If President Barack Obama fails to win a second term in the White House in November, many African-Americans will blame the activist, author and academic, Prof Cornel West, one of America’s most influential black people. West, a former Obama supporter, now says the president is a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” and has tried too hard to please the Establishment during his first term in office to the detriment of the poor and the black constituency.
To the surprise of many people, Prof Cornel West, 58, who is the chairman of the political party, the Democratic Socialists of America, and has been described as a cross between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, has announced, controversially, that he and other activists are seeking candidates willing to challenge Obama at the Democratic Party’s primaries later this year.
West, a familiar figure on US television with his 1960s Afro hairstyle, horn-rimmed glasses, black suit, black tie, and white shirt, which makes him look like an undertaker, doesn’t hold out much hope that his alternative candidate will win.
What he hopes, he says, is that a challenge to Obama from within the Democratic Party could convince the president, should he win a second term in the White House, to adopt a more liberal agenda and enact more progressive policies than in his first term in office.
“We need to put strong democratic pressure on President Obama in the name of poor and working people,” says West, a professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary who, before this recent appointment, was a professor of African-American studies and Religion for many years at three of America’s top universities, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.
A highly regarded academic, West, who describes himself as an “intellectual warrior and spiritual soldier”, has written several bestselling books, including Democracy Now, The Future of the Race and Race Matters, which examines the crisis in black leadership in America. He says during Obama’s four years in the White House, he tried too hard to please the Establishment and ended up “tilted too much toward Wall Street”. We need, West says, policies that “empower Main Street.”
It is surprising that West, of all people, should emerge as the chief critic of Obama. He is tougher, some say, on America’s first black president than even the Republicans.
Yet four years ago, West was one of Obama’s most loyal supporters. In 2007 and 2008, he campaigned ceaselessly, from one end of America to the other to convince Americans to vote for Obama, whom he predicted would usher in “a new era in American history and a new epoch in American politics.”
But, four years later, he has become Obama’s most persistent and harshest critic, accusing the president of neglecting African-Americans, and others who voted for him, and embracing instead the rich and the powerful who opposed his election. Obama is, West said in a TV interview that has angered some and amused others, a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs”, a “puppet of corporate plutocrats”, and “the head of the American killing machine”.
West, who recorded a rap CD while a professor at Harvard University, is a master of the diss and the put-down and has used his verbal dexterity to full effect on President Obama. Angry that people compare Obama to Martin Luther King Jr, West, in an essay in the New York Times titled “Dr King Weeps From His Grave”, said the two were nothing alike.
“The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy,” West 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 attacks on Obama have been personal as well as political. He, who once described Obama as a “brilliant young brother”, has enjoyed questioning, as many others have, Obama’s blackness.
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men.” West claims Obama is “most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy…”
According to him, though Obama had “a brilliant African father”, because he was raised by white grandparents and knew few black people growing up in Hawaii, he fears “being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white… When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening…He has a certain rootlessness…”
West cruelly adds that Obama is “not just a disappointment but a kind of betrayal”. To expose this “betrayal”, West, and another prominent African-American critic of the president, Tavis Smiley, a talk show host, set out recently on a “Poverty Tour” bus ride across the USA to draw attention to “the plight of poor people of all races, colours, and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible during this difficult and dangerous time of economic deprivation and political cowardice.” But many of the people the tour was meant to give a voice to, have rejected West and Smiley’s initiative as an “anti-Obama tour” intended at embarrassing the president. When West’s tour bus arrived in Detroit, for example, one of America’s poorest big cities, angry protestors were there to meet it.
“We will not stand silent as Smiley and West criticise the man who brought us health care reform, one of the greatest accomplishments for the poor in our nation’s history,” said Detroit resident, David Stephen, one of the hundreds of pro-Obama supporters who turned out to denounce the Poverty Tour. “Detroit must send a strong message to Washington that although some elected officials may support this anti-Obama rally on government property, the people do not.”
The Poverty Tour did not go as West and Smiley hoped it would. Protestors, angry at their attacks on the president, marched, too, outside Smiley’s radio studio in Los Angeles, chanting that West and Smiley should “Stop the Hate”. “We’re very disappointed with Dr. West,” said protest organiser Najee Ali.
Though his Poverty Tour was rejected by protestors wherever it went, West said he was not deterred. He dismisses the charge from some that his actions will lose Obama crucial votes in what is expected to be a very close presidential race in November. West says he is not trying to damage the president, whom he predicted four years ago would be a president of “vision, courage, and maturity.” He is trying to make Obama live up to promises he made in 2008 when he said, “Yes We Can.”
But evidence suggests that West’s beef with Obama is personal as well as political. Asked if his attacks were entirely to do with politics, West admitted in a revealing interview with the New York journal, The Nation, that he was angry that after campaigning at almost 70 events to get Obama elected four years ago, he did not thank him for his help, nor did the then President-elect provide West or his family with tickets to attend the historic inauguration of America’s first black president.
“I couldn’t get a ticket [to the inauguration] with my mother and my brother,” West complained. “I said this is very strange. We drive into the hotel and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration… We had to watch the thing in the hotel.”
West’s hurt was apparent, too, in an interview with the New York Times. “There’s no doubt that he didn’t want to be identified with a black leftist,” West said, searching for excuses for his exclusion from the historic inauguration.
It is clear the snub hurts West today as much as it did four years ago. “We’re talking about one phone call, man. That’s all. One private phone call.”
Asked if he didn’t think Obama was too busy and had more important things on his mind than him, West said, “So many of the pundits assume that it’s just egoism: ‘Who does Cornel West think he is? The president is busy.’ But there’s such a thing as decency in human relations.”
Few would argue that Obama lacks decency in human relations. But West can rub even the best of people up the wrong way. West succeeded in angering Obama in a way few ever had. He did this by denouncing Obama publicly, and again questioning his blackness, in February 2008 after the presidential candidate failed to attend the “State of the Black Union” summit organised by West’s friend and business associate Tavis Smiley in New Orleans.
“He’s got large numbers of white brothers and sisters who have fears and anxieties and he’s got to speak to them in such a way that he holds us at arm’s length enough to say he loves us but doesn’t get too close to scare them,” West said scathingly of Obama at the “State of the Black Union” summit. “He is walking this tightrope. You can’t take black people for granted just because you are black…”
The final straw, though, came two months later, when Obama did not attend the 40th anniversary commemoration event of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. West again upbraided Obama and this time suggested the presidential candidate was avoiding the commemoration so as not to turn off potential white voters.
“I want to say that I’m deeply disappointed that my dear brother Barack Obama decided not to go pay tribute and lay his wreath for the great Martin Luther King, Jr,” West said, attempting to shame Obama and damage his candidacy. “That brother Martin’s profound love and deep sacrifice for black people, America and humanity is in no way reducible to political calculations, even for the campaign for presidency.”
Obama’s close associates say he was deeply hurt by the suggestion he would play politics with the memory of Martin Luther King, whom he reveres. It is clear the president has not forgiven West. But the White House team says this is not true. A White House official told the New York Times that West had been invited to meet with the president several times but that he had declined the invitations. West says it is not true that he has been offered a meeting with him. He said he received one call from former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, but was not invited to meet with Obama himself.
The Rev Al Sharpton, a leading black activist in the United States, fears West may be damaging Obama’s chances at a second term in the White House with his constant criticisms.
“African-Americans are struggling with many issues, and serious discussions need to be had by all,” Sharpton said. “But instead, West has resorted to personal attacks… All that does is distract attention from where it needs to be.”
Prof Melissa Harris-Perry, an expert in African-American history at Tulane University, New Orleans, agrees. A former colleague of West’s at Princeton, Harris-Perry says he is being petty and unprofessional. “It is clear to me that West’s ego, not the health of American democracy, is the wounded creature in this story.”
The noted black sociologist Professor Michael Eric Dyson also thinks the attacks on Obama have gone too far. Dyson wonders what Obama has done to merit such vitriol from black leaders like West and Smiley. “The poor did horribly under every president before Obama, and yet there wasn’t this level of outcry toward them by these men,” said Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University in Washington DC. “That makes folks sceptical about the intent.”
People in the black church, too, are unhappy with the criticism of President Obama. “The negative discussion Dr West is having can only put more apathy in the hearts of African-Americans and could ultimately cause them to lose more faith in the entire political process,” said the Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Obama’s former church in Chicago. “Where will that leave us?”
Where indeed? But Charles Ogletree, the African-American professor of law at Harvard University who first introduced West and Obama in 2007, when Obama was just a junior senator from Chicago, is convinced that peace is in the air. “This is not about two very brilliant men squashing a beef,” says Ogletree of Obama and West. “This is about what’s best for this country…this won’t be allowed to impact the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama. That’s simply not an option.”
But West doesn’t know anything about any peace treaty or truce between him and Barack Obama. He says that though he does not plan on actively trying to discourage people from voting for the president, he also does not plan to shut up before the presidential election either.
“If African-Americans choose to stay home this time and not go to the booth, it would be most regrettable – given the options,” West says. “But that can’t stop my message.”