Attacking Cornel West

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.

9 thoughts on “Attacking Cornel West

  1. I hesitate to comment on this issue because it’s like beating a dead horse: the mass thinking of the black community ( and perhaps even the Hispanic community) is that Obama (because he’s a person of color) is automatically a left-leaning president who’s trying his best to clean up the Bush mess, and that “he’s on our side”. That theory sounded about right for the first day or so of his presidency. I doubt, however, that he’ll have the same level of support in ’12 from the “colored’ communities if the economy doesn’t improve, quickly.

    I support you, Suze, and Dr. Wests’ points of view, and I support your right to analyze and criticize Obama’s policies because those policies affect us all regardless of race or color. I’ve been a severe critic of Mr. Obama since about Jan. 25th oif ’09, and even though I’m black with advanced degrees, I can talk as much shit about our Howdy Doody president as anyone else, including Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry!

  2. Its true that Prof. West has a monstrous ego and loves the limelight. Its also true that there were a number of comments in Hedges story where West clearly is angry with “Brother Obama” because he feels that that the President is not grateful enough to him for all the campaign appearances West made for him. The president is not returning his phone calls; the President appointed West’s enemy Larry Summers to an important position. Maybe a couple of other things indicating personal resentment also came out in the interview. Prof. West feels like he was betrayed and promised things by the Obama campaign that never happened.

    However I don’t think that West’s personality and resentments invalidate the main points of criticism. These personal attacks against West are the stock in trade of the media commentators and academic critics. In these articles you can find two or three of the old Sophistic fallacies and rhetorical tricks that have been used for thousands of years to divert the discussion from the facts and ideas onto the personality of the opponent. They are of the form, “Look at West. How can you believe anything he says when …. (fill in the blank)… ?”

    Maybe West should have been smarter to not trust and hope in Obama, but Obama’s campaign was very clever in its ability to deceive those who were still willing to hope and use their hopes to trigger their votes. I fear that Prof. West was too willing to believe that another black man, a professor like himself, would do something no other president has done and defy the elite establishment of wealth and birth that runs the country and decides who may and may not be the President.

  3. Just to add some academic snark here, one might note that Melissa Harris Perry is also at Princeton, to which university Cornell West came a few years ago, and no doubt cast a very big shadow over the younger and lesser lights in African American Studies and Politics.

    Prof. Harris-Perry has a very snazzy website ( and a monthly newsletter about herself. On the website she links to an article where she is included on a list of the New Faces of Black History. She is 18th on the list. Cornell West is 3rd, behind President Obama #1 and Cassandra Quinn Butts, a deputy White House Counsel, #2.

  4. Hey pragmatic realist, I get the points of your post, but I’m missing the comment about “Look at West, etc., etc.,……”. Is there something in his appearance that would belie his sincererity or honesty? Or, are you implying that his creds are faulty and misleading because he ………………….(fill in the blank)…?

  5. I am trying to illustrate the form of the classic “ad hominem” fallacy. In this fallacy you try to win an argument, not by facts and logic, but by attacking the character of the person of your opponent. You say something like, “How can we take anything that this person says when he is a big blowhard professor who has lots of privileges and no right to claim to be a spokesman for non-elite people. He should shut up and keep his wounded feeling to himself because he is hurting the electoral chances of Barack Obama.”

  6. god I wish McCain and Sarah Palin were in the White House!
    We’d be getting so much done for the country and Cornel West and all the still-wounded bitter Hillary folks would be soooo happy right now…

  7. and of course, I love Cornel West, just commenting again on the circular firing squad.

  8. STEEEEVEBOOOY!!!!! Where have you been man??? DUDE!!!!! Wow thanks for dredging up 3 year old memories – like nothing’s happened since then.

  9. Its a great slogan for the next election: “No matter how bad it is, it could have been worse.”

    A bit of a step back from hope.

Comments are closed.