Issue No. 14, Fall 2009, Volume 9, Number 1

Inside Out

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley talk American politics and race after Barack Obama's historic election.

Race and Politics

Just six days after Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the U.S., author and philosopher Dr. Cornel West joined radio and TV host Tavis Smiley for an engaging conversation about the role race will continue to play in American life and politics.

While Obama’s sweeping victory was a cause for celebration, there is still much work to be done, the men agreed. Obama’s decisions as the leader of the U.S. must be weighed seriously; he must be held accountable, they said. Furthermore, the symbolic importance of his election does not erase the continued gaps in equality that remain, they agreed. “Even though there is a black man headed to the White House, this does not mean we now live in a post-racial America. There is no such thing,” Smiley said.

Obama’s historic win shattered racial barriers but also signaled an ideological shift in America. The junior senator from Illinois secured 364 electoral votes to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 162. He won so-called “red” states – like Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina and Florida – and released what Smiley described as “our hopes and progressive possibilities.” He added, “This is a critical time in America.”

West and Smiley’s post-election conversation brought more than 700 people to the Chapman Conference Center at Wolfson Campus. The ticketed program was the opening night event of Miami Book Fair International’s 25th edition.
West is a professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University and author of Race Matters, a searing analysis of racism in American democracy. West’s most recent book, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom, offers commentary on a wide range of issues, including race, leadership, faith, family, philosophy, love and
public service.

Smiley hosts the late night television talk show, Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). Smiley is the first American to simultaneously host signature talk shows on both public television and public radio. Newsweek profiled him as one of the “20 people changing how Americans get their news” and dubbed him one of the nation’s “captains of the airwaves.” In his most recent book, Accountable: Making the Covenant Real, Smiley challenges America to set a new standard for those who lead and those who follow.

The men barely mentioned their recent publications at the MDC event. Instead, they spoke of the emotional and historical significance of Obama’s feat, a “transitional moment,” West said, for the men and women who fought through the civil rights movement.

Even while celebrating this milestone, West and Smiley said that in the weeks and months to come, they will hold Obama’s administration accountable for the promises it made during the hard-fought campaign – promises to build a government that is empathetic, one that empowers its most vulnerable citizens, rebuilds its financial systems and fights injustice. 

Obama is a symbol of America’s possibilities, West said. “How do we translate symbol into substance?”
Part of that responsibility, he added, rests with us.

“Barack Obama is only as strong as we are,” West said. “Every great leader is made by the energies, momentum and movement of the people.” 

Read about the 2009 Book Fair at

— Gariot P. Louima and Tarnell Carroll

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