Cornel West: The Rich and the Rest of Us -- a Poverty Manifesto

Poverty is no longer black and brown - it is multicultural and multiracial - and is engulfing millions of us.

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CORNEL WEST: I mean, to put it in the history of America, that we began after we mistreated our precious indigenous brothers and sisters, subordinated them, genocidal attack. But we had to deal with monarchy, British imperialism. Overthrew the monarchy. Next came slavery. Had to break the back of slavery. Jim Crow and James Crow, slavery by another name. Had to break the back of slavery. The issue today is oligarchy. Poverty is the new slavery. Oligarchs are the new kings. They’re the new heads of this structure of domination. And we’ve got to coalesce in our critique of oligarchs and oligarchy and plutocracy, without hating oligarchs and plutocrats.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So what happened to the "audacity of hope"?

CORNEL WEST: Of Barack Obama?


CORNEL WEST: Well, it’s a wonderful language. He got it from Jeremiah Wright, our dear brother Jeremiah Wright. Jeremiah Wright comes out of a black prophetic tradition that talks about hope, not cheap American optimism. So he borrows the language of Martin King, he borrows the language of Jeremiah Wright and a whole host of others, Fannie Lou Hamer and others—blood, sweat and tears, critiques of oligarchy and critiques of patriarchy and critiques of anti-Semitism, anti-Arab, anti-terror, anti-Latino racism and so forth. So we get these mainstream politicians, these neoliberals, who preserve oligarchic rule, use the language of progressives, and think that somehow they will not be disclosed for what they are: neoliberals still tied to the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama, Tavis Smiley, and where he has gone in this administration, and your criticism of him as he runs for re-election?

TAVIS SMILEY: Well, the argument we advance in the book is not that he has done nothing. We don’t advance an argument that he has had a sort of antipathy toward the poor. We simply argue that he hasn’t done enough. And we suggested earlier in this conversation that there seems to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the poor just don’t matter. President Obama is a part of that. We argue in the book, and I think many Americans agree, that the first priority should have been jobs, jobs, jobs. I take nothing away from his push on healthcare, but jobs for every American should have been the primary issue, number one, particularly and especially if the Supreme Court ends up gutting this law by declaring unconstitutional the mandate. The mandate goes, the whole thing collapses, basically, and then we’re back to square one again. So all that time, all that energy and all that effort ends up being for naught. And Americans still, now, don’t have jobs and don’t have access to healthcare in the short run or the long run. And we know that healthcare bankrupts so many Americans trying to just stay alive. They end up with these catastrophic illnesses that end up costing them their homes, their savings and everything else. So we know the role that healthcare plays in this process. The bottom line is that he hasn’t done enough on the issue of poverty.

Of that list of 12 things that we say has to be done to reduce and eradicate poverty, one of those things, Amy, one of the 12, is the calling of a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. This is not rocket science. In the vernacular of our conversation today, this really is low-hanging fruit. To your point, Juan, the last time we had a real conversation about poverty from the White House down was during the Johnson years. And there have been Republicans and Democrats, of course, who have occupied the Oval Office since then, but no real commitment to the poor. So what we’re calling for is the next president of these United States to do the same thing that Barack Obama did when he got elected the first time, Amy, when he, first and foremost, signed Lilly Ledbetter, as he should have, to protect women in the workplace. The next president, as his first official act, ought to be the signing of an executive order establishing and calling for a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. Bring all the experts together, and let us create a national plan that all of us are going to engage to reduce and eradicate poverty in this country over a time certain period, 10, 15, 25 years.