This morning on her MSNBC weekend gabfest, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry compared radio and TV talk-show host Tavis Smiley to the black nurse who helped administer the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (TSE) from 1932 to 1972.
Sponsored by the federal Public Health Service, the TSE remains America’s longest-running bio-medical research experiment. Researchers followed, but did not treat, the progression of syphilis in 600 black men from Alabama for its entire 40-year run. To attract men to the study, promises of free health care and burial insurance were offered. Neither the men nor their families were ever told they had syphilis. And, as stated, they were never treated for the disease despite the discovery of penicillin as an effective treatment and cure for syphilis in the late 1940s.
The TSE was conducted at the famed Tuskegee Institute founded by one of America’s premier black leaders, Booker T. Washington. One of the more instrumental implementers of the TSE was Eunice Rivers, a black nurse who was involved in and administered the program’s every aspect, from recruiting possible subjects to drawing their blood.
It is no secret that there has been some very “bad blood” flowing between, on one side, Dr. Harris-Perry, and on the other, Tavis Smiley and Princeton Professor Dr. Cornel West. Indeed, I have written about their ongoing feud in the past. The attention has mainly been focused on Drs. West and Harris-Perry. Today, however, Dr. Harris-Perry exponentially ratcheted up her critique of Smiley by directly comparing his role in the Wells Fargo bank’s now defunct “wealth building” program to nurse Rivers’ function during the TSE.
Wells Fargo will pay at least $175 million to settle lawsuits charging that it discriminated against African-American and Hispanic borrowers in violation of fair-lending laws, the Justice Department announced last September.
Wells Fargo is this nation-state’s largest residential home mortgage lender. From 2004 to 2009, the bank allegedly engaged in a pattern of discrimination against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers. Deputy US Attorney General James Cole said the bank's discriminatory lending practices resulted in over 34,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers in 36 states and the District of Columbia paying higher rates for loans solely because of the color of their skin.
Wells Fargo also will pay $50 million in direct down-payment assistance to borrowers in cities most targeted by the bank: Washington, DC; Chicago; Philadelphia; Oakland; San Francisco; New York City; Cleveland; Riverside, Calif.; and Baltimore.
The problem Dr. Harris-Perry has with Tavis Smiley involves his contracting with Wells Fargo -- for a reported $4 million -- to organize and orchestrate putative “wealth building” seminars in black neighborhoods nationwide starting in 2005. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan demurred and called these seminars nothing more than sales pitches for high-rate subprime loans through Wells Fargo.
Since the settlement, however, Richard Prince has reported in his “Journal-isms” column that Smiley has promised to sever all ties with Wells Fargo. Interestingly, until recently Wells Fargo sponsored Smiley’s radio show on Public Radio International (now canceled), and underwrote the annual C-SPAN-televised “State of the Black Union” conference that Smiley organizes (now defunct). Smiley’s foundation also distributed Wells Fargo materials to young people at foundation events.
“I cut everything off with Wells Fargo,” Smiley declared. He said the move cost “a lot of money”; he would not say how much. Smiley said his relationship with Wells Fargo was a “package deal.” In return for the company helping to finance his radio show, he went on the road for Wells Fargo.
On her show today, Dr. Harris-Perry argued that the seminars only appeared on the surface as a way to help black borrowers build wealth. They were actually just the opposite. By signing up for subprime mortgages they could not afford, foreclosure was the inevitable result. Often the bank would not even try to help the defaulted lenders, nor would it even attempt to re-sell the foreclosed properties. Instead, it let them sit in once “nice” neighborhoods, essentially abandoned. The run-down and abandoned appearance of these homes spread blight throughout their neighborhoods. In many cases, whole neighborhoods were simply destroyed.
In the now settled lawsuit filed by Attorney General Madigan, it was charged that from the outset Wells Fargo’s plan for the "seminars" was to target black borrowers for higher-cost subprime mortgages, not for wealth-building. And the seminars were a part of the bank’s overall illegal and discriminatory practice of steering black and Hispanic borrowers into riskier and more expensive loans, the suit said.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry is essentially calling Tavis Smiley a traitor to his race for his role in Wells Fargo’s “wealth building” scheme in black communities. Her comparison of him to Nurse Eunice Rivers is telling. She knew that the men she was “treating” for syphilis were not being treated at all, but were, in fact, being destroyed by her and the government’s efforts. It is not clear, however, whether Smiley knew beforehand whether Wells Fargo was simply trying to further feather its own substantial nest at the expense of poor black and Hispanic mortgagees. He says he did not know. That, to me, seems incredible. How could such an otherwise astute businessman and media mogul not know, or at least suspect, that something nefarious was going on here?
And then there is his relationship with Walmart. The retail giant has been under fire for years for its reprehensible treatment of its employees. Yet Walmart has been a staunch supporter, advertiser and sponsor of many of Smiley’s business ventures.
I once wondered why Melissa Harris-Perry has never deigned to have Tavis Smiley or Cornel West on her show. Now I do not have to wonder any more.