Hey, Tavis Smiley, Here's Your List

Today, Tavis Smiley - the race-baiting cohort of Cornel West - appeared this morning on Meet The Press to drag down the president after his stirring address on Friday. In that appearance, Smiley pejoratively asked Prof. Charles Ogletree (Harvard professor who taught both Barack and Michelle Obama) to "lay out" what the president had done for African Americans or to lead the conversation on race. Watch:


Full video here. While Prof. Ogletree correctly called out the smug Smiley for pretending that all responsibility to have a conversation and take action on race falls on the president simply because he's black, for the lack of time, he didn't get to respond to the smug Smiley's demand to list what the president had done. I will.

Let's start at the beginning - let's start with candidate Obama. Barack Obama's 2008 speech on race and race relations in America is one of the best inspiring speeches that captured America's emotions - in history. His 2008 speech falls in a group of select speeches by presidents in this country: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, JFK's historic civil rights speech, and President Johnson's address to Congress on voting rights. The contemporary import and significance of Barack Obama's 2008 speech is exceeded perhaps only by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr's I-have-a-dream speech.

But as much as Tavis Smiley would like for the president to speechify until he's blue in the mouth - much like Smiley himself does without making any real difference - President Obama, despite his impressive oratory, is more of a doer than a talker. So let's have a look at the policies that the president has codified or pushed, and what difference they make in the American promise to equal opportunity and equal justice for all.

Health Care Reform: Obamacare isn't just good health care policy, it is a key policy to bridge the health insurance disparity between whites and people of color. 21% of African Americans and 32% of Hispanics have no health insurance, compared to just 13% of whites. Health reform levels the playing field, institutes community rating and guaranteed issue, and ensures affordable coverage, along with the largest subsidies for health insurance in history. Because people of color bear the disproportionate brunt of lack of health insurance, we also stand to gain the most from health care reform.

Wall Street Reform: The president's Wall Street reform not only set up the country's first independent federal agency dedicated to consumer protection, but also imposed restrictions on banks and financial institutions from fooling and issuing liar loans to unsuspecting minorities and pushing subprime loans. Bankers even admit that they did so. Poor people and minorities are targets of rip-off style financial products, and both overall financial reform as well as the CFPB are a godsend. The CFPB is looking into regulating payday lenders I write. Once again, because people of color are disproportionately the target of financial vultures, the president's reform also disproportionately benefits them.

Pell Grants and Student Loan Reform: We continue to hearken back to economic factors limiting the scope of opportunity for minorities - who are disproportionately dependent on student loans and Pell Grants - but that's normal given that it is the economic hurdle that is the most pernicious in trapping minorities. One of the first bills President Obama signed into law protected students from loan sharks. The president's student loan reform was done in two parts: the first part in the student loan reform bill itself - a bill that made it far easier for students to pay off their debt. In the second part, through the reconciliation bill that completed health reform, he cut the banks out of the process of federal loans, investing the banks' cut in students instead.

The president also doubled the funding for Pell Grants. Why is that important? Because of the greater economic need, Pell Grant recipients of color dramatically increase their college graduation rates. It also eases the debt burden.

Credit Card Reform: Credit card reform outlawed a whole host of loan-sharking practices, including the minimum payment scam (now you have the right to know how much interest you will pay and how long you will pay if you just made the minimum payment), universal default for existing loans, deceptive due date practices, and giving credit cards to students without requiring proof of ability to pay (or a co-signer). Once again, because the abuses fall on those who have the toughest time paying - read disproportionately racial minorities - the benefits of the reform also befall the same people.

These broad policy achievements, of course, come in addition to specific, targeted policy achievements of the president, including the Fair Sentencing Act that reduces the drug sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine, and yes, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - both because women of color are the most victimized by pay discrimination and because the Act itself deals with pay discrimination on the basis of any of the categories under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including race. The president nearly single-handedly restored the American auto industry, and thus American manufacturing - also an economic underpinning of many minority communities.

This is to say nothing of the stimulus package that turned the whole economy around from the worst disaster since the Great Depression - a disaster that also disproportionately affected minorities.

The president has advocated for and tried to advance more policies that would address economic conditions - including his Jobs Act (as Professor Ogletree correctly pointed out) - without success as Republicans in Congress have made it their mission to block this president in any way they can.

But hey, why would you expect someone like Tavis Smiley - who economically is closer to the 1% and entirely focused on increasing his personal wealth through "poverty tours" to sell his book - to even recognize ways to address economic racial disparities as achievements or advancing the frontier on race relations? My mistake.

For those who want to focus on what the president says vs. what he does, there is no shortage of the president's public engagement, either. Not only has he stirred the nation's emotions from the death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of an armed killer who racially profiled him, the president has lead with depth with the Gates controversy in 2009, after a Harvard professor was arrested for entering his house. Michelle Obama identified with Hadiya Pendleton as a southside girl from Chicago. Nearly every speech the president has given either on the campaign trail or on a college campus, addressing our future, his calls for people of all races and backgrounds to come together have given us hope. The president is, however, the president - and his role is not to lead a race, but to lead a nation.

What the likes of Smiley don't understand when they accuse this president of taking a backseat on conversations of race is that this president has had to suffer through something no other president in history has because of his race: the palpable institutional and media racial bias. He has had to contend with claims from the likes of Glenn Beck that he hates white people, and he has had to put up with claims from the likes of Tavis Smiley that he's not militant enough.

He has had to face Tea Party Republicans calling him a liar during an address to Congress. He has had to contend with questions that the media treated as legitimate about things ranging from his birth certificate to his religion to his upbringing and childhood education, his church, his family, to his and Michelle Obama's patriotism (simply because she expressed pride in her country for nominating a black major party candidate). They couldn't even gesture for affection or appreciation without it being called a "terrorist fist bump" by the most-watched cable news channel in the country. For no white president would these questions even be considered legitimate, let alone making one of them produce a birth certificate.

This president has faced adversity in and out of office because of his race that no other president ever has. Still, he - and in no less part, Michelle Obama - have handled all of it with a calm and a grace and grit and strength that most of us can only wish we would have. This president has taken those hits without complaining, without lashing out, without pointing fingers. Perhaps Tavis Smiley should learn something from Barack Obama. Perhaps we all should. Perhaps it's time we all discovered a little bit of the courage, strength and grace that Barack and Michelle Obama have shown within ourselves. If we could all do that, we will not be asking what the president can do for race relations: we would be asking what we can do to take responsibility for our country.


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