Cornel West’s criticism of Obama sparks debate among African Americans

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.”

Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton, said African Americans in academia had been discussing West’s comments for days, particularly looking at how he had deployed race in his critique of Obama.

“West came out swinging,” said Glaude, who engaged in the debate on Twitter, saying he found West’s political critique much more substantive than his “racial reasoning.”

West said that Obama’s politics are more centrist than progressive and do not uplift the poor, calling the president a “newcomer . . . who wanted to reassure the establishment” and “someone who was using intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy.”

“It was very much going to be a kind of black face of the [Democratic Leadership Council],” he said.

West’s comments, which continued in a Tuesday night interview on MSNBC, intensified the criticism of Obama that began after the election. During the 2008 campaign, West said, he traveled to 65 campaign events for the presidential candidate. But West complains that he was not given inauguration tickets for his brother and mother and that Obama did not return his phone calls.

In 2009, West told the New Yorker magazine that he was displeased with Obama’s well-received speech on race, which, in part, compared racial anger in the black community to that in the white community.

According to West, his relationship with Obama hit a low following a speech the president gave in July 2010 at the National Urban League’s centennial conference. West said Obama made a beeline to him after the speech and “cussed” him out, saying that West ought to be ashamed for saying Obama is not a progressive. White House aides did not dispute that Obama had scolded West.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a close Obama ally who has sparred with West over the president, said Tuesday that the issue comes down to a misunderstanding of Obama’s role. “This is the first time in this country that we have an African American president. He is not the president of African Americans,” Sharpton said. “The problem we’re seeing with too many older-minded people is you don’t want the next generation. You want clones. And people don’t have to be your clone to validate your sacrifice.”

West, who did not respond to a request for comment , sent out this message via Twitter in response to the criticism: “This discussion is in no way about me, it has to do with poor and working people having low priority in US governmental policy including the Obama Administration. My personal words had to do with being disrespected by the President. People are disrespected everyday, and they can raise their voices in response to it.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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