Professor Cornel West is back in the news this week, this time as a bludgeon against the Sanders campaign. What has Dr. West done now, you might ask? Let’s take a tour of social media.
The morning headline in the Boston Globe informs us that “Beyoncé is no Aretha Franklin, says Cornel West” but when one clicks on what, surely is an article, the item turns out to be one paragraph long and contains no actual quote, but a paraphrase taken from a linked speech that leads to the pay-walled Hampshire Gazette. Assuming the writer of this paragraph scanned West’s speech and correctly paraphrased the Beyoncé quote, it’s really difficult to find fault with Dr. West for stating the obvious: Beyoncé isn’t the Queen of Soul. Really. Next?
New York Times columnist Charles Blow chimes in:
Cornel West still seethes anti-Obama sentiment. Some of the things he's said abt the prez have been completely beyond the pale…
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) February 22, 2016
Well, as pointed out in the Boston Globe blurb, Dr. West isn’t known for emotionlessness, a propensity for platitudes, and definitely not mildly stated opinion, which I will get to in just a moment. Next, The New Republic’s Eric Boehlert retweets the NYT’s new reporter, Yamiche Alcindor, with a comment added:
sending Cornel West to campaign in SC as Sanders surrogate may've been single strangest move of Dem primary season https://t.co/0WxISiKwuS
— Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlert) February 22, 2016
So far, we’ve been nibbling around the edges of what probably rankles people the most:
Cornel West: Hillary's trying 2 "shift the discussion to race, gender in the abstract" to distract from class issues https://t.co/GoJ94JouOG
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) February 19, 2016
FROM CORNEL WEST: https://t.co/9Y4yTCqWg0
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) February 18, 2016
This particular aspect of West’s public speaking has rankled a lot of Clinton supporters in and out of the media, as one can suss from the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart’s retweet of his own January piece:
That time Cornel West branded Obama “a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” https://t.co/vMGVDz7VPD
— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) February 17, 2016
So, why all this? Why now? Well, you wouldn’t know it from post-Nevada op-eds and articles in the press, but Sanders is making inroads among minorities. While many wrote columns declaring Clinton the decisive victor in Nevada, many omitted that she won by five points, down from 25 just two weeks ago and that the Hispanic vote went to Sanders, overwhelmingly. But I digress…
In a February 18 an op-ed entitled “Clinton vs. Sanders, statecraft vs. soulcraft” West wrote:
“The genius of Sanders is to exemplify a profound integrity and genuine conviction in the midst of pervasive mendacity and raw ambition. There is little doubt our statecraft has been wrecked by a crass opportunism and greed that debases our public life and demeans our common good. The widely attractive soulcraft of Sanders provides an authenticity of moral depth and spiritual substance. Sanders’ righteous indignation is not mere narcissistic anger (like that of Donald Trump); rather it flows from profound sensitivity to the suffering of the weak and vulnerable. Sanders’ big vision and big heart — in contrast to Clinton’s big name and intimate link to big money — yields a real hope grounded in community. Unlike Clinton’s sense of entitlement and prerogative, Sanders is the quintessential American underdog who suffers, strives, and triumphs.”
There is very little to argue with here. There certainly were no digs at our president in this message. In fact, any direct or indirect mention of our president is completely absent here. West’s characterization of Sanders corresponds to many a poll that’s been taken over this past year. Voters find him trustworthy and devoid of self-interest in ways that Hillary Clinton just hasn’t been able to elicit.
As for West being a strange choice of surrogates for the Sanders campaign? Dr. West’s prophetic style and erudition are legendary in the Black community. While in the last seven years, West’s break with President Obama has been criticized by many including myself, it doesn’t mean West no longer has a constituency or that his advocacy and organizing should be spurned. West very much continues to have a constituency and the respect due a learned elder. That some among the intelligentsia have deemed West, their own mentor, a pariah does not follow that Sanders should, as well. Sanders’ energetic posse of surrogates include some of this nation’s most recognizable civil rights leaders, including Cornel West.
I have to point out that it’s mighty strange to see media figures openly come out against West now, after years of mostly silent treatment. It seems that all it took for people to speak out is Bernie Sanders… What is strange, is that West is now being singled out as Sanders’ surrogate when so many beloved African American cultural and civil rights icons have stepped forward with their endorsements and active surrogacy. Few are the mentions of those figures and we are now obsessing over Cornel West.
Yes, West has been a very harsh critic of our president; at times overly harsh and, on a some occasions, very inappropriately so with racially-tinged remarks that infuriated me. His accusations that, essentially, President Obama isn’t “Black enough” have been very painful to hear. To be fair to West, such accusations are not without some basis, and neither have they been uncommon among some portion of the African American community all throughout both of President Obama’s terms in office. It is a common occurrence to read young, up and coming Black intellectuals and millennials muse on the topic in quite resentful ways, years after President Obama uttered the words: “‘I’m not the president of black America.’
In an America in which even poverty and inequality have their own Black standard, who can blame them for feeling as they do? In an America where there are many cities whose rank poverty and desolation can only be compared to third-world counterparts, is it any wonder there is some resentment? In an America where police violence against Black bodies has been splashed on our TV screens day after day and justice is a rarity, to the point where new civil rights movements have risen in response, is it so surprising that such sentiments exist? What I blamed West for, and still do, was the way he expressed these feelings, and not that he felt or expressed them.
For better or for worse, West was there, speaking up for those who would be forsaken during the worst of the recession through the present day, advocating, agitating, and confronting, to the displeasure of many in the inner circles in the media, academia, and the White House, who, instead of steering the administration toward attempts to resolve deep problems, erected a wall of insulation. For some to go as far as comparing him to Black politicians on the right is nothing more than misplaced shade. No, Cornel West is no Ben Carson. The point of view he expresses and Carson’s insults have no common ground.
When one looks at West from a neoliberal perspective, he may well seem like an odd choice. But when one looks at West from the progressive point of view, the perspective of those who haven’t had a voice and are still taking the brunt of some of the most brutal economic headwinds, West, the prophetic cleric, academic and politician, becomes a welcome and comforting figure.
Like most giants in our culture, West is as complex and colorful a leader as any, neither blameworthy nor blameless, neither angel or the devil, worthy of our thanks and respect for a lifetime and body of work that will serve generations to come.
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Jonathan Capehart: ‘Ben Carson and Cornel West actually agree: Obama’s ‘not black enough’