Initiative to nurture leaders comes amid proof of its necessity

September 12, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

WHEN TAVIS SMILEY, television and radio journalist par excellence, started his Talented TENth HBCU Tour, he probably didn't figure he'd have to spend part of his five-college jaunt talking about one of the worst disasters in American history.

Smiley figured he'd talk about how developing black America's leadership from a "talented tenth" - an idea first espoused by the noted activist, scholar and author W.E.B. DuBois - isn't elitist at all. Ten percent of America's black population, Smiley would have told them, amounts to about 3.2 million people.

That's 3.2 million people Smiley figures will be black America's new leaders in business, education, politics, science, technology and other fields. It's 3.2 million blacks who'll be the doctors, lawyers, engineers and pharmacists of tomorrow.

But the school that produces more black pharmacists than any other school in the country - and sends the most blacks to medical schools - lies in the flood-ravaged city of New Orleans. Xavier University was supposed to be the last school on Smiley's tour.

Baltimore's Morgan State University was the first stop. Smiley - the host of shows on public television and public radio, and who used to host a show on Black Entertainment Television when that network had some taste and some sense - talked at length about Hurricane Katrina and its effects Friday night at Morgan. The theme of his talk was how today's black students at historically black colleges and universities are tomorrow's leaders, and about how the slow response to Katrina showed the dearth of leadership in America.

Of course Smiley, being a liberal, focused most of his criticism on President Bush, Republicans and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Smiley, quoting New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, called FEMA Director Michael Brown a "blithering idiot."

That's not to say Bush doesn't bear some responsibility for FEMA's slow response to the destruction caused by Katrina. But don't ever expect to hear him admit that. President Harry S. Truman's motto was "the buck stops here."

For Bush, the motto is "the buck just zooms right by here."

But I'm not completely convinced that city, county and state government officials in Louisiana did all they could in this crisis and should be absolved of all blame. But why point the finger at them when Bush is handy?

After taking Republicans to task, Smiley went on to praise rapper Kanye West, calling him a "truth-teller" and noting "the courage it took to say what he said."

What West said during a telethon to raise money for all of Katrina's victims - not just the black ones - is that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." For folks like Smiley, that's the "truth." Those less partisan recognize West's outburst for what it was: an opinion.

Not only was it an opinion, it was one that shows West has the courage not to care how deeply he crams his foot down his throat. Katrina didn't hit New Orleans full-force. It veered into Mississippi's Gulf Coast, which got the full brunt of it.

What happened to blacks in New Orleans and Mississippi happened to whites and Asians and Hispanics and Native Americans caught in Katrina's path as well. By implying this disaster happened to black people and black people only, West told us very little about the racial views of George W. Bush and quite a bit about his own.

That distinction was lost on Smiley, as was the one between those now infamous photos with the captions that said the black person was "looting" goods from a grocery store while a white couple merely "found" some. Smiley mentioned both, to nods and comments of approval from some in the audience who seemingly agreed it was another instance of white racism.

Smiley said the same news organization ran the photos within hours of each other. He probably meant, which tried to cover itself by noting that the photos and captions came from two different news organizations - the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse - which provide their own captions. I get the feeling Smiley doesn't buy that explanation.

What he does buy is his mission, which he managed to focus on despite the Katrina tragedy. The best leadership path for students to follow, Smiley said, was to do the exact opposite of what America's leaders have done in New Orleans and Mississippi during the past two weeks.

That's sound advice, as long as those leaders include the ones at the local and state level in Louisiana and Mississippi, not just Bush and Co.

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