Remaking America – Panel discussion, Part 2

In Part 2 of a roundtable discussion on “Remaking America,” some of the country’s most prominent advocates address the realities of dwindling opportunities in a politically paralyzed nation.

The middle class are the new poor. More children are going hungry. People are losing their homes. Must Americans wait on the government to mobilize, prioritize and energize the nation? These are issues that are explored in an in-depth conversation with a panel of thought leaders.

Guests include: Majora Carter, environmental justice advocate and producer-host of the Peabody Award-winning public radio show The Promised Land; Roger Clay, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development; award-winning journalist and human rights activist Barbara Ehrenreich; Vicki B. Escarra, president-CEO of Feeding America; personal finance guru and Emmy-winning TV host Suze Orman; Oscar-winning filmmaker and activist Michael Moore; and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West.

Sponsored by:


Tavis: Let me come back to you first, Dr. West. When Vicki says what we need are leaders, we need leadership, we are sitting in Washington right now and I know at least 535 people who think they are leaders. (Laughter) I know another guy at the end of Pennsylvania who definitely thinks he’s a leader. So that’s 536.

So there are some folk in this town who regard themselves as leaders. If what we’re lacking with regard to making poverty a priority in this country is leadership, why is it then that there seems to be a bipartisan consensus in this town that the poor don’t matter?

Dr. Cornel West: Yeah, I hope you all noticed the tears in Sister Vicki’s eyes at the very end of her presentation, and the tears have to do with somebody who cares. The tears have to do with recognizing the condition of poor people in America is a matter of national security like Iraq, like Afghanistan, like whatever foreign policy that we know. (Applause)

Part of the problem in America is we don’t have elected leaders who understand the tears. If we don’t come to terms with it, then it’s not the external threat, it’s the internal rot that’s going to lead toward a collapse of American democracy into an oligarchy, (applause) a plutocracy, where the well-to-do live in gated spaces and working people and poor people are at each other’s throats and America goes under as we know it.

One of the reasons why we don’t have the leadership among the 536 is that they are leading; they’re just not leading in such a way that they make poor and working people a priority. When investment bankers are in trouble, they lead. They solve that problem. “Here’s trillions of dollars.” (Applause)

When the banking system’s got a problem, they lead — action right away. We need to go to war. Action, right away. “How you going to pay for it?” “We’ll deal with it down the line.” “Oh, you’re not going to pay for it, huh?” “No.” (Laughter)

That certain kind of leadership is called myopic, short-sighted, narrow, and in the end it leads to a catastrophe. What we need is courageous, progressive, prophetic leadership, and the truth is this: That historically in America it’s been primarily the Black prophetic tradition that provided that leadership, precisely because you had a peoples enslaved, Jim Crowed, on intimate terms with terror, trauma and stigma, but still taught the country how to love — taught the country how to love. (Applause)

It’s not a matter of stereotype. You’re part of a tradition that has taught America the best about itself, of how to love others, even when you’re hated, to talk about justice even when revenge is coming at you.

That is spiritual. That is moral. It’s not just a political question. (Applause) We’ve got 536 leaders in Washington that are so obsessed with power, power, power, money, money, money, how they’re going to get the lobbyists satisfied, where they’re going to get money for the next reelection, that when it comes to moral and spiritual issues like the condition of our precious children of all colors it’s an afterthought and they talk about it during the election.

Then as soon as they’re elected, they’re back to business as usual. (Applause) We’re going to go under.

Michael Moore: They’re not leaders.

Tavis: Go ahead.

Moore: They’re not — the 500 — (laughs) so it’s so brilliant, what you just said. So let’s redefine the term. These 536 — and let’s throw Biden in there, too, don’t leave him out.

Tavis: Okay. (Laughter) Five thirty-seven.

Moore: The 500 —

Tavis: Thirty-seven, yeah.

Moore: The 537 are not leaders, they’re followers. They follow the money. They do what they’re told by the people who pay them to do these things. (Applause)

West: Okay, I hear you, I hear you.

Moore: And as long as we have money in politics, it’s going to be so hard to do any of these things here in this town that we want to do when they don’t — they’re just the servants to Wall Street. They’re just — Wall Street says, “Here, do this,” like, “Park my car.” (Laughter) “My soup’s cold, get me some more soup.” That’s what they are, really, they’re waiters and they’re servants and that’s why the Occupy movement is not called “Occupy Washington, D.C.,” it’s called “Occupy Wall Street.”

Because that’s where you go — we’re tired of going to the puppets. We’re now at the puppet masters. (Applause) That’s where the movement has to be.

Tavis: Wow. So it raises a fundamental question, Barbara, it raises a fundamental question, if Michael is right, and I agree with him, so I think he is, that both parties are beholden to Wall Street.

We are now in a presidential race and Mr. Obama is raising money, respectfully, as fast from Wall Street as Mr. Romney is, if he turns out to be the nominee. If they’re both beholden to that Wall Street money, no matter what they say about the $1 million contributions, what do we do?

Barbara Ehrenreich: I want to see the discussion move past leaders. Whether we’re talking about the ones in Congress or in the White House, so-called leaders, or whoever we’re talking about. We took a huge leap in the last few months when we had for the first time — not the first time, I should say, because it happened before in the women’s movement, but a leaderless movement, a proud and leaderless movement.

What did that mean? Was that crazy? Was that nuts? No. That meant everybody becomes a leader.

Moore: Right.

Ehrenreich: We’ve discovered something in the last few months which is much bigger than the power of any individual leader or otherwise, and that is the power of solidarity. People working together, one kind of person coming in — you’re not going to defend your house against a sheriff and a banker when foreclosure time comes all by yourself with a shotgun. That’s where you need hundreds of people.

If you’re being evicted from your apartment, that’s when you need scores and hundreds of people. That is our strength, our greatest strength, and it’s a very strong part of the American tradition, the union movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and yet it’s been kind of erased for a culture that says, you can get yours all by yourself. Don’t hang out with losers. Get to be a leader yourself.

No. We’re going together. We’re going to do this together. We’ve got the strength of we. (Applause)

Tavis: Suze, I want to come back to you, and I wanted to come back to this anyway, Suze, because when you suggest that people can lift themselves out of poverty if they have the tools I take what you mean by that, but unpack that for me. What kinds of tools are missing in the toolbox of poor people?

Suze Orman: Yeah. To come out of poverty you also need hope. You need to believe that you can come out of poverty. The one thing that — the tool that I think is important that I am trying to work on right now, I do now know if I will be successful, it seems like many people do not want me to be successful with this endeavor, but the main thing I want to change in the United States of America that truly affects the poor are FICO scores. (Applause)

The way that FICO scores years ago used to be calculated was a lot different time than we’re in right now. What I’m trying to do is that to get people who pay in cash or on debit to get FICO scores. Today I don’t know if you know this, but if you pay in cash or you pay on a debit card, it does not report to a credit bureau and therefore you do not have a score. Therefore, you are a nonentity. You do not exist in the financial system at all, people.

I am trying to change things so that a debit card creates a FICO score, so that we can get rid of credit cards altogether. Because when you’re tempted to do something when it comes to money, you tend to.

So I want to get that temptation out, and I want to go back to being America with a cash society for your everyday things and then build up your FICO score so that you can one day have a car, you can one day have a home, you can one day get that job or rent an apartment because you are now an entity because you have been paying with what you have versus what you wish you have. (Applause)

So I’m trying to do something that’s a little out of my ordinary and nobody wants me to do it because they want to keep everybody down so the people can take advantage can continue to do so. I’m not going to let them. I’m going to continue to fight for you. (Applause)

In two years’ time from this date, if this works, you will be able to get a credit score simply if you have a debit card. That is my goal. (Applause)

Tavis: Majora?

Majora Carter: My thing is how do we make poor people less poor? Jesus said there will always be the poor among us. I don’t think he ever said that he had to stay that way, okay? (Applause) That is where we need to start thinking about, within the confines of the system that we are in right now, what can we do to actually help our leaders have vision?

How do we be the leaders with vision ourselves and show that there is another way of doing things? That’s what we really need to be talking about, in ways that are practical, because ultimately I am a practical girl; with all the vision I got, I’m practical.

I want to make sure that people are working, doing accessible jobs that really are allowing them to move up and out of poverty in ways that are real, that are meaningful, that have lasting impacts for their families, for their communities, because what people don’t necessarily — when you think — it’s just like I’m really kind of sort of — I struggle with the idea of gentrification and displacement in a bunch of different ways, because when people talk about it in so many ways it’s usually the thing like oh my gosh, you’re going to push the poor people out, and we have to kind of keep this sort of poverty, these places for poor people.

You know what? Poor people don’t like living in poor places, okay? (Applause) Can we talk very seriously about that? So then why aren’t we thinking about different ways of just saying, you know what? We’re not going to abolish capitalism tomorrow, but we can come up with ways to create new opportunities in our inner cities, in our rural areas, in poor areas that really desperately need the kind of places, the kind of economic development that’s going to support poor people and help move them out of poverty so that we’re not just talking about them as if they’re like this thing that is demonized and criminalized and everything else, but actually is allowing them to move and actually experience the American dream. (Applause)

Tavis: Vicki (unintelligible).

Vicki Escarra: There are a lot of (unintelligible) behind programs that support people living in poverty and people that are poor, people that are food insecure. In most states, to fill out a food stamp application it’s 13 pages, so it’s easier to get a gun than it is —

Tavis: How many pages?

Escarra: Fifteen — 13 to 15 pages.

Tavis: Jeez.

Escarra: Can you imagine being a single mother going into a food stamp outreach office while you’re working and having to rush through filling out a food stamp application?

So we can’t even seem to organize around simplification of a simple form like a food stamp application, so simplification of benefits is something we could work on, but people have — that politicians, especially new politicians, do not look at the individuals that they’re effecting, so they don’t look at the human beings, they don’t know the stories behind the people, they don’t know the families they’re affecting, they don’t know how hard people are trying to work to get out of poverty.

They look at the numbers and they think, oh, we can cut 5 percent out of food stamps. It won’t matter if we cut a box of food to a senior citizen who’s making $9,000 a year and it’s $60 a month, so we’re looking at cutting 5,000 caseloads.

So you try going to a senior citizen in Michigan and saying, “We can’t give you a food box.” (Applause) That’s reality.

Tavis: Roger Clay, I want to come back to you and I want to ask something that is a bit impolitic. Too many Americans, as we’ve already discussed, given these numbers, are suffering from poverty right now, suffering in poverty. The group that’s being hurt the most and hit the hardest, the numbers say very clearly, are African Americans.

You live and you work in Oakland. It is a predominantly African American city, and there are other pockets of African Americans across this country. Put frankly, Black people right now are catching the most hell. The numbers underscore that. Yet to my mind, Black people, lovingly and respectfully, are the most silent about the hell that they are catching.

Now, I’m not naïve about this; I understand why that is, because of our love and our deference and our support, legitimately, of Barack Hussein Obama as president and the effort to get him reelected. I get that. I’m not naïve about that. But I do want to put this out there because I’m curious as to whether or not, to Doc’s point about the power, the historical power president, in the Black prophetic tradition.

If the people catching the most hell aren’t saying anything, and given the guy who happens to be president at the moment cover, then how do the other folk who are in poverty, who are trying to find the courage to raise their own voices, to keep themselves from being rendered invisible — we’ve done this historically for the nation as Black people. What happens if we continue to be as silent as we are?

I’m not saying that the president has got to be demonized. I’m not saying cast aspersion on him. I am saying that when the people catching the most hell are enduring that in silence, it raises a question for me as to what the pain threshold really is for Black folk.

Roger Clay: I’m extremely disappointed, more so than I thought I ever could be. I think part of the reason I’m disappointed is because I had hoped for a lot, and so part of it is the difference, the disparity between what he has done and what I had hoped.

Some of my hope was probably based on unrealistic expectations, so (applause) even though I’m very, very disappointed; I was born when Roosevelt was president. I actually don’t think there’s been a better president for our people since I’ve been alive after him. (Applause)

So I’m very mixed. But because he’s Black I still have very high expectations, and I think that he’s done some things that are well done, I think he’s done some things that are well done that they don’t say much about. My biggest disappointment is and goes back to leadership.

I don’t see a leadership on the issue because I don’t see speaking out on the issue and I don’t think you’ll go around talking about race, but I do think you have to go around talking about issues that affect Black people, and not just Black people, because we’re just the canary.

It’s everybody. But I think one of the difficulties now is looking at the alternatives, and so you really don’t know. Would you rather have him or would you rather have one of those others? I’m pretty clear about on the Republican side what I’d rather have; I’d rather have Barack Obama. (Applause)

So my hope is that he does get reelected, but that because it will be his last term, at least those first two years he will turn out to be a great president. Right now he’s a so-so president, and so I do think that we have to keep the pressure on. I’m glad there’s people like the two of you that can go out and say it, because that’s not what all of our roles are, right?

You have a role, you’re in the media, you do that. But I don’t think, if he gets reelected and there’s not substantial change, that people will be quiet at all. I think we’re going to lose, because of that, people are going to barely be not supportive of even the Democratic Party.

Tavis: So Michael, I want to expand this out now. Since we’re in this, let’s take it a step further. So Black people are catching the most hell amongst the president’s base, and they are the most loyal constituency in his base; the poll numbers bear that out clearly.

But there is a larger problem here which is Democrats more broadly, the left more broadly, progressives more broadly, how do you lovingly, respectfully, push the leader of the free world to say and to do more about poverty?

I take Roger’s point and I’ve never asked and Dr. West has never asked the president to walk around talking about Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black. That’s not the ask. That’s not the ask.

But when Americans of all color and race and ethnicity and gender, et cetera., et cetera, when all Americans, too many of us, are now falling into poverty, that does raise a question as to what his base does more broadly to again lovingly and respectfully push him to use the bully pulpit, indeed during this campaign year, to say and do more about the poor and about making poverty a priority.

Do you have any magical way or any brilliant idea about how we go about doing that, sir?

Moore: Yes. (Laughter) I have an optimistic answer. Do you remember back on Election Day in 2008, November 2nd, everybody remember going in that voting booth? I looked down at that ballot and I saw this man’s name and I never thought in my lifetime I would ever have a chance to do what I was about to do and vote for him.

I teared up. Did anybody else have that experience? (Cheering, applause) I literally teared up. It was just such an emotional day. We’d just gone through eight years of our country being driven down the toilet, and (applause) we had just gone through eight years of after the world feeling our pain and being on our side, turning against us after we became a country that invaded other countries.

To finally have someone who was going to stand up to this — and yes, you’re right about the expectations and the rose-colored glasses, maybe, that we wanted on our — because we also knew that Goldman Sachs was his number one contributor.

But we thought it doesn’t matter, because we know the man has a good heart. We know that. He still has a good heart. We know his conscience. We know that. We know his wife’s conscience. We know his family. (Applause) This is — so I don’t despair about this. I am profoundly disappointed.

Those tears on that Election Day have continued through these past three years. (Laughter) But here’s what I would like to say, just in case he were live here right now. We’re just a few blocks from the White House. Just in case he’s watching, which camera would he be on? (Laughter)

President Obama, here’s the deal. The Republicans have done us a huge favor. They’ve run the circus for (laughter) — they have — I don’t know — I seriously will never understand why Wall Street didn’t actually put up somebody to remove you, because they’re not really entirely happy with you.

Yet they have not run anybody who’s going to beat you. (Applause) So therefore, without jinxing the election, without providing tape for “Fox News” to run the day after the election, (laughter) let me just say I think there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to win this election. (Cheering, applause, laughter)

So therefore, let’s not waste and lose another year before addressing the issues that we’re discussing on this stage tonight. (Cheering, applause) You don’t have to worry. You are going to have another four years, and you have the opportunity to be the Roosevelt of the 21st century. To be remembered throughout history as the person who brought his country to the place where we should be.

Even though we were born with these original sins of the genocide and of slavery, that somehow it took this African American to bring us to the moral place that we always knew we could be, and to help create the American dream for every person that Suze is talking about, so that they can wake up tomorrow morning, every single person, knowing that if I put in an eight-hour day, I get to live in my own home, I get to drive my own car and I get to send my kids to college. That’s all they’re asking for. (Cheering, applause)

Tavis: That’s all we have time for tonight, but join us again tomorrow night for the final night of this terrific conversation. You can also catch the full conversation by visiting our website anytime —

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” W.K. Kellogg Foundation — engaging communities to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Learn more at

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: January 18, 2012 at 4:32 pm