Author and PBS host Tavis Smiley talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his new book, President Obama’s legacy, and why he won’t be intimidated by Donald Trump.
A decade ago Tavis Smiley and several big name contributors, including Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, Angela Glover Blackwell, president and CEO of PolicyLink, Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and Princeton University Professor Emeritus Dr. Cornel West, collaborated to create a national plan of action to address the 10 most critical issues facing African Americans. The Covenant with Black America, which became a New York Times best seller, presented 10 covenants that tackled topics ranging from health care to criminal justice, affordable housing to education and voting rights to racial divides.
Now, 10 years after the groundbreaking book was published, Smiley decided it was time to call for a renewal of each of the 10 covenants. His sequel, The Covenant with Black America – Ten Years Later, was released earlier this month.
“The Covenant made a huge impact and was well received, so we wanted to take a look at what progress was made in the areas discussed in the book—the 10 different covenants,” says Smiley. “The reason for this book was to give us a report card about where we are 10 years later.” The sequel features the original action plan but contains new data from the Indiana University School of Public & Environmental Affairs that points out “missed opportunities and work that remains to be done.” “It’s not my own conjecture or opinion,” Smiley adds. “Academics and professors wrote these updated chapters. It’s important to get the report card, read the data and be clear about what demands we need to be making now.”
Smiley is the host of the late-night TV talk show Tavis Smiley on PBS, and The Tavis Smiley Show from Public Radio International. He is the founder of the nonprofit Tavis Smiley Foundation, now in the midst of a $3 million, four-year campaign called “ENDING POVERTY: America's Silent Spaces” to help focus on alleviating endemic poverty in America. TIME magazine named Smiley to its list of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.”
Opportunist: Tavis, how has the African American community progressed in each of the critical areas you talk about in your book?
Tavis Smiley: In short, there have been pockets of progress. But, writ large, the sad story is that black America has lost ground in every major economic category. And it’s hard to wrap your brain around it. Years from now, the historians are going to struggle with how to square the issue and how to juxtapose how the bottom fell out during the administration of the first black American president. Problems have gotten worse on his watch. The book is not about Obama, but the two things are kind of hard to separate.
The Covenant was the subject of two presidential debates during the 2008 campaign season: a Democratic debate at Howard University and a Republican debate at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Today, black Americans are still unemployed or underemployed or, in many cases, no longer looking for work because the recession hit black folk so hard they aren’t doing better at all. Secondly, black wealth has evaporated over the last 10 years. It’s been wiped out. It’s almost nonexistent. The Great Recession took a huge toll. Then there’s the issue of justice. Look around you. Stories abound. Black boys and black men are being shot and killed in the streets by cops. I’m in New York right now, so let me rephrase that … shot, killed and choked to death—like Eric Garner. And so this police abuse and conduct is out of control a decade later. Most of the Obamacare provisions, especially for pre-existing conditions, haven’t kicked in and black America’s health is no better in 10 years. Even when the provisions do kick in, we’ve done nothing about health disparities and gaps in how white and black folk are treated in our health care system. Disparities still exist. Another issue is environmental racism. Black people are being forced to live near dumping grounds. One in three kids in Harlem has asthma. Black women disproportionately die from preventable diseases. Black kids are still struggling to gain access to equal, high quality education. So the challenges exist and abound.
Opportunist: Speaking of the Great Recession, do you see the divide between the haves and have nots widening?
Tavis Smiley: Yes. That gap is widening. The rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer. The gap between the ‘have gots’ and the ‘have nots’ continues to widen. What we learned from this text is that poverty is threatening our very democracy. It’s a matter of national security. These numbers are not sustainable. One percent of the people cannot continue to own and control 40 percent of the wealth. The top richest people—the 400 wealthiest—have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million fellow citizens. Writ large across America, when you color code that poverty data it gets even worse. Those are national numbers. Inside black America, you realize, there’s a highway into poverty but barely a sidewalk out.
Opportunist: What are your thoughts on President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night?
Tavis Smiley: It was a decent speech. He’s a good orator. It was not his greatest. I didn’t think it had a lot of soaring lofty rhetoric to it. It was not nearly as nontraditional as they tried to spin it. But, having said that, I think it’s hard to give a great speech. He had to take the time—and I don’t begrudge him that—to give a list of what he thinks his legacy is comprised of.
Opportunist: How do you feel the country has evolved during the Obama administration? Was he truly a game changer?
Tavis Smiley: What the president learned the hard way, certainly in his first term, is there’s a distinct difference between campaigning and governing. He ran a brilliant campaign in 2008. He made very few mistakes. But campaigning and governing are two distinct things that require different strategies. In many respects the president brought the wrong tool box to fix the problems he was up against. On the campaign trail it’s about getting everybody to love you and vote for you. Governing requires that you have a certain set of immutable principles on which your presidency will be based. It took a long time to realize what Barack Obama really believed in. My granddad always said, ‘Some fights ain’t worth fighting; others you have to fight whether you win or lose.’ Pres. Obama had some tough choices to make during his first term. He pushed back on the Republican obstructionism, which does exist, and he’s had to face a lot of headwind in the last seven years. He would have been better off had he gone for jobs and tried for a living wage during his first term as opposed to health care because health care was so divisive. So many Americans were hurting that he would have gained a lot more goodwill. People are happy when they have jobs and can pay their rent. Had he attacked that issue first it might have been better.
The race question is also fascinating. A Pew study came out showing that after all the hype of him being the first black president and ideally moving the country into a post-racial society, the American public doesn’t feel any better on the topic of race after his two four-year terms. That is grievous.
Opportunist: As we approach the 2016 presidential primaries, what do you feel are the most important issues facing the nation?
Tavis Smiley: All the issues we laid out in The Covenant impact the nation as well. No. 1 is employment. People need jobs with a living wage. I am so heartened about this ‘Fight for 15’ that is gaining steam and momentum across the country for a living wage. No. 2, we are going to have to figure out how we can guarantee every child in this country access to equal, high quality education. All kids should get whatever the better schools are providing for their kids. There are too many variables, such as whether your name gets into the lottery for a better school. There is a growing discord that’s being sewn by police misconduct. How close to anarchy does society get when its law enforcement apparatus is losing trust? People don’t want to live in lawlessness or anarchy—we need police that are sworn to protect and serve—but when you lose the trust and confidence of the citizens you’re serving that’s a problem.
The timing of this book is so important because the issues laid out in this text define how disproportionately they affect not only black America but all Americans. When you make black America better, you make all of America better. Issues raised in The Covenant may be black America’s problems but they are white America’s burdens. As goes black America, so goes the nation. Black folk are too significant a slice to have their suffering rendered in miserable. Seeing the ground that’s been lost and the time that’s been wasted over the last decade, we’ve got work to do and we better start doing it now. That means right now.
Opportunist: Earlier this week, you made a comment about Donald Trump’s campaign and within hours he was issuing name-calling tweets about you. Has it become controversial to disagree with Donald Trump?
Tavis Smiley: It may be for some. It’s not for me—I am trying to get at the truth. Whenever his name has come up during my book tour this week I have made my critique, and I stand 100 percent by what I said to ABC. My view is that Donald Trump is being covered but he’s not being challenged; he is being covered but he is not being condemned.
My critique was of Donald Trump and the media for our complicity in allowing this to happen. My industry is caught up in the horse race. They aren’t talking about the issues and Trump isn’t being pressed in the way he needs to be. He’s bullying the media like he bullies everybody else with that bombast of his.
Opportunist: How does he pull it off?
Tavis Smiley: The media is titillated and fascinated because it sells papers and gets ratings. They love this catfight. The longer they can stretch it out, the more fun it is. They have no interest in trying to hold folks accountable. This is about sitting back and going ‘Ooh, this is fun … let’s get our popcorn.’ I want to hold Trump and my media colleagues accountable. The things he’s saying are appealing to the dark side of America.
Opportunist: What should America be asking each of the presidential candidates?
Tavis Smiley: ‘Where do you stand on the issues in The Covenant?’ That’s what we did in 2008. On Sunday [Jan. 17], one of the last Democratic debates before we start casting primary votes will be held in Charleston, S.C. It’s sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, monitored by Lester Holt, and can be seen nationally on NBC. We will see how serious they are when the tough questions are asked.
Opportunist: Who inspired you to get where you are today, Tavis?
Tavis Smiley: I have a simple definition of leadership that I have been trying to implement for most of my career: ‘You cannot lead people unless you love people. You cannot save people unless you serve people. You cannot lead if you don’t love, and you cannot save if you don’t serve.’ Also, being part of the Smiley family with my mom, dad and my nine brothers and sisters inspired me. There were 13 of us living in a one-bathroom, three-bedroom trailer. That’s how I was raised. I’m a living example that you can build a whole life on hope. Growing up in that environment, I vowed to myself and my creator that if I ever got out I would first do for my immediate family and then broadly for my people. I love all of humanity but I have a particular and peculiar love for my people. I told myself when I was 12 years old that I was going to do everything to better my own family and help my people more broadly. Just like they tell you to secure your own oxygen mask in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure when you’re on an airplane, I thought I would do what I could to assist myself first and then my own family. Then I would find some ways and platforms to use whatever gift or talent or skill I have to uplift and advance my own people and the broader humanity. It started right there in my trailer with my family.
Opportunist: Have you started working on your next book? If so, can you share any details about it?
Tavis Smiley: This is one of those weird years. [Laughs] I actually have three books coming out in 2016, although it wasn’t planned that way. First is The Covenant, which is out right now of course. My next book, 50 for Your Future: Lessons from Down the Road, comes out in April—in time for graduation season—and features 50 short stories and lessons I’ve learned about how to live a life of meaning and purpose and value. My third book, Before You Judge Me: The Triumph and Tragedy of Michael Jackson’s Last Days, will be coming out in the end of June. It’s about the final days of Michael Jackson. I’ve never written a pop culture book before, but as a Michael Jackson fan I am fascinated by the last 16 weeks of his life. That’s all the book focuses on, starting from the moment he makes his announcement in London about ‘This Is It’ … he’s coming back for one last live series of shows at the O2 Arena and he’s done. He makes that announcement and then, 16 weeks later, he’s dead. I had already bought tickets to go to London to see him. My research team and I have essentially reconstructed his life every day for the last 16 weeks. We get into his life and look at what happened and what didn’t, how he interacted with his family and managers, haters and fans, doctor visits, fights with lawyers and what those rehearsals were like for the concert series.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Tavis Smiley on PBS
Follow Tavis Smiley on Twitter: @tavissmiley