Very few progressive voices articulate more vitriol and uncompromising disdain for President Barack Obama than Cornel West. During Obama's six years in the White House, West has critiqued every layer of the president's policies, from his use of drones in the Middle East to what he feels is the president's cozy relationship with Wall Street.
In 2011, West wrote in the New York Times that Obama has fallen short of epitomizing Dr. Martin Luther King's dream.
"The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy," he wrote. "Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable."
West's commentary is a breath of fresh air for some who feel they'd be blacklisted in liberal circles for criticizing the president, while others see his remarks as coming from a space of personal bitterness. Regardless of where you stand on West's opinions, his remarks are always worthy of further inspection. In an excerpt from his new book Black Prophetic Fire, West outlines why he believes Obama has turned his back on the black philosophical traditions that put him in the White House. Here are eight of the most insightful quotes.
1. African Americans Have Done Worse Under Obama
"The great irony of our time is that in the age of Obama the grand black prophetic tradition is weak and feeble. Obama’s black face of the American empire has made it more difficult for black courageous and radical voices to bring critique to bear on the U.S. empire. On the empirical or lived level of black experience, black people have suffered more in this age than in the recent past. Empirical indices of infant mortality rates, mass incarceration rates, mass unemployment and dramatic declines in household wealth reveal this sad reality."
2. Leadership In The African-American Community Has Weakened
"First, there is the shift of black leadership from the voices of social movements to those of elected officials in the mainstream political system. This shift produces voices that are rarely if ever critical of this system. How could we expect the black caretakers and gatekeepers of the system to be critical of it?"
3. Upward Mobility Is The Worst In The Modern World
"Second, this neoliberal shift produces a culture of raw ambition and instant success that is seductive to most potential leaders and intellectuals, thereby incorporating them into the neoliberal regime. This culture of superficial spectacle and hyper-visible celebrities highlights the legitimacy of an unjust system that prides itself on upward mobility of the downtrodden. Yet, the truth is that we live in a country that has the least upward mobility of any other modern nation!"
4. Leaders Who Challenge the Statue Quo Are Silenced
"Third, the U.S. neoliberal regime contains a vicious repressive apparatus that targets those strong and sacrificial leaders, activists, and prophetic intellectuals who are easily discredited, delegitimated, or even assassinated, including through character assassination. Character assassination becomes systemic and chronic, and it is preferable to literal assassination because dead martyrs tend to command the attention of the sleepwalking masses and thereby elevate the threat to the status quo."
5. Mass Media Ignores Voices That Take on Issues Such as Use of Drones and War Crimes
"The central role of mass media, especially a corporate media beholden to the U.S. neoliberal regime, is to keep public discourse narrow and deodorized. By 'narrow' I mean confining the conversation to conservative Republican and neoliberal Democrats who shut out prophetic voices or radical visions. This fundamental power to define the political terrain and categories attempts to render prophetic voices invisible. The discourse is deodorized because the issues that prophetic voices highlight, such as mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and war crimes such as imperial drones murdering innocent people, are ignored."
6. Obama Doesn't Really Care About Protecting Working People
"The state of black America in the age of Obama has been one of desperation, confusion, and capitulation. The desperation is rooted in the escalating suffering on every front. The confusion arises from a conflation of symbol and substance. The capitulation rests on an obsessive need to protect the first black president against all forms of criticism. Black desperation is part of a broader desperation among poor and working people during the age of Obama. The bailout of Wall Street by the Obama administration, rather than the bailout of homeowners, hurt millions of working people."
7. First Lady Michelle Obama Legitimizes Obama's "Symbolic Status"
"Needless to say, the presence of his brilliant and charismatic wife, Michelle—a descendent of enslaved and Jim-Crowed people, unlike himself—even more deeply legitimizes his symbolic status, a status that easily substitutes for substantial achievement."
8. To Be Successful and Black, One Must Turn One's Back on the Poor
"To be a highly successful black professional or politician is too often to be well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference toward poor people, including black poor people. The black prophetic tradition is fundamentally committed to the priority of poor and working people, thus pitting it against the neoliberal regime, capitalist system, and imperial policies of the U.S. government."
Toward the end of the book, West writes how modern black leadership has abandoned the traditions that have helped position it and President Obama. "What does it profit a people for a symbolic figure to gain presidential power if we turn our backs from the suffering of poor and working people, and thereby lose our souls?" he writes. "The black prophetic tradition has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment. Is it redeemable?"
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