Cornel West’s Racial Attacks on President Obama Undermine a Valid Message

13 Nov 2012

written by Carolyn


Cornel West is at it again.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, West continued the racially-tinged ad hominem attacks on President Obama that lately have become his stock in trade.  Asked about the election results, West said,

“So it’s very sad. I mean, I’m glad there was not a right-wing takeover, but we end up with a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface, with Barack Obama, so that our struggle with regard to poverty intensifies.”

And that’s what made the headlines.

Not West’s otherwise solid critique of President Obama and Obama Administration policies — but “blackface.”

Whenever someone takes West to task for this kind of rhetoric — rhetoric we would call racist if, say, Newt Gingrich or Bill O’Reilly said it — that person is accused of being an Obama stan, a rabid fan impervious to seeing Obama’s flaws either as a person or a politician. However, I believe most Obama supporters are willing to listen to cogent critiques of the Obama Administration. They would be especially attuned to one offered by a scholar as revered as West.

West, however, undermines his case against President Obama’s policies with inflammatory drivel like “Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” or worse, statements that impugn Obama’s manhood and identity, as West did in this interview with Chris Hedges for Truthdig last year:

“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West says. “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. Hst as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that’s true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It’s a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.

“He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” he says.

These statements are a turn-off. Such remarks discredit whatever comes next, even if the rest of the argument is compelling. They make for great pull quotes in linkbait articles that breathlessly announce West’s latest Obama diss. But they fail to do what West claims to want: to draw deeper attention to the need for the Obama Administration to take measures to combat poverty, to stop drone attacks that take the lives of innocent civilians, and to begin to identify solutions to the prison-industrial complex.

Stanley Crouch once referred to West as “an academic loudmouth with a good show business game.”  He’s an entertainer as well as a scholar, and he certainly knows how to draw attention to himself. One wonders if West’s remarks about Obama would even be reported had West not made the “blackface” remark, or essentially called Obama an effete Oreo last year. The problem is, the insults are the only comments getting attention.

It’s time for West to cut it with the cheap shots against Obama that are undermining, and in most cases, obscuring, his message. People do need to hold the President accountable — his supporters most of all. West doesn’t need to sugarcoat his criticism for the masses, but he also doesn’t need to present it wrapped in used toilet paper.

I’ve linked to the transcripts of the Democracy Now interview with West and Tavis Smiley. (I haven’t remarked about Smiley, but it’s worth noting that Smiley’s comments were more measured than West’s.)

There are two parts to the interview. Once you get past the “blackface” remark, it’s actually good reading.

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman, Part I

Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, Democracy Now interview with Amy Goodman, Part II



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