- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
I love Cornel West; I’ve read almost every single one of his books and articles. I’m not as familiar with Tavis Smiley; I know that he does some good community work and is a media mogul person of color, which I respect. Still, I am an unabashed Cornel West fan; I love the way the brother thinks, the way he writes, and yes, even the way he dresses. Indeed, in my own writing pursuits, the individuals that I consider to be my main writing/philosophical influences, in order of personal significance, are 1) John Mohawk, 2) Cornel West and 3) Bill Watterson/Vine Deloria. To paraphrase Depeche Mode, those three transcend being personal Jesus to me; they are my Personal Holy Trinity.
I idolize them.
Therefore, it was with great anticipation and profound zeal that I opened this volume—I longed for West and Smiley, whom I trusted was a force of nature like West, to feed my sense of righteous indignation and teach me how to apply these lessons of empowering the many, many poor within my community, Indian Country. I sought lessons and methods and best practices; unfortunately, the book contained very little of those very things. This book has none of West’s typical classical-philosophy-meets-Popeye’s-chicken flavor, the “power to the common people” populism, or his storytelling prowess. Instead, it was written from a “case study” perspective, typically showing why the particular case study didn’t fit into the “typical” image of a poor person. The entire book followed this predictable trajectory. Whereas, I look for deep and metaphysical truths that make me analyze my own views in West’s books, this book was suspiciously superficial, simply recapping their travels on this particular book tour and then speaking in platitudes when describing the poverty. It literally went no deeper—it simply described many case studies with very little analysis of specific ideas how to change the miserable momentum of poverty.
The book states that its purpose is to “highlight the plight of America’s poor of all races, colors and creeds,” and I suppose it did that—it described and highlighted, without analyzing or giving a path toward solutions. Reading it, I felt like Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets, “I’m drowning, and you’re describing the water!” One of the most egregious examples of the lack of analysis was within the Chapter “The New Civil Rights Battle,” where the author(s), in bumper sticker-fashion, simply changed a Frederick Douglass quote from “The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the Black man’s misery” to “The rich man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the poor man’s misery” as if that was analysis.
Well, duh. I felt insulted (and not only because “Black man” was capitalized meanwhile “white man” was not). It was true, of course; still, I expect more from these two juggernauts.
I get the feeling that Smiley penned much of this book; after all, it did come out on Smiley Books, and more tellingly, it was safe, competent and predictable. Surely that’s not a bad thing—to be safe, competent and predictable—but when compared to West’s other opuses, those ones are decidedly not safe; they take risks, and are prescriptive and profane to the feint of heart. This one simply lacked Professor West’s amazing depth and heart.
Now mind you, it wasn’t horrible at all. In fact, some of the descriptions of the people affected by poverty are pretty darn good. Yet, none of it moved me, despite obviously trying very hard to make the point that becoming jobless and impoverished can happen to anybody. This book beats you over the head with that point, and you’ll get it, but without the deeper analysis that point is likewise relegated to mere platitude.
It’s solid, but it just will not meet the expectations of those who were expecting more and sought to learn specific, long-term strategies to combat poverty. There is a section entitled “The Poverty Manifesto,” that gives some 50,000-foot suggestions for how to make things better, like “It’s time for a major overhaul of the prison industrial complex,” or ”It’s time to reassess properties and adjust mortgages based on true-market value and to end homelessness,” but these grandiose recommendations are not truly prescriptive because they doesn’t tell us, regular people what we should/could do to help. Other than a petition, there is no call to action for “normal people”; instead, the tasks in this section are pretty large tasks and should likely be broken down into slightly more bite-sized portions. There is no such portion-control of idea in this book.
1) BILL CLINTON. I appreciate that they challenge Bill Clinton. For some reason, people of color (and specifically black folks) give Bill Clinton way too much credit and don’t hold him to the same historical standard which they hold other US presidents. “In the runup to his re-election in 1996, Clinton out GOP’d the GOP by signing a draconian welfare-to-work reform bill…it pushed unskilled people into a workforce that had no use for them.” (p. 64).
2) HOW POVERTY BECAME A DIRTY WORD. This section contained a substantial amount of actual meaningful analysis. The author(s) recounts President Reagan on Good Morning America, where he said “What he found in this country, and maybe we’re more aware of it now, is one problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice.” Yeah, they rightfully show Reagan in all of his chauvinistic, elitist glory, taking pot-shots at the poor; this portion of the book charts the progression of anti-poverty rhetoric. (p. 76).
1) “Poverty is 21st century-style slavery; its eradication should serve as the battle cry of a new civil rights movement.” Well…maybe. But I don’t know, and they certainly don’t substantiate these claims; they just make them in a vacuum and apparently that is supposed to be sufficient. (p. 103).
2) The most unintentionally hilarious portion of the book is located on Page 87. The author(s) begin to describe a scene from a comedy show as evidence of their position. “Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert highlighted the moral callousness of the Heritage Foundation in a brilliant 2011 segment featuring Peter Edelman, the Associate Dean of Georgetown Law School who has battled on behalf of the poor for a half-century. If it takes satire to expose hypocritical tactics aimed at dismissing the dispossessed, we’re all for it.” That’s it—it reminded me of my ol’ grandpa trailing off before he fell asleep, and couldn’t finish his thought. It doesn’t describe what Brother Colbert said that was profound—it simply has a footnote that gives a bland description of the segment and the URL address for the segment.
On a non-substantive note, regarding the title, I made a concerted effort to suspend disbelief over the title of the book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us.” I thought the title was odd, to be sure—neither West nor Smiley, the authors, are in any way poor or impoverished. In fact, they are far from it. Now obviously you don’t have to be poor to write about or help the poor—not in the least. Still, the title implies that they are one of the many impoverished people in the US, and that seems slightly disingenuous. It kinda looks like they’re pandering for cheap populism points. The title is even more ironic when one realizes that the book tour dates promoting this book cost thirty bucks to get into—that rich sum makes it inaccessible to many folks that wanted to go, younger folks that likewise idolize Prof. West—although, according to the website, “a portion of the (thirty dollars per head) proceeds will benefit “Feeding America.”) Still, I thought, “Hell, this is a Cornel West book and the benefit from his deep thought and profound insights will make me forget those inconvenient truths.”
It didn’t. This book was solid, but definitely neither of these powerful brothers’ best work.
If you are a diehard West fan, I suppose like me, you should have this book for your collection. But don’t expect it to be one of the good Cornel West books like Race Matters or The Future of the Race. Not even close. West and Smiley’s teaming up is a great idea and shows great promise; I hope they spend more time working on their next literary offering.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called “Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways)” which you can get at www.dkmai.com. He is also writing a new book out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately “The Thing About Skins,” and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is www.cutbankcreekpress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi You can catch Gyasi regularly writing for “The Thing About Skins” column in Indian Country Today Media Network, at www.indiancountrymedianetwork.com