The current feud between media personality Tavis Smiley and Senator Barrack Obama has uncovered a deeply-buried fault line in the black community. Mr. Smiley has been critical of Senator Obama for not showing enough public support for black causes, (most notably, skipping the State of the Black Union which Smiley hosted). After airing a series of comments critical of Senator Obama on the twice-weekly Tom Joyner Show, Smiley has been hounded off the air in what was called "a verbal public lynching" by Earl Ofari Hutchinson on the Huffington Post.
Why has the black community turned so vehemently on one of its own? The answer lies in the way black public figures are created.
Beset by mostly-unconscious feelings of guilt, the white-dominated media has traditionally anointed black leaders who espouse a victim mentality. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton are the most notable current examples. Tavis Smiley falls into this category as well. When Mr. Smiley appeared on National Public Radio,* he covered politics, entertainment, sports, you name it. How many other NPR on-air personalities were given such wide license? In truth, Smiley was a token presence to make the white-dominated public radio world feel good about its attempt at diversity. The underlying ethos of Smiley’s public presence is that he is owed this exposure because of past injustices—an ex-officio affirmative action program. Not surprisingly, Mr. Smiley is threatened by a black leader like Senator Obama who is not rooted in his minority set-aside ghetto.
Indeed, Tavis Smiley was the logical choice to host this year’s State of the Black Union. The founders of this event believe a separate national forum on the state of black Americans is necessary because of the inequality and prejudice that persists to this day. Although no rational person would argue that racial injustices do not exist, there are those who believe events like this help perpetuate racial divisions. Among whites, the Black State of the Union fuels feelings of guilt or resentment. For blacks, this event helps perpetuate a mentality of victimhood that sees every problem in the black community as a manifestation of racial prejudice.
I do not know Senator Obama’s reasons for skipping the Black State of the Union. But it seems logical to guess that he wants to be seen as a candidate for the presidency of the Union, not the Black Union. Judging by the harsh reception Tavis Smiley has received, most black Americans understand Senator Obama’s prudent move. However, Mr. Smiley, like so many other black leaders anointed by the white media are finding the cloak of victimhood is heavy mantle to shed.
Raul Ramos y Sanchez
*Mr. Smiley no longer works for NPR as this column initially reported. Please see a correction about this statement here.