Ethics Dunce: Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley believes in traditional American political values...like those of Boss Tweed.

Tavis Smiley, Black Educational TV’s provocative talk show host, unveiled remarkably shameless and divisive tribalism in his remarks to NBC’s Lester Holt.

“What is the presidency really worth? Is it worth not saying anything? Is it worth being silent when you’re catching the most hell, when you’re suffering the most pain? Especially, when you’re the most loyal part of the President’s base?” Smiley asked, speaking of the African-American electorate’s proper response to President Obama’s handling of the economy.

“That’s not hating on the President, it’s defending your own flanks. And whatever happened to that notion that to the victor goes the spoils? If anybody ought to be looked out for, it ought to be the persons who represent the most significant and the most loyal part of the base. That would be African-Americans.”

That would be Tavis Smiley, at his most irresponsible and racist.

Gullible, idealistic me: I was under the impression that President Obama’s election in 2008 was not a victory of blacks over whites, entitling African-Americans to special considerations and “the spoils.” I assumed that, like other candidates for the nation’s highest office, Barack Obama was running to be president of all Americans equally, and I am certain that if he had represented himself as an interest group  leader whose goal was to make sure his “most loyal” base was rewarded with race-centered policies that benefited them above any other American, he would have lost in a landslide. Even to John McCain.

Smiley’s is a spectacularly toxic statement, simultaneously harmful to Obama, national unity, public trust in the President, and to the extent that Smiley is an opinion leader in the African-American community, that community as well. He is arguing for an American government in which leaders are elected to give special treatment to their own race, ethnic group, or religious affiliation, and rejecting the essential ideal that the President of the United States is the President of all the people, not just “his” people.

Smiley famously predicted in April that the 2012 election would be “the most racist election” in recent history. He appears to be doing his best to make certain his prediction comes true.

13 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Tavis Smiley

  1. Half and Half. I think from a top down view – for the President to engage in tribalism, yes – your post is spot on.

    However, Smiley’s call to action for the black population, to be more vocal, to criticize the president, to “be the squeaky wheel”…. It’s that comment that I think deserves some praise. Right now, every time the president is criticized, the critic is slammed as a racist.

    Smiley is calling for the black community to openly criticize and saying that criticizing isn’t hateful…it’s just how things get done.

    I was having a hard time putting his quotes together in this Ethics Alarms article, but I think the source link provides a better context.

  2. Smiley famously predicted in April that the 2012 election would be “the most racist election” in recent history.

    Was it a prediction, or a promise?

  3. How is this racist? It seems to me Smiley is actually encouraging African-Americans to *not* be racist, by reflexively supporting Obama simply because he looks like “one of us,” and to criticize him when his policies harm their communities. That’s being a responsible citizen, and exercising your right to petition government for a redress of grievances.

    Yes, the final paragraph may rub some people the wrong way, but is it any different from a white conservative, saying that white conservatives who supported a conservative candidate, should expect him, when elected, to implement policies that would please those who elected him, and criticize him when he does not?

    • “May rub some people the wrong way???” If a white broadcaster said, “It was whites who elected this president, and they should be able to expect a little extra consideration in tough times. To the victor go the spoils!”, what would he be called? He would be called a racist, and properly so.

      • Isn’t that what Bush said right after the 2000 and 2004 election? In 2001 he worked immediately to exclude minorities and poor. In 2004 he immediately claimed he had “political capitol” to use. Yet, if a black even hints at it, you cry racism.

        • No. There was nothing racial about Bush’s political capital statement (which came mid-first term, when he had a near 90% approval rate. That IS political capital, and he expended it trying to get Congress to get serious about Social Security. And I dispute your characterization—Bush’s involvement of minorities in his administration was superior to Clinton’s, and minorities fared better under his Administration than they have under Obama. His assistance to Africa was exemplary. You just make stuff up.

  4. Just wanted to up my 2 cents to 7 cents….but I think it’s worth it.

    “It’s just not that black folks are hurting the most now. It’s that there’s no sign that it’s going to get any better. There really are two questions in black America, I think, Lester, have to wrestle with. At least two questions.”

    Okay. Pretty clear.

    Number one: what is the pain threshold in black America? What is our pain threshold, number one. And number two, what is the presidency really worth? Is it worth not saying anything? Is it worth being silent when you’re catching the most hell, when you’re suffering the most pain? Especially, when you’re the most loyal part of the President’s base,” Smiley said.

    Seems pretty clear. I have no problem with this statement. He’s calling out the black community for staying silent out of fear that the president won’t be black after the next election. He’s challenging the black community to hold Obama to the same standards that they have applied to previous presidents. Additionally, while recognizing that the black community is the most loyal to Obama, he’s saying that they have a duty as his most loyal, to keep him on the right path.

    “That’s not hating on the President, it’s defending your own flanks.

    Being vocal and critical isn’t “hating”. Defending your position and supporting your point of view is okay.

    And whatever happened to that notion that to the victor goes the spoils? If anybody ought to be looked out for, it ought to be the persons who represent the most significant and the most loyal part of the base. That would be African-Americans.”

    This is the most inflammatory portion. He had a great quote going and then he cheapened it with “We’re not all in this together. We got him elected, we should get a hand-out.”

    Smiley says he understands that President Obama is taking the “political risk” looking “tribal” if he were to look out for the concerns of his race. “What makes presidents great, makes them transformational is taking risks,” Mr. Smiley says.

    Yeah and a president of another race would look like they were pandering, buying votes – and that would be a risk. If the policies and programs favorable to any constituency has sound justification and isn’t based on tribalism, racism, etc…. then it’s worth the risk. The time to not risk an accusation of “tribalism” is when the accusation would become truth.

    • Blacks are hurting economically. Fine, I agree. They are upset that the President isn’t doing more. Again, fine. They have a right to complain. Sure they do.

      They have a right to expect special measures that will only benefit them, benefit them to the exclusion of whites, benefit them because the President is “their” candidate? Bullshit.
      Nobody is arguing that because white unemployment is well under 9%, the crisis i9sn’t as serious as it has been represented. We are talking about a national crisis, not a race by race crisis. Smiley’s characterization of it and his obvious orientation is racially divisive. The “good” parts of his quote was included to provide some context, but they don’t mitigate the “spoils” section one bit. He’s saying a black President should favor black Americans. If that’s going to be the mantra of the African American community, it won’t see another black President for a long, long time.—until it grows up politically and considers itself part of the nation.

      • I disagree with your assessment. Blacks are overwhelmingly poor. They were hurt by the Bush recession much more than whites and continue to suffer. Blacks also endure discrimination in jobs, housing, and just driving their cars. Obama has done nothing to correct those concerns except to get the DoJ’s Civil Rights Division back up to pre-Bush levels.

        Yes, Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Charter schools helped some minorities. Proportionally though, more whites have received help.When TARP went to small, community based banks, the whites cried foul (see Maxine Waters and Henry Paulson)

        I don’t think the poor in general have improved much under Obama.

        • Call yourself Mr. Non Sequitur. This is unrelated to the post, as have been most of your responses. The post specifically addressed the contention that Obama should favor blacks because “They” elected him. Obviously if the African American community is suffering disproportionately, national policy should seek ways to help black communities. That does not mean that Obama “owes” blacks special treatment. A white President would have EXACTLY the same obligation.

  5. As I’ve mentioned before, it was Martin Luther King who once said that blacks would never be fully assimilated into the larger American society until they had “risen to the level of self-criticism.” Smiley’s comments were NOT made in that vein. Let’s see here: “to the victor go the spoils.” This is a medieval attitude, is it not? Even ancient: The Romans weren’t racist: they just enslaved every culture they conquered. Is the presidential election every four years some kind of medieval war? Smiley seems to think so.. Which makes HIM a racist, and not incidentally, ignorant of history, of our overall culture, and a moron. What exactly does Smiley want? For many reasons — the percentage of black drop-out rates, the percentage of children born out of wedlock and abandoned by their fathers, etc., etc. — blacks have been behind the general population in income, quality of life, etc. for the past 30 years — way past the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of 1964. Whose responsibility is it to begin to change it? And why is anyone surprised that if everyone is suffering through a recession, blacks will suffer proportionately. (One unstated fact that Smiley, Waters and others conveniently forget: per the last census, two-thirds of black Americans had sufficient income to be considered part of the middle class…)

    Electing a black president was a tremendously positive Rubicon that the US was very late in crossing. But we did it. And we should be proud of that. But Obama is president of the United States… not and never a shill for black Americans. Frankly, I think Democrats of all colors are afraid enough now of the 2012 election that they will resort to anything to get him re-elected, including the insinuation that each vote will be a race-based choice. Unfortunately, the bad decisions made by the Obama administration, and Obama’s own attitude toward the general population (you are idiots and I have all the answers), will do more to drive voters away than any threat of racism on the part of voters.

    (Whatever did his Justice Department do about the “new black panthers” intimidating voters at the polling stations, by the way?)

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