Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley traded insults on two different radio shows last week in a dispute over comments Sharpton made to the press after attending a White House meeting with other black leaders. What started all of this? The New York Times article in question, For Obama, Nuance on Race Invites Questions, asserted “the The Rev. Al Sharpton, who is working with Mr. Obama to close the achievement gap in education, says the president is smart not to ballyhoo ‘a black agenda.'”
The radio showdown between the two black activists has everybody talking about whether or not a black agenda is needed, and whether or not President Obama needs to address a black agenda, or stand pat on his assertion that he is the president of “all” Americans.
Sharpton has been a civil rights advocate for decades, crisscrossing the country to speak out against injustices large and small against fellow African Americans. Smiley combined the evangelical fervor of the black clergy with new-age media savvy to propel himself to the forefront of the black empowerment movement, partnering with major corporations to put on educational seminars and job fairs across the country that focus on the needs of the black community.
If we step back for a minute from the Tavis Smiley versus Al Sharpton debate maybe we can pay less attention to the rhetoric and more to reality. Two items in the news recently stood out in my mind as I listened to the audiotape of Smiley and Sharpton going at each other. The first was the recent appearance by Michelle Obama on FOX News, where she talked to host and ex-presidential candidate Jim Huckabee on his show about one of her pet projects, her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.
In the interview, she described how much of a challenge it was for people who lived in “food deserts” in our inner cities to get fresh fruits and vegetables for their families, and how important it was for our country to invest in and encourage investment in new markets and grocery stores in these areas. Mrs. Obama pointed to a $400 million dollar healthy food financing initiative as an example of the Obama administration’s commitment to the issue.
The other item was the proposal announced on Monday by the White House to put $900 million dollars into programs nationwide that would be aimed at reducing the high school dropout rate.
Neither of these items was categorized by the president or the First Lady as an issue on a White House “black agenda”. But both of these initiatives speak directly to two of the biggest problems Black America faces today — a high dropout rate among African American high school students, and access to quality, affordable food items for those who live in inner city neighborhoods.
Tavis Smiley’s rhetorical question during his monologue last week on the Tom Joyner Morning Show — “isn’t the African American agenda the human agenda?” — is a sentence that reads the same backwards and forwards. Smiley would do well to heed his own advice, and learn to recognize that the White House efforts to back initiatives aimed at African Americans won’t always come with peel and stick “black agenda” labels
Smiley and Sharpton are lone civil rights cowboys. They can ignore political realities. President Obama, the chief executive of the entire country and the leader of his political party, who lives under an intense level of microscopic scrutiny largely because he is the nation’s first black president, does not have that luxury.