ESPN Personality Stephen A. Smith and How Blacks Vote

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Stephen A. Smith’s suggestion last week that, “for one election, just one, every black person in America vote Republican” was undoubtedly a hot take. But was it a mistake? Sean Gardner/Reuters

Stephen A. Smith’s suggestion last week that, “for one election, just one, every black person in America vote Republican” was undoubtedly a hot take. But was it a mistake?

Speaking at a symposium at Vanderbilt University on inequality, the African-American ESPN personality argued that the blind loyalty of black voters to the Democratic Party is self-defeating. “Black folks in America are telling one party, ‘We don’t give a damn about you,’” said Smith, 47. “They’re telling the other party, ‘You’ve got our vote.’ Therefore, you have labeled yourself ‘disenfranchised’ because one party knows they’ve got you under their thumb. The other party knows they’ll never get you, and nobody comes to address your interest.”

That is a lot to digest and to be fair to Smith, he is not advocating voting GOP based on its policies but rather to do so based on the same principles that guide your choice of cell phone carrier. Unhappy with Verizon? Switch to T-Mobile and say goodbye to overages and annual service contracts. Or, to use an analogy Smith’s sports viewer fan may better appreciate, if SportsCenter continues to shove LeBron James and Johnny Manziel down your throats, maybe it’s time to tune in to FOX Sports 1.

“When you go buy a house, do you look at one?” Smith asked his audience. “When you go looking for a car, do you look at one? When you want to buy some clothes, when you want to buy some shoes, when you want to buy anything, you’re shopping around. You know what you’re saying to somebody? ‘Flatter me. What you got? Let me see what you have to offer.’”

Let’s back up. If you are not familiar with Smith other than as that dude who yells at Dick Vitale in those Oberto beef jerky ads, that may be because you have a nine-to-five gig. Smith  appears weekday mornings on ESPN on a program titled First Take. The show’s mantra is “Embrace debate.” Each day Smith and Skip Bayless, who is Caucasian, spar on the pressing sports issues of the moment (ESPN has 17 other shows that follow the same format, but who’s counting?). Their views have come to be known as “hot takes,” perhaps because the term “opinion” no longer suffices.

First Take is equal parts bloviation and altercation, but Smith and Bayless possess a healthy mutual respect and the show is, considering its 10 a.m. time slot, immensely popular. It has transformed these two former sportswriters into popular pundits and also millionaires.

Smith, whose rhetorical style is quite common in Baptist pulpits but is an anomaly on the sports television landscape, has carved out quite the niche for himself. There is nothing sinister about Smith or his views. He simply believes that his opinions deserve to be heard, and, having the platform to air them, he frequently expresses insights beyond who should win the NBA Most Valuable Player award (Stephen Curry, c’mon!). Smith is outspoken, and a natural and inevitable side-effect of such a condition is foot-in-mouth disease. Last July, while discussing the Ray Rice domestic violence controversy on First Take, Smith had this to say:

“We know you have no business putting your hands on a woman. I don’t know how many times I got to reiterate that....But what I’ve tried to employ the female members of my family, some of who you all met and talked to and what have you, is that again, and this what, I’ve done this all my life, let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.”

As the old maxim states, “Everything that appears before the word ‘but’ is meaningless.” ESPN suspended Smith for a week, even though he was simply doing what he is paid to do: expressing his views. Some hot takes apparently leave third-degree burns.

Returning to Smith’s suggestion that blacks vote Republican for one election, let’s examine a few of the tangential points Smith either ignored or failed to emphasize. First, though, let’s credit him for the history lesson he gave the students at Vanderbilt. Smith reminded his audience that in 1964, as Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson was advocating for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it was a Republican Congress that passed it. And, also, an obstinate block of southern Democrat senators launched a filibuster that lasted 54 days (!) in an attempt to block its passage.

It was Strom Thurmond, D-South Carolina, who infamously stated, “"This so-called Civil Rights Proposals, which the president has sent to Capitol Hill for enactment into law, are unconstitutional, unnecessary, unwise and extend beyond the realm of reason.”

Eventually, no thanks to Thurmond and his southern Democratic brethren in the Senate, the Civil Rights bill was enacted into law. As Smith reminded his audience, the fact that Johnson had defeated the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, who was opposed to civil rights legislation, in the 1964 presidential election, probably persuaded a few Republican hard-liners to adopt a more progressive stance. It was the Republicans, not the Democrats, in Congress who were more responsible for the most important piece of legislation in the history of the African-American community.

For the history lesson, Smith is to be commended. However, there are several shadows in his proposal that bear illumination. First, Smith positions himself as an African-American in this situation, which of course he is. However, Smith also earns more than $3 million annually from ESPN, never mind his outside endorsements. Smith is not part of the 1%—he is literally part of the 0.1%—while the average black household earns less than $40,000 per year.

Is there any more unifying rallying cry among Republicans, from the Tea Party to moderates, than the call for lower taxes? Thus, is it not incumbent upon Smith to acknowledge that, unlike most African-Americans, he stands to benefit from the Republican platform as currently espoused?

Second, the perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the GOP is the party that advocates for the wealthy while the Democrats advocate for the poor. In the African-American community poverty is a far more salient issue than, say, what are the minimum number of months I need to establish residency in Florida per annum in order to benefit from its no-state income tax code? So naturally the African-American community is more likely to align itself with Democratic ideology.

As former NBA Most Valuable Player-turned-TNT commentator Charles Barkley has said, “When my mom found out I was Republican, she called me and said, ‘Charles, Republicans are for the rich people.’ And I said, ‘Mom, I’m rich.’”

Third, why would anyone, African-American or otherwise, base their vote on either party before hearing what it espoused?

Anybody who makes up their mind before they hear the issue is a fucking fool,” comedian Chris Rock, who is also black and who grew up in Brooklyn, once said in a stand-up routine. “Everybody is so busy being down with a gang—‘I’m a conservative,’ ‘I’m a liberal’—that’s bullshit. Be a fucking person! Listen. Let it swirl around your head. No normal, decent person is one [party].”

Appearing on CNN over the weekend, Smith told host Michael Smerconish, “The vast majority of African-Americans look at the Republican Party as the enemy and we look at the Democratic Party, at least tacitly, as our support group.… As a result, [Democrats] have a license to take us for granted. The Republican Party has a license to dismiss us.”

That statement ignores causality. Perhaps there is a reason African-Americans feel the way that they do about the two parties. And perhaps the idea that one party or the other can rescue the African-American community fails to explore the factors behind the blight.

Finally, as a voter, Smith should not be asking politicians to “flatter me” but rather to “be honest with me.” Flatter me? Where, after all, have campaign promises historically gotten African-Americans or any other special interest group that lacks fiscal leverage? At one point during the CNN appearance, Smerconish told Smith, “What bothers me about the way you pitch this is, it’s as if you’re saying, ‘What are you gonna do for us? What are you giving to us in terms of [benefits]?”

“Why would that bother you?” asked Smith.

“Because I don’t like the balkanization of politics,” said Smerconish. “I like what’s in the country’s best interests, not what’s in the best interests of African-Americans versus whites versus Hispanics. That’s what makes me uncomfortable.”

While Lyndon B. Johnson was the driving force behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his predecessor in the Oval Office, John F. Kennedy, was the impetus behind the bill’s creation. Kennedy was a Democrat (as was Bill Clinton, who has facetiously been termed as “the first black President” because of his comity with the black community, as is Barack Obama, who actually is black. One can at least understand why African-Americans overwhelmingly have supported Democrats in presidential elections the past 50 years).

Kennedy was also someone  who might have bristled at Smith’s invitation to “flatter me. What you got to offer?”

“Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy famously intoned during his 1961 inaugural address. “Ask what you can do for your country.”