Tavis Smiley announced on January 6 that the annual State of the Black Union event, held in early February for the last ten years, will not be held this year. His public reasons are vague and unconvincing. The real deal is that corporate media, the Democratic party and the Obama administration cannot tolerate the emergence of public leftward pressure from Black America. So the black conversation that SOBU showcased over the last decade must be silenced.
Tavis Smiley Ends State of Black America's Union Show, Continues Media Lockdown of Obama's Black Left Critics
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Tavis Smiley announced on January 6 that he was ending SOBU, the annual State of the Black Union. For ten years, SOBU drew black academics, civic, political, labor, religious and business leaders together each February for a day-long discussion of the current status and future hopes of African America. Each year thousands attended in person and millions more watched the event live on C-SPAN. SOBU had grown so large and popular that it spawned secondary events for the live attendees, along with book and lecture tours.
Tavis's cancellation announcement, a brief video on his tavistalks.com web site is long on folksy introductions, self-congratulation, thank-yous, and goodbyes. The reasons he offers for ending the annual event are brief and unconvincing. Ten years ago, he offers, “...there was only one syndicated black radio show... there was only one black TV network... we didn't have an African American president... (and) we no longer have to wait for one day a year in February to discuss issues that matter to us...” on TV.
Tavis is talking nonsense here. The so-called black TV and radio operations feel no obligation to field news operations because they don't view African Americans as a polity with opinions worth informing, sharing or airing.
To these station owners, black or otherwise, African Americans are just another marketing target to be sliced, diced, age and income stratified and delivered up to corporate sponsors. A master marketer himself, Tavis knows this better than anybody.
As a marketing contraption SOBU was a runaway success. Corporate sponsors like Wal-Mart, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Exxon-Mobil and McDonalds got their logos and corporate messaging, and even some of their spokespeople in front of millions of black eyeballs. C-SPAN, which the cable TV monopolists offer as a pitiful substitute for the thousands of public, educational, governmental and local news channels they ought to be funding with the trillions they make of public subsidies, public resources and the use of the public rights of way, got to pose as a kind of “public service.” Of course SOBU manufactured and magnified the celebrity status and earning power of Tavis Smiley. SOBU spawned a number of spinoff ventures, sold millions of books and videos, and made household names in black America of people like Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson.
But the State of the Black Union did things for millions of ordinary African Americans too, people with an urgent hunger to hear some of their unique experiences taken into account, their longings for peace abroad and economic justice at home validated, and more. Millions of ordinary African Americans privately question why jobs can't be created in their communities even in good economic times, and why the only model of urban economic development is moving poor people out and richer ones in. They know at close hand the devastating effects of our society's policy of racially selective policing, prosecution and mass incarceration, and marvel at why no discussion including their viewpoint on such matters can be found in the mass media, including the so-called black media.
Flawed as it was, and layered with right wing prosperity-gospel preachers, black corporate hacks and “black conservatives” who owe their careers to white corporate largesse, SOBU put forward religious, labor, academic and civic leaders who, for several minutes at a time could speak on these matters. If they were skillful enough, some could flip the entire panel discussion into explorations of these topics.
For one Saturday a year then, SOBU was eagerly awaited and watched by millions because it tried to reflect the very real black internal conversation, which simply could not be heard anyplace else on TV. To a significant degree, it ws a hit because it reflected and validated the ordinary wisdom and experience of black America. For ten years SOBUwas a win-win situation for everybody. But that's over now. There's a new sheriff in town. Like Tavis said, ten years ago we didn't have a black president. That's what's different, and that's why SOBU is being called off.
In a 2010 SOBU, a year into the Obama administration some SOBU panelists are bound to question the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to note that the president's pledge of gradual withdrawal from Iraq ain't happening, and that giving a peace prize to a war president, well, doesn't make sense. Others on the panel would take the president to task for not prosecuting Bush-era war criminals, for continuing torture, assassination, kidnappings and secret prisons. Inevitably others would express disappointment that the president's promised universal health care bill has turned out to be an bailout of private health insurance companies, and mention the dreaded words “single payer.” Al Sharpton might be taken to task for accepting a half million dollar bribe to team up with Arne Duncan and Newt Gingrich and campaign against public education. Dissatisfaction with the president's willingness to bail out speculators and bankers, but not rescue homeowners is bound to surface. Somebody would bring up Israel, the occupation of Palestine, and Gaza, or wonder aloud why the US is periodically bombing Somalia and Yemen.
Tavis can't stack the panels to exclude or silence the critics. How can he tell Cornel West, for example to stay home or stay quiet? He knows his panelists, he knows his audience, and he knows his politics. Even if no panelist dropped more than one of these points, the effect on Democrats and on the White House of any two or three of them, of public black criticism aired on TV in front of millions of African Americans would be catastrophic. The solid black support the Obama administration enjoys depends on excluding, marginalizing, and hiding any viewpoints to the left of corporate mainstream Democrats. As long as the only opponents of the president allowed access to the mic are Republicans, Obamites can demand that African Americans continue to circle the wagons around the president no matter how much he ignores the actual wishes of what is supposedly his core constituency.
A 2010 State of the Black Union would be an uncontrollable source of public, highly visible leftward pressure aligned with longstanding and deeply held political stands in the black America upon the Obama administration, something corporate media are intent on preventing. And nobody personifies corporate media more than the C-SPAN, the public voice of the cable TV industry, whose biggest player, Comcast is now poised to merge with NBC.
Tavis mumbles every now and then about speaking truth to power. But the last time he expressed even a mild disagreement with Barack Obama he was hounded off the Tom Joyner Morning show as a “hater” and forced to apologize. Speaking truth to power has its costs, and Tavis may be reluctant to pony up any more. It's like he said ten years ago, when he started SOBU, we didn't have a black president.
Maybe a few years from now, when Republicans regain the White House, it'll be time to crank SOBU up again. Till then, the State of the Black Union is dead, because the White House, the Democratic party and the corporate media establishment need to silence the black conversation, and assure that the only public pressures on the president come from the right.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Atlanta. He can be reached at Bruce.Dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.