Cornel West Ignites Fiery Debate on Obama, Blackness and the Left, and Harris-Perry Responds

Has Obama failed to live up to his campaign promises, or were we so blinded by our own hopes in him that we didn't see the centrist signs? Could he have been more aggressively progressive as president, or has he been hobbled by the political reality? All these questions are bandied back and forth with heat and frequency among progressives off all stripes. And this week, a prominent disagreement between two respected black academics and pundits has brought the debate back into the spotlight with a focus on Obama's relationship to black America.

Last night on the Ed Show, Cornel West responded to comments he himself made about President Obama in an intense interview with Chris Hedges of Truthdig. West's was a vigorous critique from the left that included West's own unfiltered thoughts about Obama's relationship to his black identity, the American black community, the working class and the progressive ideals that West believed Obama held.

West's words included the thoughts that Obama has become "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." West also made the point that Obama's "establishment" appointments of many Clinton-era, centrist advisors, was a deep disappointment to him:

"...I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.”

Obviously, mixed in with his stringent policy critique from a radical progressive perspective was some very loaded language about race. West also relayed some very personal anecdotes of his feeling snubbed by Obama, and it's these latter two aspects of West's words which have begun to cause a firestorm.

After West appeared on Schultz's show, Melissa Harris-Perry  came on to discuss her own rebuttal of West's argument in the Nation, explaining that while taking the President's policy positions to task is valid and important, West is forgetting what it really means to be president: "As tenured professors Cornel West and I are not meaningfully accountable, no matter what our love, commitment, or self-delusions tell us. President Obama, as an elected official, can, in fact, be voted out of his job. We can’t. That is a difference that matters."

She also said that "West’s sense of betrayal is clearly more personal than ideological." Perry also brought the personal into her response to her former colleague at Princeton, discussing West's salary and his friendship with media figure Tavis Smiley, who has corporate ties. 

Watch both Harris-Perry and West's appearances on the Ed Show below, and read further after the video for a roundup of links that show how this controversy is lighting up the blogosphere and leading to some thoughtful analyses and reflections on race, language, and politics.


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Here are some links for further reading:

The original Chris Hedges piece, "Why Cornel West Went Ballistic."

Melissa Harris-Perry's response,"Cornel West vs. Barack Obama."

Adam Serwer writes about how words such as West's, combined with racially loaded GOP attacks, demonstrate the predicament Obama is in as a person of biracial ancestry. The president is subject to nasty racism from one side, like birtherism, and then told he's not being black enough by the other:

For mixed people, blackness is not accepted as a fact of existence but something negotiable, a question of membership to which those whom are Truly Black may grant you access.

At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes  that he wishes Cornel West had stuck to specific policy-based arguments:

Was there something more Obama should have done to get a public option? Should he not have traded the Bush tax cuts for extending unemployment benefits? Did Obama settle too quickly on a small stimulus package? Was he wrong to allow the GOP to shut down planned parenthood in DC? Is the strategy of increased drone attacks in Pakistan inhumane? Was the financial reform bill he signed ultimately too weak?

I think all of this is fair game... I think calling someone a "black mascot" or a "black puppet" because they don't agree with you is much less so.

Dr. Boyce Watkins, however, says that criticizing West is besides the point, because West did us a service by bringing up tough and urgent social issues:

Spinning, twisting and reshaping the conversation means nothing when black unemployment continues to rise, mass incarceration decimates our people and our children are not being educated

... Whether one agrees with Cornel West or not, he must ultimately be given credit for guiding the conversation back to poor, black and brown people.

Earlier this spring, Coates made a salient point, certainly relevant to this controversy, about a previous back-and-forth between West and Sharpton: he wrote that that one thing Obama's election has helped make clear to a sometimes slow-to-grasp nuances media is that American black opinion--unshockingly like American opinion itself--is diverse, multifaceted and far from monolithic. Therefore, TV networks and newspapers no longer can look to a single spokesman or woman to represent black America's views--and that, at least, is progress.

AlterNet / By Sarah Seltzer

Posted at May 18, 2011, 6:34am

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