By Aaron Smargon ’11
Shortly after the midpoint of President Obama’s 2009-2013 term, the Tory sat down with 1943 Princeton University Professor Cornel West to continue a conversation on the impact of Obama’s presidency on American race and politics. Professor West is a scholar, lecturer, civil rights activist, and critically-acclaimed author.
Two years ago, you said, “With a black man in the White House, it’s going to become more patriotic, it’s going to be accenting the positive things about America, it’s going to be accenting the ways in which black people have contributed to, so it won’t just be Barack. It would be the black soldiers. It will be Louis Armstrong, American music. It will be black athletes, and the flag, and the Olympics.” In what ways has Obama’s presidency improved how African Americans perceive themselves and how they are perceived by other Americans?
Well I think that black people in general are more patriotic now, they’re more willing to fly the flag, but I was absolutely wrong about the dominant trend in the hip hop music. It tends to be still hedonistic, narcissistic, highly individualistic, a lot of posing and posturing. I don’t think that the impact of the Obama presidency has been what I said it would be. Now there’s always exceptions, like my dear brother Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest and others, but generally speaking I don’t think there’s been that kind of positive impact on hip hop music. I do think you have persons who are more willing now to view themselves first and foremost Americans rather than black Americans. I see that among large numbers of black people, and it’s understandable.
By other Americans, my hunch is most white Americans would view black Americans more patriotic now tent they did before. Now it’s true you’ve always got lunatic friends or xenophobic fellow citizens, and they’re just kind of anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-whole lot of things. They’re not going to be joining Barack as patriotic at all: “He’s still a Muslim, he’s a socialist, he’s not a citizen. That’s not too patriotic.” And therefore when they look at other black people, they’re gonna say, “Given the connection, you’re not too patriotic either.” But they don’t speak for a vast majority of white Americans.
So you don’t think his presidency has hurt the standing of African Americans?
Not in terms of symbolic standing. Now it’s reinforced the devastation when it comes to poverty, education, unemployment, including unemployment for black college graduates. The unemployment rate for black college graduates is 15%. That’s the black middle class in the making under Barack. When it comes to socioeconomic status, the poverty rates are the highest in 50 years. We’re in deep trouble. There’s been no significant translation of a black man in the White House with executive power and a flourishing of poor black and working class black. For middle class black people, it’s still been difficult, because 15% is still high for black college graduates; it’s 7.8% for white college graduates.
On the same note, in terms of how Obama has represented the presidency, you said two years ago, “I think on four days of the week, he’s a race-transcending prophetic figure, three days of the week he’s race-effacing managerial. He’s a combination; he’s a hybrid.” If you were to describe President Obama today, would that ratio change?
Yes. Five days a week, race effacing, managerial, technocrat. Two days a week, God bless his soul—on the weekend I don’t know what he’s doing. God bless him. He’s with his precious family and I hope he’s having a magnificent time. You got to give him a break; even God had to rest on the seventh day. At this point, it’s clear that he’s managerial. And what’s interesting is that two years ago so many of us we’re hoping and praying that he would be Lincoln-like. We knew he couldn’t be another Lincoln. That’s like another Beethoven; it just doesn’t happen (Mahler tried). So we figured he been Lincoln-like, he’d be like Mahler—or FDR-like, which is another drop. Then at the bottom, Clinton, opportunistic to the core. Where is he now? Clinton. He’s a Clintonite president. He’s triangulating, he’s in the center, he’s moving out of center-right. It’s unclear what he stands for, it’s unclear whether he has any convictions at all. It looks as if each decision is a matter of poll and calculation and strategy: that’s Clinton to the Core. And the last thing we needed was a Clinton in black face. That’s what we got.
I have to repeat something you said two years ago: “I tell Brother Barack all the time, ‘Are you going to be a great statesman like Lincoln? If so, fine. I’ll try to be a Frederick Douglass to push you. Are you going to be a masterful politician shot through with opportunism like Bill Clinton? If so, I’m going to come down on you so hard, brother, the love that I’m coming at you with is going to hurt.’”
I said that? I believed it, and I have been coming down vey hard on him, ever since we’ve seen the Clintonite sensibility become dominant in his presidency.
Is he beyond control at this point? Is he basically Clinton now?
I don’t think he’s even Clinton. The sad thing is that Clinton was a masterful opportunity with tremendous charisma, and even made the people who he was in some ways implicitly targeting. Look at the crime bill, that was targeting the poor and working class. Welfare, eliminated. Deregulation of derivatives. Escalating wealth inequality. You would think that poor and especially black people would look at Clinton and say, “Wait, he’s not on our side.” But he starts playing that saxophone. He starts speaking that nice, smooth language that only Clinton can speak. And the very people who are being devastated, and they’re following him. Barack doesn’t have that. Barack doesn’t have that capacity to become the kind of masterful opportunist. He’s now dangling, he’s betwixt and between. The right wing still doesn’t trust him, and he’s given them olive after olive after olive. Look at the interview with brother Bill O’Reilly. It was disrespectful. What was he doing? Nice as he could be, “Reaching out, reaching out, reaching out and he’ll probably slap me again, slap me again, slap me again, reaching out, reaching out.” Now we know if that had been a liberal journalist, he would have gone after him tooth-and-nail. Rahm would call him an “f-ing retard,” Gibbs would call him a professional leftist who doesn’t know anything. But on the right, olive after olive—they still don’t trust him. Liberal base, upset. Myself, full of righteous indignation, vis-à-vis these central-right positions that he takes.
I want to take a step back and be maybe a little kinder on Obama. What do you think has been his defining moment?
I think that President Obama has an amazing capacity to speak to persons when they are down and out and to generate a sense of genuine hope at the moment, so that Arizona, he came in and hit a home run. In some ways that’s his highest moment. Now defining moment, I would view as negative. I think the defining moment was when he chose the economic team and foreign policy team. It was clear to me that the legacy of Martin King, the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, the legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the legacy of Dorothea Day—which is my legacy—had been betrayed upfront. So for me the high moment was—and here I’m trying to say something positive about the brother—was bring us together, the American family. That’s the echo of Boston Convention, 2004. That’s the one card he can play: “We are not so-and-so Americans, we are not so-and-so Americans, we are not so-and-so Americans, we are Americans.” That’s his trump card, and he can play that thing. There are moments that it’s a very important card (I don’t want to laugh at him), because we do need to come together. Even when you’re an American family, you’ve got delinquents, you’ve got dysfunctionality, you’ve got the son acting a fool, you’ve got the daughter running amok. The question is, how do you actually speak to the realities of that family?
Juxtapose the speech that he gave before the Chamber of Commerce, where he’s saying, “I should have brought a cake,” and “I’m going to make it up to you,” and “Maybe you should think bout being patriotic and trying to get off the $2 trillion that you’re sitting on to hire some American workers.” He didn’t say about how they were suffering and wrestling with foreclosure and unemployment. Then he goes to the black community, poor folk: “I come here to challenge you. You need to be more personally responsible Where’s you’re accountability….” Why not the same intensity of challenge in the Chamber of Commerce? Sound the FDR: “I know you hate me. I welcome your hatred, because you’re an economic royalist, and I’m a Democrat. Now if we can work it out, we’ll work it out. If not, we’ll clash.” That’s FDR, Lincoln the same way. Lincoln comes: “Look, I hate slavery. I’m not going to fight the war based on the elimination of slavery, but I hate it. But I want to preserve the Union, no matter what. That’s where I stand.” That’s backbone. Barack: no backbone, milk toast, spineless.
I pray for him every day, because we are in trouble. I don’t say this in any personal way—I love him—but when you love you protect. I protect him against some of the ugly lies coming at him. I respect him as a human being in terms of trying to do the best that I can to promote him when he’s right, but I correct when he leans toward the strong against the weak.
You don’t view him as a post-partisan leader, do you?
No. The thing is, if you lack backbone, you can’t be post-partisan, because you’re not even partisan. Post-partisan is you’ve been through partisanship, and people know where you stand, and you’re willing then to engage in a variety of different compromises. When you tell somebody, “I will never under any circumstances extend the tax cuts for the rich,” in your campaign over and over again, and then before you even engage in negotiations, you punt on the first down: “Well of course I’ll be open to it.” Wait a minute, man. Boehner and [the Congressional GOP] haven’t even sat down to debate you yet. They haven’t even negotiated with you yet. Why are you going to punt on the first down? You punt on the fourth down. That’s not post-partisanship, that’s opportunism. I believe in compromise under the elected political system, that’s what democratic politics is all about. But you have to have backbone. You don’t give it up before you even sit down with the people. We saw the healthcare bill the same way: “Under no condition would I sign the bill without the public option.” If you don’t get the public option, fight for it. Did he fight for it? No, he didn’t fight at all. That’s what upsets people.
Some would argue that he stuck with his convictions on the healthcare bill. It acquired almost no GOP support.
If that were the case, why did it not have the public option?
A lot of Democrats opposed it.
Yes, but Johnson and FDR knew how to push their fellow Democrats through, like on the abortion issue, he pushed [Bart Stupak] when there was a possibility that he wasn’t going to move. There are ways of sitting down and talking with people, and the public option may have been too much, but at least he could have curtailed the tremendous power these private pharmaceutical and insurance companies have. They’re break-dancing to the bank. These are huge profits for them, more than they even imagined. They have new markets, 30 million more people, which means the costs will still go up. Then our fellow right-wing brothers and sisters will say, “I told you those costs were going to escalate,” and they’ll be right because they made a deal with the private companies. What did he say during the election? “All of the negotiations will be transparent, public, even on C-SPAN.” But the meetings he has with the representatives, the lobbyists from the pharmaceuticals and private insurance companies—did you see them on C-SPAN? Not at all.
So you’re not happy with the healthcare bill?
Well, it’s better than nothing. There are some progressive elements about it, but it’s just that it was a historic opportunity to really push tough a major legislation that had real teeth, and if it has teeth it can’t be one that still generates increasing costs down the road because of the greed of the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. 30% premium they get. Medicare is 3%. Get Medicare for everyone, 3% rather than 30%. Bring those costs down, and then you’ll have a different dialogue on deficit. When it comes to deficit, what are we talking about? Healthcare costs, military budget, Social Security (even though Social Security is autonomous in that regard). And all this talk about healthcare costs, they’re going to still go up anyway. This was a chance to show folk that public interest and common good can in fact be promoted by cutting the costs, because who is going to bear the consequences when the costs go up? The Democrats again.
One of the products of ObamaCare—as the healthcare bill was dubbed—was the Tea Party, a pro-small government, anti-deficit grassroots movement. Some have questioned the motives of the movement, and many on the left claim some of its members to be racist. What is your opinion of the Tea Party?
I have deep agreement with my Tea Party brothers and sisters when they say that the government is corrupt. They’re absolutely right. Congress in so many ways is a form of legalized bribery and normalized corruption given the impact of big money and lobbyists. I mean primarily big corporations, big business. I have radical disagreement with them in terms of them being so radically anti-government in a selective way. They’re not really anti-government when it comes to military budgets. There are a few, but most of them are not. I’m a decentralizer. Chesterton means much to me, because he had a deep suspicion of bigness—William James the same way. I don’t like big government. I don’t like big corporations. I don’t like big banks. I’m not crazy about big labor. I like decentralized forms and local so that the populace has access to the institutions and can see the operations of power. And so that pits me against a whole lot of folk, that gives me overlap with some of the Tea Party people. Their libertarian strand—I love the courage of fighting the Patriot Act that they did, and that was against Obama’s Justice Department. They understand that big government seeps into your bedroom, your telephone, and so forth. My problem is that I proceed with a love first and foremost for poor and working class people. That’s the Martin Luther King legacy that I’m a part of. And because I see so many Tea Party people tied in close alliance with big corporate elites…
Can you name a few?
I’m sure that the Koch brothers have made their contributions to the syndicates. There’s a whole host of these major corporate sponsors.
Isn’t that within their rights as American citizens? Take George Soros, for example.
Absolutely, but George Soros doesn’t give to the Communist party; he gives to Social Democrats. [Having said that, I wouldn’t quite compare the Koch brothers on the right to the Communist party on the left].
He has a host of organizations that act in the same way as the Koch brother organizations do.
Yes, but the difference is that the Tea Party ideology you would think would be more suspicious of big business and big finance, because it is in some ways a populist movement. It’s a conservative, right-wing populist movement. I’m talking much more about some of the inconsistencies and contradictions of the ideology given the fact that the Koch brothers are not populist, and they’re not libertarians in any right. They are tied to an old-style, corporate capitalist project. They still have a right to give to anybody they want.
There were several minority Tea Party success stories from November, African Americans Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina, for example, [were elected to the U.S House of Representatives]. Brian Sandoval became the first Hispanic governor of Nevada, Marco Rubio was elected as a Florida senator, and Susana Martinez of New Mexico became the first elected female Hispanic governor in United States history. Are these real success stories, or do you view them as token politicians?
Oh no, they’re not token at all. There is a genuine conservative tradition in black communities, in brown communities, and in Asian communities. Think of the [Nikki Haley] from South Carolina. Clarence Thomas is not a mascot at all; he’s a genuine black conservative brother. Allen West—no relative of mine—he’s a genuine right-wing black brother, and he has a right to fight for his right to be wrong most of the time. But I don’t think that these are cosmetic or anything. I think that they’re genuine, and what they do is they reveal the degree of these clashing visions—let’s say “the clash of the two Wests”—the issues of what it means to talk first and foremost about poor and working people and how I think we ought to go about trying to ensure that their misery and poverty is addressed as a major priority, and his response to the same set of issues radically differences radically different, even though we’re both black. The issues of order, hierarchy, class, economic analysis, and so forth all feeds into explaining the difference. It’s a healthy sign, because it shows that there’s always been ideological diversity in black communities, brown communities, red communities.
What is your opinion of Herman Cain [former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and syndicated talk radio host], who has announced that he will run for president for the GOP ticket? At a GOP event in New Orleans last year, according to the Atlantic, he bashed liberals who judged Tea Party activists as “racist, redneck tea baggers.” He paused and said, “I had to go look in the mirror to see if I missed something!”
It’s hard to make an assessment based on that one sentence. I’m not a liberal, though, I’m a deep democrat. But I’m not the kind of deep democrat that reduced the Tea Party to xenophobia or racism. I think they’re first and foremost anti-government, or at least highly limited government. I think they have a lot of fantasies about the Constitution; we know that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document in practice for more than half a century. You figure that no matter how magnificent it was, something was missing for it to be in place and used as the constitutional basis for the enslavement of people.
It was a political document…
The move to call it a political document is opposed to the kind of fetishizing that you get among some Tea Partiers where it becomes almost a sacred document so that they have to highlight certain elements of it.
Going back to issue of race, President Obama has been accused at times of using race for political gain. Early in his presidency, he or his spokespeople often deflected criticism as racism. And during the 2010 midterm election, on the radio he encouraged Latinos to “punish our enemies.” What is your response to these kinds of tactics?
I think Barack Obama has actually been very good about not “playing the race card.” I think it’s very far and in between that you would see him doing that kind of thing, usually because he’s running from race in general. And you’ve got to at least be connected to the race card in order to play the thing. He’s been holding race at arm’s length for the most part. He and the Henry Louis Gates affair—he got a little too involved there.
Should he have meddled at all in that?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people speaking their minds. That’s one thing I liked about Ronald Reagan. I may have disagreed with him 95% of the time. I agreed with him on liberating Jews from the Soviet Union. I agreed with him on liberating human beings in repressive communist gangster states. But when it came to domestic policy, I disagreed. But he would speak his mind, he would intervene. He would let people know, “This is what I think, but of course I’m going to let the operations proceed the way they ought to.” Reagan had a way of doing that, and he’d do it with this unbelievable sense of charisma and smile. Everybody knew he was dropping these small cannons of solidarity with certain groups. He was a masterful politician. Barack hasn’t come anywhere near that level.
Two years ago you said, “Reagan’s self-confidence was deep. It wasn’t just this media stuff.” This year marks President Reagan’s 100th birthday, if he were still alive. Do you think that Obama has come along toward approaching Regan?
Nowhere near. It’s like Mahler vs. Beethoven. Reagan was a Beethoven when it came to political communication: against the Civil Rights Act, against the Voting Rights Act, against open housing. That to me is supporting Jim Crow. He was supporting apartheid South Africa in terms of constructive engagement and saying negative things about Mandela in jail as a terrorist. All of those things are things that somebody like myself can’t forget, even given all the celebration. With Reagan, it flowed. Barack has to read a teleprompter. Regan was just natural; I saw it with my own eyes. “Well, he’s from Hollywood, he’s an actor.” No, that’s not it. I know a lot of actors who can’t work without a script. Reagan had a certain spontaneity that flowed. It’s just that it was so deeply conservative and right-wing, his vision and sensibility vis-à-vis my own vision and sensibility. The left hasn’t had a Ronald Reagan.
What are Obama’s prospects in 2012?
He’ll probably win, because I don’t think the Republicans will get their act together. I think that Sarah Palin is highly histrionic in terms of her entertainment value. I think she has a strong but small base, but given the kind of televisual, entertainment-like quality of the race for the presidency these days she’s going to be a factor. I don’t see the Republican Party coming up with a candidate who can beat Barack Obama. People talked about Mitch Daniels, and I don’t think Romney has a chance. I actually like Huckabee’s authenticity. He’s flip-flopped on a lot of issues, but he has a small slice of what Reagan had in terms of the flow, a certain spontaneity and authenticity, that is real. But I don’t think he has the chance to get the kind of traction that he needs in the Republican Party. I don’t think New Gingrich is going to get it either. So I think Barack Obama will win, but for me that just intensifies my criticism. I’ve got another four years to put pressure on him.
You seem pretty confident that he will win in 2012.
I don’t think that the Republicans can get their act together, and he’s moved so far to he right that he’s already stolen a lot of their thunder anyway.
Aaron Smargon is a senior majoring in astrophysics from San Diego, CA. He is the former Publisher of the Tory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.