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What's motivating some of Obama's black critics?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri July 26, 2013
Tavis Smiley, left, and Cornel West.
Tavis Smiley, left, and Cornel West.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson: Why do Tavis Smiley and Cornet West unfairly criticize President Obama?
  • Granderson: Could it be because they feel personal grievances toward Obama?
  • He says the two are right to criticize Obama on policy issues but name-calling is petty
  • Granderson: Smiley, West seem egocentric in believing they are face of black intellectualism

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and was a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- Tavis Smiley: Bitter, party of one.

What else can you say about an accomplished but jaded black scholar who continues to behave like a Twitter troll when it comes to President Obama? Why does he unfairly criticize Obama? Could it be because of a bruised ego?

It may have started back in February 2008.

Smiley, an author, media personality and leading voice in the black community, invited then-Sen. Barack Obama to speak at his "State of the Black Union" forum in New Orleans. Obama declined, opting instead to campaign because he was locked in a tough primary with Sen. Hillary Clinton, who did attend the forum.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

In his place, Obama offered to send his wife, Michelle. Anyone who has seen the first lady speak knows this is hardly a consolation prize.

Smiley said no thanks.

Obama sent a letter, reiterating the importance of the forum, and asked Smiley to reconsider.

He didn't.

And thus, the rift.

In 2011, Smiley was on C-Span claiming that Obama was "the first president in my professional career that hasn't invited me to the White House." Though truth be told, I'm not prone to inviting people who diss my better half over to the house either.

Not that I'm suggesting Smiley shouldn't be able to interview or criticize the president.

In fact, I have challenged some of President Obama's policies and decisions for years in my columns, on TV and over radio. But I've always tried to do so in context. So, for those of you enamored with Smiley's recent criticism of the president's remarks about race, which he described as "weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid," remember it's all about context.

In this case, the context includes their bumpy history.

Same goes for Smiley's partner-in-whine, Cornel West, who was so upset that he received one ticket to the 2009 inauguration instead of the requested three that afterward he compared Obama to Machiavelli.

Before ticket-gate, West went on the trail for Obama.

After the incident, West went off on Obama.

Last year, West called the Democratic president a "Rockefeller Republican in blackface" while supposedly on an awareness tour with Smiley to talk about poverty. The idea behind the initiative was a noble one. Unfortunately, when they weren't talking about the poor, they would throw random haymakers at the president, like West's "blackface" remark.

As a result, media coverage spent more time focused on the jabs than on ways to lift the poor out of poverty.

This week, West called Obama a "global George Zimmerman" in an interview with Democracy Now. Also while a guest on Smiley's radio show, the Princeton University professor said that MSNBC host and Obama supporter, the Rev. Al Sharpton, "probably deep down wants to be critical of the president, but he can't because he's still on the Obama plantation."

West also insinuated that other blacks who aren't as critical of the president as he and Smiley are also residents of this so-called plantation.

Perhaps we should make that: Bitter, party of two.

In fairness, it is hard to prove that the vitriol the pair spews in Obama's way all stems from perceived snubs from a few years ago. But the timing of it all is curious. And the personal attacks -- West once said Obama was afraid of "free black men" -- make it difficult to believe yesteryear's leftovers are not still on today's menu.

Now, I do believe poverty is the least talked about major issue we have in this country. And it seemed like the entire 2012 general election was focused on the rich and declining middle class, with little to no talk about where the middle class was declining to.

West and Smiley's criticism of Obama for this omission is reasonable, especially since silence on this issue has a big impact on the black community.

A recent study released by Harvard University shows how difficult it is for people born in the lower 5% to reach the top 5%. In some parts of the country, the chances of moving up the income ladder are as high as 35%. But in regions with a large black population, such as near Charlotte, North Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlanta, it is as low as 4%.

To be born in poverty and then die in poverty is an American nightmare. So I applaud West and Smiley for using their platform to draw attention to the often overlooked problem.

But if they're motivated by personal grievances, shame on them for displaying their pettiness while touting important policy critiques.

First of all, it's self-serving.

Second, it's obvious. Earlier this year Tom Joyner, who once featured Smiley on his syndicated radio show but parted ways with him after his unjust attacks on Obama in 2008, said, "Tavis is fascinated with his own legacy, and that's not good. He wants more than anything to be remembered the way Dr. King was, and to somehow make that kind of mark on the world."

Translation: It's all about Smiley.

When Obama didn't accept the invitation to speak at Smiley's forum in 2008, Smiley interpreted it as an affront to his influence in the black community. When Obama opted not to attend in 2009 -- although he did address the crowd via video conference -- that was the proverbial final straw.

Smiley and West have been aggressively attacking the president, sandwiching legitimate concerns about poverty in between over-the-top comments that far too often detract from what they claim is their primary focus -- helping poor black people. Their comments may grab headlines and land them on Sunday morning talk shows, but how have they engaged with the administration in finding solutions on poverty?

Instead, Smiley and West appear to be two egocentric men who believe they alone are the face of black intellectualism. And any black talking heads who don't side with them have, in West's words, "sold their souls."

Welcome to the ivory tower version of black on black crime.

Again, I'm all for fairly criticizing the man in the White House. But it feels that West and Smiley are more upset that Obama didn't kiss their rings before he walked through the door than about anything he's done since he got inside.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

(Note: An earlier version of this article said Smiley was fired by Joyner; Smiley announced that he had resigned although Joyner's staff said the radio host elected not to renew his contract.)

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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