Princeton Professor Cornel West has ignited an intense debate among African American commentators by calling President Obama a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” West added, “I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. . . . It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation.” West went on to say that Obama’s politics are more centrist than progressive and do not uplift the poor, calling the president a “newcomer . . . who wanted to reassure the establishment” and “someone who was using intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy.”
About these comments several things can be said, starting with this. Cornel West’s comments are extremely patronizing and arrogant. He speaks as if he sits astride Mt. Olympus and is worthy to judge who and who is not an authentic African American. There’s nothing West has done or written that merits this self-regard.
Professor West’s comments also indicate the degree to which those on the left believe liberal social policies are the synonymous with caring for the poor, despite the evidence that the opposite is often true (see welfare reform as but one example).
Finally, West’s comments are damaging to how we think about race in America. It would be entirely appropriate for West to offer a harsh progressive critique of Obama’s policies, if the Princeton professor believes that is warranted. But to argue that the president’s deviations from left-wing orthodoxy are manifestations of a “certain fear of free black men” is ludicrous and terribly unfair to Obama. There is no valid reason for West to have injected race into this discussion. It assumes two things: (a) everything needs to be seen through a racial lens and (b) when it comes to politics and political philosophy there is a single preestablished “black” position—and those who don’t embrace it fully and completely are racially suspect. In the case of Barack Obama, he is said to be a “white man with black skin.”
In fact, Barack Obama is an American citizen who happens to have black skin. He is a mascot and a puppet to no one. It’s a disgrace, really, to suggest otherwise.
Given Professor West’s history on racial matters, what he’s doing now is perfectly predictable. But that doesn’t make it any less ugly or divisive.