Tavis Smiley

When President Obama used Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible at his second inaugural swearing-in, talk show host Tavis Smiley said he hoped the president would continue Dr. King’s legacy by tackling poverty. Smiley is running a national anti-poverty campaign, along with professor and activist Cornel West. Smiley joins us to talk about his hopes for Obama’s second term, why he is focusing on poverty in America and the backlash he’s gotten for his campaign.

Tavis Smiley, host of "Tavis Smiley" on PBS as well as "The Tavis Smiley Show" and "Smiley and West" on PRI and author of "Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success From Failure"

  • Leonidas

    The only poverty that Uncle Tom Obama is working on alleviating is that of the poor, old Wall St banksters who scammed world with their junk-filled securities and derivatives, and are now at risk of raking in mere billions of ill-gotten gains instead of the trillions they think their scams should be making.

  • thucy

    First, kudos on a great guest. Now, the question.

    Please ask Tavis Smiley why it is that I can hear Stanford Law Superstar and best-selling author Michelle Alexander on his show, and she can appear regularly on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, BUT despite listener requests, KQED’s Forum show refuses to have her as a guest?

    Why is it I can hear and see award-winning documentary film-maker Eugene Jarecki on Tavis’s show, but KQED’s Forum show refuses to have him as a guest?

    I’m not suggesting KQED’s Forum staff is racist, merely oblivious to one of the most urgent civil rights issues of the last 30-40 years. Not racist; merely veering toward irrelevance.

    The war on drugs has imprisoned more African-Americans than were enslaved in 1850… and has bankrupted the states… but you wouldn’t know it from listening to Krasny’s Forum. The country is finally turning against the war on drugs… but you wouldn’t know it from listening to Krasny’s Forum.

    My generation is facing huge budgetary obstacles due to the travesty that is the war on drugs. Please, Forum, address the issue.

    • Mr. Smiley only received a 30 minute segment. Poverty alone itself is deserving of a hour segment.

      • thucy

        agreed. Smiley is a hero.

        I still can’t understand why Michelle Alexander is never a Forum guest – she’s been on Fresh Air, best-seller lists, featured in documentaries.

        On top of that, she’s brilliant, pioneering, and FWIW, drop-dead gorgeous.

        If all that can’t get you in the door at Forum, I think it says more about the show than Professor Alexander.

      • Chris OConnell

        There you heard it. Tavis only had 30 minutes for Forum, not the other way around. (Maybe Michelle Alexander has no time for Forum and not the other way around.)

        • thucy

          well, why don’t we have Forum staff tell us why Prof Alexander hasn’t been a guest? Last I spoke with Forum staff in the fall, they didn’t even know who she was. Yikes!

          • thucy

            Forum staff:
            Professor Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” was published in 2010, and was on the New York Times best-seller list for 35 weeks. That was a lot of time (since 2010 publication date, nearly FOUR years) to figure out how to get her on the show.

            Our late pal, Lenny Shlain, (who was, I think, NEVER on the NYT best-seller lists despite many tries), was a frequent guest on Forum. He was a good guy, but… relevant to the wider world? Maybe not as much as others who don’t get airtime on Forum.

            Why the disparity? Is it a racial thing that people like me can’t understand?

            I understand that, this late in the game, it might be hard to book Alexander. On the other hand, documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, who deals with the same topic in the award-winning “The House I Live In”, has availabilty -I know because I made a three-minute call to his publicist. So easy!

            Hey, it’s worth trying for more challenging and more relevant topics than, say, today’s full one-hour 9 a.m. rehash of what we already know we’re all supposed to be eating.

            Let’s aim for less bourgeois navel-gazing, and more real-world relevance.

          • Chris OConnell

            Yes, it’s a racial thing I am sure.

          • Chris OConnell

            I agree that Michelle Alexander is worthy. I think I heard her on Fresh Air and her book about The New Jim Crow is very important, and somewhat shocking.

        • Thank you for the clarification. I hear you and Mr. Krasny loud and clear.

    • Demographer1

      This isn’t the best Forum program for you make this point. Much better would be one focused on drug policy or other criminal justice issues.The program,(only half an hour!) was about the absolutely enormous issue of US poverty. I can assure you that poverty in the US is not caused by the war on drugs, and the majority of us low-income Americans are not involved with drugs, either as consumers, sellers or even bystanders. Poverty was a big problem here long before the war on drugs.

      Poverty here is mainly caused by low real wages, which is the result of relative supplies of labor, capital and natural resources, & government policies towards such inputs (taxation, education policy, health care policy, immigration policy,,etc.) The war on drugs is not directly relevant.


  • thucy

    Tavis is ubelievably sharp. Why is he one of so few Americans to tell it like it is? Love him for cutting through all the admin’s excuses.

    Tavis, you are so tough. Hang in there. We love you.

  • Gail Lee

    Please tell Mr. Smiley there’s a difference between criticism when I heard what Dr. west said about the President, I thought I was listening to Rush Limbaugh.

  • Gail Lee

    Please tell Mr. Smiley, there’s a difference between criticism and denigration. When I heard Dr. West’s statement, I thought I was listening to Rush Limbaugh.

    • thucy

      with all due respect (and I understand you may be exaggerating for effect), but if you mistook Cornel West for Rush Limbaugh, it really doesn’t speak to your cognitive abilities.

      And shows no respect for a LIFETIME of good works from Cornel West (and I say that as someone who dislikes Cornel West’s speaking style.)

      I didn’t like West’s statement, but the reality is that Obama’s positions are to the RIGHT of the Nixon administration. What Tavis is saying is “look at the policies, not the skin color – analyze the policies, not the personality.”

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Total consumer debt exceeds the often ‘bugled’ mortgage problems. Poor folks – and the middle class – stayed afloat by use of credit cards and got in debt to just survive. As important is that student loans still cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Yet we have seen bankruptcy laws tighten on these low income folks, while Donald Trump racks up more than 30 bankruptcies and still has private planes.

    How are the poor and working poor supposed to finance an education to get a leg up in society, and go on to buy homes and build communities, such as happened in post-war America? It is incongruous that education is loudly touted as the means to lever America in the global marketplace. Disconnect, anyone?

    • Demographer1

      Post-war American government also limited immigration, particularly low-skilled immigration, by enforcing its laws. As a result we had the highest wages for low-wage workers that we ever had in our industrial history, and businesses had to train workers rather than demand that workers pay exorbitant amounts for their own training & education. It’s called “supply & demand.” You can’t do away with it through wishful thinking.

      Our government also did not assume it could provide in-state tuition and now even financial aid to anyone’s kids brought illegally by their parents, at the same times that there isn’t enough financial aid for lower-income Americans.trying to finance college. As a result, the latter have to take out exorbitant loans to get a degree. Happened to me: I was way below poverty level in CA (earning about $11,000/year), and CA would not give me enough financial aid to cover the cost of tuition for a teaching credential, let alone the cost of living (I would have had to quit my job because of the hours when classes were, so. I would have had to pay exorbitant interest on loans simply to cover my rent). At the same time, the state was subsidzing the BA’s of the undocumented with in-state tuition. Financial aid is a limited pot. If you divide it more ways, those who need it most get less.

  • Mary Dixon

    From Yesterday’s Chronicle: If the Nixon administration did this, why can’t Obama?

    … “Hunger in America,” a 1968 CBS television documentary hosted by Charles Kuralt. Back then, the statistic was that 10 million Americans experienced hunger, a revelation to TV viewers at the time. “Public pressure was outrageous after watching this show…”The incoming Nixon administration made it a top priority to fix the problem and very quickly they did…Sen. Dole and McGovern reached across the aisle and created the modern food safety network, because of demand. Pretty much hunger was wiped out. Ideology changed in the ’80s and it came back and it came back in a very strong way.”

    • Demographer1

      I appreciate your sympathy, but as someone who spent 2 years on welfare and has been poor all my working life due to low wages, I would like you understand that hunger is nowhere near the biggest problem for the US poor, due to the fact that food stamps are probably the easiest aid to qualify for (you don’t need to be poor enough to qualify for cash aid) and private food banks are available. Also, while there is a lifetime limit of 5 years for cash aid, I believe there is no lifetime limit to getting food stamps.
      By far the biggest problem for us is the astronomical price of rental housing, because it is an enormous portion of living costs (all my wages & cash aid went to cover rent costs when I was on welfare) and subsidized housing is much less available.. The two years I made $5000-6000 /year in wages and was on cash aid, I was put on a long wait list for subsidized housing. By the time I got to the top of the list, I was no longer eligible since my income jumped to (the stellar level of) about $11,0000/year after I finally got a better job.
      But since the price of housing increases with population growth (unlike food prices which have fallen relative to incomes over time), the willingness to subsidize housing for low-income Americans has receded. Landowners stand to make just too much money on real estate to make it available at below market prices. Farmers don’t make enough money on staples to similarly resist subsidizing food for the poor.. Pricing for housing just isn’t the same as for other products because supply is more limited (you can’t easily create more land).,..

  • Demographer1

    The equivalent 1968 US minimum wage should be about $20 today if it had kept pace with prices. But that was when our government was still committed to limit immigration by following its own laws . You cannot maintain high wages for poorer workers here AND have the essentially open borders that we have had for about 30 years now. The stagnation of wages (not education and productivity levels, which have increased over the last 30 years) is why so many US hands-on service workers in the bottom half are paid such low wages..

    Obama administration and the AFL-CIO are making things worse by aiming to import more low-skilled supposedly “temporary” labor, and by current legalization proposals, sending the message that we will not enforce any meaningful limits on lower-skill labor. If we actually had shortages of lower-skill laborers, their wages would not be so low. It’s called the laws of supply & demand, which you cannot do away with by demonizing those who point out the negative effects of current immigration levels on us lower-income folks..

    It sounds good to Obama’s constituents to say we should legalize most illegals–the great majority of whom are low-wage workers with less education on average than Americans (not the fabled STEM degree-holder)—AND increase the minimum wage, but these are mutually contradictory economic policies so the laws of supply & demand will ensure that they cancel each other out.. And if you don’t actually enforce future laws through E-verify and other means, the cycle of a constantly increasing lower-skilled labor supply depressing wages for the bottom half will continue. If the Obama administration accepts such muddleheaded arguments as “these are human beings” for why we have to legalize the current millions of undocumented, why would anyone believe they will enforce their own proposed future laws against unauthorized immigration? Future undocumented are also “human beings” after all.

  • menloman

    Besides their obsession with their tribe what else do Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have to offer?

    • thucy

      uh… poverty? justice? just war v. war crimes?
      wow, you clearly haven’t watched the show.

  • Poverty can only be conquered via: Education and dealing with racism and sexism. It does not come from legislation that feed and house — that’s a delusion that actually keeps people chained to poverty. People who are scared to give up food stamps and housing vouchers that they don’t realize are actually keeping them poor.

    Plain and simple: poverty is not about money it’s about power! Tavis Smiley knows this and I’m tired of his and Dr. West’s grandstanding. This is a topic he should have lite under his feet a long time ago with Bush and even Clinton. If he had done that, maybe then he would have been more credible and his “progressive” movement would have been accepted more favorable by Blacks in this country.

    • Demographer1

      Disagree. “Poverty can only be conquered via education” :not when education is so expensive relative to the wages you earn at the job you actually get in the real world. Like many others I know, I have more than one college degree, which I and my parents paid a lot of money & went into debt to obtain. But I still ended up in poverty because there were too many others with PhD’s in history and MA’s in quantitative social science (demography in my case) chasing too few jobs. So universities & others who hire such degree-holders could pay way less than a living wage: $6000-12,000/year.And the private sector had no interest in hiring us at a living wage either. In fact getting a PhD no doubt made most businesses uninterested in me because most of my job experience was teaching & research rather than what they thought more relevant. And CA would not give me enough financial aid to get the expensive training I needed (teaching credential) to teach public school full time.. I would have had to pay exorbitant interest on loans simply to pay rent, since I would have had to quit my job. In other words, labor supply matters a lot.. When you have a glutted supply of almost all types of labor, including the educated, the private sector can pay even the educated low wages. and then even they can still end up in poverty.
      Also can’t agree with your view of food stamps & housing vouchers. If you aren’t paid enough to buy housing, or food with the wages you are paid, you have little choice but to try to obtain such subsidies.

      Racism & sexism are indeed problems but it costs money to fight cases that redress them. Poverty certainly is “about money”–not just power.

  • John

    Smiley is kind of a blowhard.

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