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Smiley talk blasts affirmative inaction
February 8, 1999

Diversity. Tolerance. Tavis Smiley is sick of these words.

"Quite frankly, I've had it up to here with those who talk about diversity, who talk about tolerance," Smiley said. "These are just buzz words that are tossed around with reckless abandon. I'm bothered by the fact that we're allowing folks to scapegoat and to demonize and to circumvent the real meaning ... of what diversity and tolerance are all about."

Smiley made these remarks Wednesday at the opening of the University's observance of Black History Month in the Student Union Ballroom. Smiley is host of the cable television talk show "BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley" and a commentator for the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," a nationally syndicated radio program. He agreed to speak at UConn in place of the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who herself was filling in for Johnnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College.

Known for his brash rhetorical style, Smiley leveled blistering broadsides at right-wing politicians, particularly Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and black conservatives such as Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Smiley said he recently read a quote by Thomas in which the Supreme Court justice suggested that God had told him to rule against affirmative action when a test case comes before the high court.

"I have a hard time believing that God even talks to Clarence Thomas," Smiley said. "You cannot start invoking God in an effort to bastardize and to scapegoat diversity."

Smiley offered a passionate defense of affirmative action. Claims that the policy doesn't work are "ridiculous," he said.

"The black middle class would not be where it is today were it not for affirmative action," Smiley said. "Racism is the most intractable, divisive issue in this country today. We deal with ... the effects of it every day. There has to be some corrective program as long as there are ... folks in this country who because of their gender or their race ... are denied a particular opportunity."

Smiley outlined what he termed "the diversity imperative," a primary tenet of which is "diversity pays," a concept he said too many Americans, especially political and business leaders, don't understand.

Smiley cited his own neighborhood in south central Los Angeles as an example. Until recently, he said, no major supermarket chain would locate a store in the area, which was the locus of rioting after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Residents were forced to travel several miles to shop for groceries. After a great deal of lobbying, one supermarket chain - Lucky - opened a store in south central Los Angeles. That store is now one of the highest grossing stores in the Lucky chain, Smiley said.

"Too many folks don't recognize that what we represent in this room is the new America," Smiley said. "We represent how you're going to get paid in the new millennium."

The country's demographics are changing, with people of color and women representing more of the American workforce than ever before, Smiley said.

"The country looks more and more like those assembled here today," he said. "Folks who don't recognize that aren't going to make money, thrive or survive in the new millennium."

In 1994, Time named Smiley one of the "50 young leaders of the future." Smiley received national attention from his interview with President Bill Clinton on the eve of last fall's mid-term elections. Smiley is also a frequent guest on CNN, "The Late Show with David Letterman," "Rosie O'Donnell," "Geraldo Rivera," and "The Today Show." He is the author of two books, Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right and The Best of Tavis Smiley on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Gary Frank