Viewpoint: What’s Behind Cornel West’s Attacks on Obama

When Princeton professor Cornel West called Obama a "Republican in blackface," he's speaking from a place that's too emotional and idealistic

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Barack Obama greets his supporters as scholar Cornel West stands next to him during 'A Night at the Apollo' fundraiser event at the Apollo Theater, November 29, 2007 in Harlem

It’s becoming less and less fashionable to say it, but I still love Cornel West. We’ve been friends for over 15 years and during most of that time he has been a crucial American voice. But it’s sad how he’s damaged his image as an important thinker because of a series of attacks on President Obama and on other black intellectuals who have not been as critical of Obama such as Michael Eric Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry and Reverend Sharpton. West’s critique is draped in rhetoric so inflammatory that it almost disqualifies itself from being taken seriously and risks him sounding like a rapper enmeshed in a battle. In his latest salvo earlier this week, he called the President a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.”

There’s nothing wrong with critiquing the President, but the reference to blackface is a verbal Molotov cocktail. And it doesn’t even make sense: if Obama’s in blackface then he’s performing a grotesque caricature of blackness that is a white fantasy of a harmless, docile black person. Is that what he’s doing? Is Obama not the opposite of that as a calm, dignified, intellectual alpha male? I’m not really sure why blackface was mentioned or what it’s supposed to mean unless it’s a way of calling Obama an Oreo—black on the outside and white on the inside. But that’s just a guess. Earlier this year, West told TruthDig that Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” I’m not sure why race is even injected into that critique.

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But I think calling Obama a Republican was intended to be the more devastating part of West’s comment, as if being a black Republican was akin to a sellout. This makes sense given the GOP‘s penchant for policies that are hostile to black and brown people (anti-affirmative action, anti-social safety nets, anti-immigration, anti-DREAM act, pro-voter ID, pro tax cuts for the wealthy). But Obama has hardly been a traditional liberal. In many ways, he’s more of a moderate or at least someone who draws from ideas on both sides of the aisle. West is correct in calling Obama’s fiscal policy conservative-friendly: he’s bailed out banks instead of prosecuting bankers, and extended the Bush tax cuts, and, in the 2011 debt ceiling talks, offered to make deep cuts to entitlements, especially Medicare. Obama’s foreign policy has also often been decidedly conservative: he supported a surge in Afghanistan, escalated drone attacks which have resulted in considerable collateral damage, and ordered the extrajudicial killings of Americans who were at war with America. These are all decisions that would have the left howling if made by President Bush.

But to say that Obama’s a Republican ignores a tremendous amount of data and makes a simplistic assessment of a nuanced situation. Obama achieved the decades old liberal dream of universal health care (albeit with a conservative concept, the individual mandate, at its core, rather than the liberal single-payer concept). He lowered taxes on the poorest fifth of Americans by 80%. He used the Justice Department to defend affirmative action to the Supreme Court. He signed an executive order blocking deportations of undocumented young immigrants (albeit after deporting well over a million Hispanics, moving them out at a faster rate than Bush.) He ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and publicly supported marriage equality. And perhaps most importantly he nominated two Supreme Court justices who will defend a woman’s right to choose. With that sort of record Obama would get trounced in a Republican primary.

West’s central critique is that Obama is not doing enough to impact poverty, that Obama doesn’t even say the word poverty. This is true though it’s hard during a Presidential campaign to inject a discussion of poverty when your opponents are wrongly tarring you as “the food stamp president” and someone who’s removing the work requirement from welfare. Within that framework, discussing poverty would have been electorally dangerous. Still, it’s true Obama as president has failed to combat poverty and now we are in a world where 28% of black Americans are poor, compared to 10% of whites, over 13% of blacks are unemployed, and black household wealth is at its lowest point in decades. But these are not Obama’s fault: these are all structural problems that are bigger than Obama and existed before he was in office.

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West, currently a professor at Union Theological Seminary, seems to be speaking from a place of idealism rather than realism, which is his wont as a philosopher, but that does not make him a serious Obama critic. West speaks of presidents needing someone to push them to greatness, but does the inflammatory nature of his attacks make him eligible for that position? Many wonder if there is a tinge of jealousy fueling West’s perspective. A New York Magazine profile of West noted his relationship with Obama changed when West, who had campaigned for Obama during the 2008 election, was unable to secure tickets for the inauguration. The story notes that when West talks about Obama, he “uses the language of a jilted lover.” West told New York, “One of the reasons I was personally upset is that I did not get a phone call, ever, after 65 events. It just struck me that it was not decent.”

I still believe that West can and should be a critical American public intellectual. I wish that he would return from whatever emotional place he’s gone that has led to his critique of Obama being so venomous and thus inconsequential. West is more valuable when his critique is more sober, and America is better when West is a prophetic voice pushing us to be our best. I miss the West I love.