Center for American Progress Action

A Discussion with Tavis Smiley: Candidates and the Covenant with Black America
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A Discussion with Tavis Smiley: Candidates and the Covenant with Black America

Tavis Smiley discusses how to get the media and politicians to address the black community’s concerns.

The night after hosting what he billed as “the first presidential forum to address the issues important to African Americans and people of color,” author and television/radio show host Tavis Smiley joined the Center for American Progress Action Fund to discuss the candidate forum and how race is and is not addressed by politicians and the media.

Outlining the genesis of the historic forum, Smiley noted his bestselling book, The Covenant with Black America, as the beginning of what he hopes to be a new political consciousness and prominence among African Americans and people of color. The book, a collection of essays by prominent black writers and professors, outlines what Smiley believes to be the largest issues currently facing black America and serves as a checklist of sorts for black voters to use to compare candidates’ positions.

Smiley said the presidential forum served to shed light on issues that are important not only to black America, but to all Americans. Topics such as poverty and education have been largely absent from debates so far, he said, pointing to what he described as a mainstream media that seeks to fit debates and issues into the frames it prefers. These issues, among others, are crucial to black America but also to Americans of all races and ethnicities, he said, and the lack of attention paid to such large issues is something we should seek to correct. This is borne out of Smiley’s belief that all Americans hope for the same thing: to live in a nation that is as good as its promise.

While economic and social questions were broad, others were more tailored to challenges that are particularly concentrated in the African American community. Smiley and the six other journalists at the forum—all of color—sought to ask tough, pointed questions about racism, HIV/AIDS, and reconstruction of the Gulf Coast post-Hurricane Katrina. These questions were ignored by mainstream media and most campaigns. Regardless of the responses of the candidates, simply asking these questions forced the issues into the mainstream consciousness and conversation, and with enough repetition, Smiley hopes that he and his colleagues can force candidates to pay attention to and address these issues.

Renowned Princeton Professor Cornell West, a close personal friend of Smiley’s, was invited to speak during a question and answer session at the presidential forum. Described by Smiley as “this generation’s W.E.B Dubois,” West remarked that the issues associated with racial inequality have historically been tackled by grassroots pressure from the outside, courageous leaders from the inside, and intellectuals asking tough questions and inspiring others to action. He agreed that the mainstream media often stereotypes minority suffering, and that books such as The Covenant with Black America and major events such as the presidential forum are essential in the fight for justice.

Adding to that point, Smiley said he hoped to re-engage the black community in politics. He wants to reinvigorate competition for African Americans’ support by holding candidates to election-year promises and asking them tough questions about topics many politicians are uneducated about or feel uncomfortable addressing.