Anyone who knows me, and knows me well, knows that I have little patience for the “Blacker than thou” crowd. These are the self-appointed guardians of what it means to be black — a decidedly limited and ignorant perspective that has more to do with the accuser’s insecurities than the alleged transgressions of the accused. And the leader of the pack these days seems to be Dr. Cornel West. In an interview with the Web site Truthdig, the brilliant Princeton professor took off after President Obama in a manner that was myopic, offensive and embarrassingly petty.
I understand the policy disagreements West and many African Americans have with Obama. But they appear to wilfully disregard that Barack Obama is the president of ALL of the United States, not just black folks. That’s why I tear my hair out over their complaints and their misguided explanations for why the president hasn’t done what they want him to do. They think he has turned his back on the black community. They either think he has to present a “pro-black” agenda or that what he has done isn’t “pro-black” enough. They think this is happening because he has been co-opted by powerful forces.
Challenging the president’s progressive credentials in that Truthdig interview, West slammed the president as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” And then there was this:
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West said. “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. . . . When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening.”
“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,” West said. “He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.”
Asked by MSNBC’s Ed Schultz last night to explain this, West doubled down by saying, “Obama has a predilection much more toward upper-middle-class white brothers and Jewish brothers.”
What West said is no less offensive, harmful and wrong than what Dinesh D’Souza said — with an assist from Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee — about a presumable anti-colonial and un-American mind-set possessed by Obama. Whereas these folks tried to deny the president his citizenship, West is trying to deny him his inherent blackness. By indulging in the “Obama-as-other” narrative, West is no better than a birther. By making petty complaints in that Truthdig interview about the lack of returned phone calls and not getting Inauguration tickets, West is no different than Gingrich in 1995 , when his displeasure over his seat on Air Force One led to a government shutdown.
At an opening reception for the new Washington offices of the National Action Network last night, the Rev. Al Sharpton addressed all this without mentioning West by name. “[I]f you’re trying to achieve something you’re strategic,” he said. “If you’re just trying to play to get some cheap applause then you just vent, holler, scream and go back home.”
Sharpton urged African Americans to hold Obama accountable but not in a way that undermines him. “I’ve seen this movie before,” he said. “We had the first black mayor of New York, David Dinkins. And we got mad every time he went to a non-black event and we pouted until some of us didn’t vote, he lost and we got eight years of Giuliani.” He went on to say, “We fought to have a real president,” Sharpton told me. “We want him accountable, but we don’t want him to be accountable to us any differently than anyone else so that it’d be used against him and us.”
“There are those that are not capable of getting their head around the fact that [Obama is] the president of the United States and that he has to deal with that and deal with every constituency group that way,” Sharpton continued. “Many of them are so caught in their own insecurities and egos, there’s no strategy. You’re dealing with a climate that [Obama’s critics] would even question his birth certificate, what would make you think that if he wrote out a ‘Black Agenda’ from him that they would accept that from him? That’s absurd.”
And what about the charge that Obama isn’t black enough? “First of all, who’s saying that? And who defines what is black enough?” Sharpton asked before rattling off a list of things Obama has done or is attempting to do in the areas of education, poverty and unemployment that have helped Americans, blacks in particular. “So, from black farmers to black colleges, a lot is being done,” he said. “More needs to be done. But, again, I think that there are those that have gone in the industry of being the blacks against Obama rather than trying to help the black community.”