I just returned from the “Measuring the Movement” forum, hosted by The Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network. The event was off the chain, with an amazing crowd and an outstanding panel of guests. We were joined by Rev. Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous, Marc Morial, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Charles Rangel, Democratic Whip James Clyburn, Charles Ogletree, Michael Eric Dyson, Roland Martin, Tom Joyner, Jeff Johnson, Judge Greg Mathis, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and a list of other intriguing panelists. The event was truly amazing.
One name that wasn’t mentioned, at least not in my presence, was that of Tavis Smiley. Smiley’s name seemed to be that which cannot be mentioned, like the evil character, Lord Voldemort, in the Harry Potter films. In case you don’t recall, simply saying Voldemort’s name was forbidden on Harry Potter’s Hogwarts campus, since his name would conjure up evil spirits.
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I don’t think that Tavis Smiley is evil, but I will confess that I wasn’t interested in saying his name much either. There didn’t seem to be a point, since Tavis presents an abnormally contentious perspective on how to best work with President Obama. Some of the attendees may even consider Tavis to be an enemy of progress, given that he seems to want Obama removed from office (he has a direct incentive to see Hillary Clinton become successful). But what must also be understood is that in spite of the fact that Tavis presents an alternative point of view from Rev. Al Sharpton, the truth is that they are actually helping one another when it comes to getting things done.
The logic is simple: ”Good cop, bad cop” is a highly effective negotiating tactic. Most of us are familiar with the concept, but I can quickly remind you of how it works. When police interrogate a suspect, there is the “bad cop”: the one who gets in the defendant’s face, talks about his mother, pulls out his gun and threatens to shoot him on the spot if he doesn’t confess. He’s the out-of-control maniac who doesn’t seem to care about staying within the confines of decent behavior.
Then, there is the “good cop”: The one who offers the defendant a cigarette and something to eat when the bad cop is out of the room. He gains the trust of the defendant and tells him, “Look, that guy’s nutts. But if you tell me where the body is, I think I can help you out of this mess.” Of course the defendant gives the information to the good cop without realizing that both cops are working together. Effectively, by presenting a worse alternative, the good cop looks that much more enticing. Without the bad cop raising hell and annoying the defendant, he would probably disrespect the good cop and not even speak to him.
Although I don’t think they are working together, the truth is that when it comes to dealing with the president, Al Sharpton has become the good cop and Tavis Smiley has become the bad cop. Smiley is marginalized by The White House since he was part of the Hillary Clinton crew, which lost the election. Had Clinton become president, Smiley would have likely gotten the cabinet position he feels that he deserves. Resulting from what appear to be sour grapes, Tavis likes Obama about as much as Sean Hannity. He screams at the top of his lungs about what Obama is not doing, and doesn’t make much room for encouragement of the president or acknowledgement that perhaps Obama has done at least one thing right. He is the bad cop, throwing temper tantrums and making everyone incredibly uncomfortable with his highly irrational behavior. Forgive me for putting it that way, but I have to tell it like it is.
Sharpton, as the good cop, helps President Obama deal with the valid criticism coming from the Tavis Smiley crew. While I do not believe that Tavis would be happy with President Obama under any circumstances, the truth is that some of his colleagues (Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Julianne Malveaux, Jesse Jackson) have critiques that are quite valid: Black unemployment has increased while white unemployment has stabilized, and President Obama has hardly said the words “black man” in public since he was elected. Obama has shown himself to be sensitive to this criticism, primarily because some in the black community are becoming skeptical of just how much Obama’s success has translated into their own success. Obama needs a way to counter these consistent attacks.
As Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree rightfully mentions, Sharpton is a critical piece of President Obama’s strategy to connect to the African American community. By working with Rev. Sharpton in an honest and forthright way, Obama can directly engage African Americans and mute the critics coming from the Smiley camp. Obama knows that he has to deal with black America and our “leadership” on some level, and Sharpton has extended the most effective olive branch available. But with that olive branch, there does not come an invitation for Sharpton to be used as a tool for the administration. Instead, there is an expectation that President Obama will give the “good cop” what he and his constituents are demanding. Sharpton and Smiley are effectively asking for the same thing: a black agenda from the president that reflects the interests of people of color. The only difference in their viewpoints is the relatively meaningless semantical technicality of whether or not it should actually be called a “black agenda.” While the words used to describe the agenda can be important, President Obama is not in a place where he can ballyhoo an agenda that is exclusively designed for African Americans. All the while, it must be made clear that if black unemployment continues to rise, the community has valid reason to keep criticizing the president.
Sharpton and Smiley don’t agree when it comes to President Obama. Their public fights have been real, and I am not sure how or when they are going to be resolved. But what is most ironic is that Smiley’s presence opens additional doors for Sharpton, since President Obama realizes that both of these men have valid reasons to be skeptical of all politicians. The world is better with both Smiley and Sharpton than it would be without them – that’s the bottom line.