Well, I hope so. You never know which catalyst is the crucial one that can sustain the movement. The Rosa Parks moment. The Emmett Till moment. But there’s good evidence that this could be a real pivotal moment in which people seriously wrestle with this legacy of white supremacy and other forms of injustice. The question is really: Where are we going? And whether America is even capable of treating the masses of Black people with decency and dignity. We might be reaching the real limits — the structural limits and the spiritual threshold — of a white supremacist empire.
The white supremacists whose sensibilities are being called into question by so many on the street, you know, they still got a lot of cousins. And once they organize, then it’s a different thing. They got [lots of] white supremacist militia groups. And that’s the ones with rifles. I’m not even talking about the ones without rifles. And Black folk, we ain’t got none. So there are signs of great hope in terms of our precious fellow citizens hitting the streets and showing their deep outrage of a public lynching of a precious Black man. But once things settle down, that White backlash could set in with the neo-fascist gangster in the White House, and with his following — Trump [had] what, 65 percent of the White male vote, 52 percent of the White female vote? So, that’s the kind of country we’re dealing with.
Do you see a backlash coming from that coming as soon as November?
It's hard to say. It depends on who really decides to show up and whether, in fact, the milquetoast neoliberals in the Democratic Party can generate enough excitement so that voting for [Joe] Biden is substantive and serious and expansive. I mean, right now, it doesn't look too good. Biden just is charismatic as a dead fish in many ways. He's much better than Trump, but that's not good enough. You got to have somebody who can generate real enthusiasm.
I know you were a big Bernie Sanders supporter. Many of the issues he was talking about that people called outlandish at the time are now talked about by the mainstream candidates.
He reshaped the climate of opinion, there’s no doubt about it. But the question is whether it’s just lip service from the Democratic Party establishment during the election period. And they’ll fall right back in. I mean, when you look at Biden’s advisers, these are some of the most problematic neoliberal figures in both Clinton and Obama administrations. This is a new time, a new era, a new moment. You can’t just keep looking back. As I’ve told people, I think we ought to vote for [Biden]. But that’s in no way an endorsement.
For me, it’s always a question of being true to the standards that come out of my own and our own Black freedom struggle. But when I first talked with brother Barack back in 2007, he asked me to work with him. I said: Well, what is your relationship to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker? And we talked for hours. And it was an honest, wonderful talk. I said: This is wonderful, brother. And jumped on board.
But see, there’s a connection for me between police crime, Wall Street crimes and Pentagon crimes. And once I saw him bring in the neoliberal economists — Larry Summers and others who had played such an ugly role in terms of unleashing Wall Street greed, repealing Glass-Steagall — I knew they were calling for the bailout of Wall Street. But when he brought in [John] Brennan as well, responsible for the torture, and then he allowed the torturers to go free. Well, how are you going to talk about torturers walking free and be critical of police walking free? They’re still killing folk. Somebody’s got to be accountable.
I raised the issue early on when he started hanging out with all those folk. I know politicians got to be politicians. I understand that’s one lane that they’re in. I’m in another lane. I said: Where’s the talk about poverty? Where’s the talk about the criminal justice system? Where’s the talk about the new Jim Crow? Where’s the talk about stopping these drones? Bush had 45 [drone strikes]. I’d call him a war criminal a zillion times. Obama’s got 563, killing innocent folk. I’ve got to be morally consistent.
Everybody'd think: Oh, you must be working for Fox News. No, no, no. I voted for Barack twice. Because I'm against the right wing, but I want to be truthful about him. And when I was looking at his policies, I could see very clearly it was too beholden to Wall Street, too tied to the militarism of Pentagon. And did not address head-on the Black predicament. So I had to raise my voice. I said: We're going to need a Black agenda even with a Black president. Just your Blackness itself is not enough.
So did you ever get to have those conversations with him?
Oh, no, no. Sister Valerie [Jarrett] put out a thing: West is a traitor, a race traitor. He's un-American and all that. I said: Okay, y'all. All righty. But what is happening now is that people come up to me and say: Brother West, I hated you. You were nothing but a trasher of Obama. And now I see exactly what you were talking about.
And I tell them, I never said that I hated Obama. Some of my critics did. I never hated Obama. You can't vote for somebody twice. You can't pray for his safety and protection against these white supremacist militia trying to kill him. Pray for him and his family. But I hate injustice. I don't care whether it's a Black person or a Black president. Or a White president. You got to be morally consistent.
So do you think this could be the election, the year, the event that really does force the United States to come to grips with the choices we have to make as a country?
I think it’s going to be two moments. The first moment’s going to be the election. And we just hope we can get through the election. Because Trump may either cancel it with the second wave of the virus or just claim voter fraud and refuse to leave. Then we got a serious crisis.
But the other moment is when the verdict comes down as to whether policemen [in the George Floyd case] are actually convicted or not. It only takes one vote on a jury in order to impede the conviction. And then it’s very clear that the system does not have the capacity to reform itself. Because it’s not just the police. Now it’s the judges. And it’s the prosecutors. It’s the jury. You see, we’ve been through this before. I mean, how many times have we heard [Al] Sharpton talking about we’re going to get justice, and rally after a precious Black fellow just gets killed? And he can’t deliver. The system is too tight.
These killings went on by the hundreds under the Obama administration. And if you’ve got an Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, these are very decent folk. They got a lot of power. So you got a Black president, two Black attorney generals, and Black homeland security [secretary], and Black mayor, and sometimes a Black police commissioner, and you still can’t send these folks to jail. See, that’s a systemic problem. That’s not just individuals, you know? All that Black official power can’t translate into stopping the police murders of precious Black young people. That’s a system that is just rotten at the core.
Is it possible to transform the system from the inside, or do you think it needs radical overhaul?
If, under the Obama administration, they had made it a priority to transform the criminal justice system the way they made it a priority to bail out Wall Street, then that’s a different kind of energy. That’s a very different kind of focus, different kind of concentration, of resources and energy. Now, if they did that, and they had those of us on the outside putting pressure, and we still couldn’t do it, then that’s like a [Marcus] Garvey moment, right? Just time to get the hell out.
So, a collapse in the legitimacy of the system, in the legitimacy of leadership?
That's right. You know, Keith Ellison is [a very decent] brother. He's going to break his neck and do all he can. But he still might not be able to follow through. But, I think, at that point we have to come up with our own mechanisms of ensuring that we are not attacked. Not literally going back to Africa, but symbolically saying, we've got to really turn to each other and come up with ways in which we can try to generate goods, resources, self-defense and so forth. Because we have no other option.
Who do you see as being leading lights, or most exciting leaders, whether in academia, the arts, the political arena, who could inspire people to move forward and have the energy and enthusiasm?
That's a wonderful question. Because we just have so much mediocre Black leadership, just like you got mediocre White leadership. When you really look at the new wave of folk, they're not really that well known. You got Tef Poe in Ferguson. He's the co-editor of the Boycott Times journal with Mordecai Lyon. Phil Agnew, co-founder of Dream Defenders, is another. Sister [Charlene] Carruthers out of Chicago with the Black Youth Project . All these are very important voices. Sister Ashley [Yates in Oakland]. Michael McBride, pastor of The Way [Christian Center], out in Oakland. There's always a very small number every generation of people who really love Black people. I'm not talking about people who love being in front of Black people. Willing to live and die for. You know, people like Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton and Ericka Huggins. We're at that kind of point now. We have to have those kinds of persons of deep integrity and deep commitment.
As a professor, what do you see as the strengths of this generation, and things that give you pause?
The strength of the younger generation is the willingness to see more clearly certain truths that have been hidden and concealed. The courage to step forward. The willingness to be critical of charismatic models and be open to a variety of different people. That's why the multiracial solidarity that we see in the street is so beautiful, because the young folk grew up in a much more multiracial context and ideas.
The weaknesses of the younger generation, of course, is that they grew up in the most commodified culture in the history of the world. So there's something always very superficial about spectacle in a commodified culture. It's all about what's visible. What is projected. What your image is and so forth and so on. Just to give you one example, you can find a lot of the young brothers and sisters always talking about what they brand is. I say, I ain't got no god-dang brand. I got a cause. You know what I mean? They put a brand on enslaved Africans when they came here and kept that brand on them. But that language, that market language, is built into the culture. That's the mentality of a spectacle. So you've got to shatter the superficial to get at the substantial.
You're going to need money. You're going to need a career. You're going to need education. But do not view those things as idols. You use those things for something bigger than [your]selves. Love. Justice. Integrity. And so on. But it's easy to get caught. And, of course, my generation is a grand example of what it is to get caught in a commodified culture and think that it's all about success rather than greatness. This sense of: All I got to do is just become the first Black professor or Black mayor or Black president. That that, in and of itself, is a definition of service and success. No, don't confuse service and status. Once you get the status, then you start serving. What are you going to do with it?
Talking about how America might not actually have it in it as a country to get through this — is that a disappointment that you’ve come to grips with a long time ago?
In my first book 40 years ago, I said it's unclear if America [has] the structural capacity and the spiritual and moral wherewithal to really treat the masses of Black people — not Black middle-class folk, the Black masses — with dignity and decency. But that's blues — you can't find no way out. That's what it is to be a blues people. It's: Good morning, heartache, good evening, heartache. Heartache's there, no matter what. You've got to learn how to love and laugh and get through with dignity and make sure you fortify your children so they're able to deal with a predicament where it looks like there's no way out.
But it doesn't mean that we stop fighting. Because you know about this new Afro-pessimist movement that's out here. Especially my young folk. I've had a lot of debates with them, but that's a major, major influence these days. Their view is: To be Black in America is to be like a cow waiting to be slaughtered. We will always be slaves, either mentally or literally. And it's just a matter of when we're called out to be slaughtered. That, to me, captures certain elements of truth, but it's so wrong. Because it doesn't talk about how you keep fighting. How do you keep loving? How do you keep sustaining yourself?
On a personal level, is there a moment or memory or experience you continue to draw hope from?
I don't have a language to describe what it means to be the second son of Clifton and Irene West. And I'll never be one-half of the person that they are. I've got a whole wave of experiences and a life shaped by a Black family. Same is true with Shiloh Baptist Church [in Sacramento]. To be a product of Shiloh Baptist Church fortified me for life. It really did. So it's a whole network and system of relations with Mom and Dad and Cliff, my brother, and Cynthia and Cheryl and so on. Passing it on to my kids, that not just keeps me going, but I've got a surplus in my tank. I could go for three lifetimes without ever running out of gas, even though I wrestle with despair every day. Never allow despair to have the last word. But I've had that kind of luck. That's a love supreme right there. That's what Coltrane was playing right there.
You talked about the white supremacist structure maybe reaching the point of cracking. What would that look like? And then what happens?
You either have the kind of nonviolent revolution that takes the form of the democratic sharing of wealth, power, resources and dignity — or, you end up with a White backlash that is so vicious that it cannot but lead toward authoritarian regime. It could be that we just got to go down swinging, my dear sister. Might be that America just doesn’t have what it takes to treat our children and our mothers and fathers with respect. That’s a real possibility. We don’t know which way this thing is going to go. It’s a fork in the road.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.