Tavis Smiley Calls On Black Leaders To Discuss Black Agenda Under Obama

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Two months after ending his annual State of the Black Union conference, Tavis Smiley is gathering African-American advocates to press the case for a “black agenda.”

The decision was motivated by what Smiley called recent statements from some black leaders downplaying the need for President Barack Obama to specifically help African-Americans.

“I was compelled to do it because of this debate,” the activist and PBS talk show host said Wednesday.

The panel discussion will be March 20 at Chicago State University. Panelists include advertising pioneer Tom Burrell, professors Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux.

The meeting is free and open to the public. Negotiations to televise the event are in progress, Smiley spokeswoman Leshelle Sargent said.

Some black politicians and activists have recently begun to question Obama’s longtime stance that helping the overall economy will improve the fortunes of blacks who are disproportionately poor and unemployed.

West, for example, gave Obama a grade of C minus on policies and priorities focused on poor and working people, saying, “He has really not come through in any substantial and significant way.” Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have blocked some legislation until their demands were met.

Last week, Smiley and the Rev. Al Sharpton had a fierce argument about the issue on Sharpton’s radio show, with Sharpton taking heated exception to Smiley’s claim that the reverend was giving Obama a pass on black issues.

When Smiley ended the State of the Black Union after 10 years, he said black issues were now being addressed elsewhere.

Apparently, however, not enough to his liking.

“This is not about Obama. It’s about us,” Smiley said in an interview.

He said that the Obama campaign and black leaders asked African-Americans for help during the election, but that “now that he’s elected, what are black people being asked to do to hold him accountable to our agenda?”

Eric Deggans, who writes about the media and race for Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, said Smiley’s new event is consistent with his record of criticizing Obama’s race-neutral stance. But there is a perception that Smiley is personally invested in the issue, he said, because Obama declined to attend Smiley’s 2008 State of the Black Union event during the presidential campaign.

“It could be hard for people watching this to see Tavis as an honest broker,” Deggans said. “He’s playing an odd game,” he continued. “He’s trying to make great television and also present something that effects social change. That’s often two different things.”

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