Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tavis Smiley and the SOBU: What We Should Know About the Sponsors

Genma Holmes

by Genma Holmes

While I was reading the lawsuit filed by the NAACP for predatory lending practices, my eyes kept returning to Wells Fargo. My something-smells-funny nose kept sniffing until I looked across my desk and saw the program guide from the recent State of the Black Union (SOTBU). In large font was the Wells Fargo logo, titlesponsor of the event. I wondered if the NAACP had any dialogue with Tavis Smiley prior to the lawsuit being filed. The bank that is being sued for institutionalized racism sponsors a think tank for black folks. (You cannot make this stuff up.)

Wells Fargo has sponsored the SOTBU for several years. SOTBU was the brainchild of Tavis Smiley and birthed from his weekly commentary on the Tom Joyer Morning Show. Tavis Smiley quit the TJMS in April of last year and moved on to other projects that needed more of his attention. One of those projects is to hold President Obama accountable for his political record and campaign promises made on the campaign trail as outlined in his recent book.
From his book:

“During the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, while I was still the resident political commentator on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, I caused quite a stir among the listeners, who are largely African-American, by insisting that we hold then Senator Barack Obama accountable for both his political record and his campaign promises. I wasn’t singling him out, but rather applying the same standard to him that we should apply to all.
I feel now, as I did then, that it is our responsibility as engages citizens to expect now-President Barack Obama to live up to the promises that made him an appealing candidate… As Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail reminds us, ‘Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes from the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.’
So, let us take Dr. King’s lead… and go forth and make real the promise of our democracy.” -- Excerpted from the Foreword (pages xii-xiii)

The SOTBU website states "Some of the most influential thinkers, entertainers, and political leaders of our time gather each year to discuss the State of the Black Union during Black History Month. Presented annually in February by Tavis Smiley Presents, the symposium was created to educate, enlighten and empower America by bringing people together and engaging them in thoughtful dialogue, leading the way to constructive action."

The man who has written a book titled Accountable, has accepted sponsorship for years from a bank that is being accused of forcing blacks into subprime mortgages while whites with identical qualifications got lower rates. Class-action lawsuits were filed against Wells Fargo and HSBC in federal court in Los Angeles. Los Angeles was also the host city for the State of the Black Union.

My words may anger some but this is equivalent to a child molester opening up a neighborhood daycare center. It is this type of irony in the black community by leaders and organizations that keeps folks from getting ahead. "Leaders" play nice and accept money from the very organizations that causes the most harm and perpetuate media stereotypes. This happens in many communities but it is perverse in the communities of color.

Does this means Tavis is going to turn his journalistic intuition on Wells Fargo and hold them accountable? I hope so. These are serious charges being leveled at a time when banks that are behaving badly are receiving TARP bailouts. Is he going to compile the number of loans that were given to blacks vs. whites and research the information and give it to the board of directors of Wells Fargo? Will he ask for their resignations? Now that is taking action. Will he helped them be a better bank by helping them exam how they conduct business with people of color? Will he turn down their sponsorship next year and take their logo off his website with a link to their mortgage department? That would be worthy of an NAACP Image Award! Is this not what several of the panelist ask often when others accept sponsorship or advertisement from organizations that do not tow the line when allegations or perceived racist misconduct occur? All the time.

Tavis has always asked his listeners and viewers to be watchful and test everything and everyone. How did Wells Fargo allege predatory practices get around Tavis who would not allow then Senator Obama to campaign without a thorough scrutiny of the issues and his character? President Obama who has been on the national political scene less than ten years is being exam microscopically by Tavis. While SOTBU, Tavis and the same panelists year after year have held meetings with very loud megaphones on radio and television turned blind eyes to the practices of Wells Fargo and others. Practices that have gone on much longer than President Obama has been in the White House according to the time line stated in the NAACP lawsuit.

Many of the speakers at Tavis' 2009 SOTBU event were the same faces sitting in the audience for the 2009 NAACP Image Awards. The award show was televised on the Fox Network, which was the subject of a boycott. (You cannot make this up.) Some body's PR people are not talking to the other folks' legal department and the legal department is surely not talking to the marketing representatives. In the fragile world of sponsorship and raising dollars for mega events to show accountability, this sounds like a church split or at the very least biting the hands that sponsor/televise your events. This is enough to leave one confused and bewildered.


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