Cornel West, Tavis Smiley Talk About New Poverty Book
April 18, 2012 – Poverty is the biggest issue facing America today, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley told a Georgetown audience last night during a discussion of their new book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (Hay House Inc., 2012).
Smiley, host of The Tavis Smiley Show on PBS, called poverty “the moral and spiritual issue of our time.”
“We are of the mind that poverty in this country is a threat to our democracy,” he said. “No democracy can sustain itself when half of its people are wrestling with poverty.”
One out of Two
Smiley said the U.S. Census Bureau has determined that one out of every two Americans, or 150 million individuals, is either in or near poverty.
“How could it be that the top 400 individuals in America have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million fellow citizens?” asked West, a prominent philosopher and author who serves as Princeton’s Class of 1943 University Professor.
Suffering in Silence
Part of the problem is the lack of discourse about poverty, the authors said.
“I come out of a tradition, and brother Smiley comes out of a tradition that says we talk about poverty because we are concerned about truth, and a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak,” West said.
“The reality is we are a country where this gap [between rich and poor] is getting wider,” Smiley said. “And as the gap widens, our country doesn’t want to talk about it.”
This is why the authors embarked on an 11-state, 18-city bus tour of America – to “see what the Great Recession has done to the nation,” Smiley said.
What they found and detail in their book is that “Americans of all races, of all colors, of all creeds are wrestling with poverty,” Smiley said. “Poverty is a matter of national security, so we can’t continue to ignore the poor.”
Speaking out about poverty is a key component to solving the issue, the authors note.
“Don’t just fit in for your own convenience,” West told the audience. “Think for yourself. Listen for yourself. We need more voices not echoes … we need more original voices.”
The pleas of West and Smiley appeared to resonate with the crowd.
“They highlighted the true issues that we need to discuss as a nation,” said Sohayle Sizar (C’14). “I think that they brought up a really important issue, an immensely important issue, that needs to be addressed in this country in order for all of us to have a better well-being.”
The Jurist family, the student-run Lecture Fund, the Kalmanovitz Initiative for the Working Poor and the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action co-sponsored the event.
The Jurist Memorial Lecture is given each year in honor of the late Michael Jurist (SFS’07), who played a significant leadership role in the Lecture Fund before his death in summer 2007.