This is a very touchy area, one I’ve discussed recently as a guest of Mark Thompson on “Make It Plain,” a progressive radio show on Sirius XM. African-American callers responded by talking about their personal pain over Obama’s economic policies, yet feeling compelled to defend him as America’s first black president — and not quite knowing how to do both. Every caller made clear that this is a visceral point.
It’s also notable that class is still the dividing line. The most heated defense of Obama in the black online community seems to come from high-status professionals (or students studying for high-status jobs), people who see him as a peer. The people who called into Mark’s show? They’re living from paycheck to paycheck. That perspective makes a difference.
Now, I realize that on this issue, I come from a place of privilege. I’m disgusted by the right wing racism and call it when I see it, but as a white progressive, I also feel perfectly entitled to criticize Obama’s policies. Obviously, many black Americans don’t:
Scholar Cornel West’s scathing critique of President Obama’s liberal bona fides in a series of recent interviews has ignited a furious debate among African American bloggers and commentators.
The well-known Princeton professor and author, who has released rap albums and starred in Hollywood films, supported Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign but now calls the president a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
“I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator,” West told Chris Hedges in an interview for the liberal political blog Truthdig.
Focusing on Obama and race, West said: “I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men . . . It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation.”
White House officials declined to respond to West’s remarks, which have sparked a hot conversation this week. And Obama aides have have been content to allow others to take up the president’s defense.
Several commentaries from African American scholars and bloggers have particularly disputed West’s take on Obama and race.
Melissa Harris-Perry, a Princeton professor of African American studies and politics, wrote a column for the Nation calling West’s comment “utter hilarity coming from Cornel West who has spent the bulk of his adulthood living in those deeply rooted, culturally rich, historically important black communities of Cambridge, MA and Princeton, NJ. . . . Harvard and Princeton are not places that are particularly noted for their liberating history for black men.”
Imani Perry (no relation), also a professor at the Princeton Center for African American Studies and a former professor of law at Rutgers, defended West on Twitter this week:
Cornel West opened the space. Period. And in my tradition we respect elders, period. Disagreement can be consistent w/that. And I can’t stand “piling on” attacks. Debate, dialogue, don’t mob!
As a student, Cornel West modeled 4 me, commitments 2 the poor and marginal AND scholarly excellence. Amazing footsteps. Required courage.
West has an impressive body of rigorous brilliant scholarly work that even many academics aren’t aware of. But he always has kept connections with regular folks outside of camera view. That’s really rare.
So…It saddens me that many ppl who attack him (or silently cosign) are the explicit beneficiaries of his advocacy and kindness.
He has done so much for so many that folks don’t know about. And never asks anything in return. so, agree, disagree, whatever, but respect.