A conversation with Dr. Cornel West

Filed under: Cornel West,Featured |

Hi. This is Kathleen Wells.  I’m the political correspondent for Race-Talk.  Last week, I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Cornel West.  He is the professor of Religion and African American studies at Princeton University.  Hope you enjoy listening to the conversation.

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Kathleen Wells: Dr. West, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I am speaking with Dr. West — Cornel West — who is the professor of African-American studies and Religion at Princeton University. And this month, February, being black history month, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to speak with you. Thank you very much.

Dr. Cornel West: Thank you so much.

Kathleen Wells: Okay, let me start by asking you some specifics about President Obama’s first year. We know he’s completed his first year, and I know you’ve been a critic — or rather, I’d like to say, you’ve critically analyzed his campaign and his presidency. How do you feel that his first year has impacted the black community specifically and America as a whole?

Dr. Cornel West: Well, I think on a symbolic level I would give him an A in terms of uplifting the spirits and providing a sense of hope and possibility going into the inauguration and sustaining it up to a certain point. On a substantial level I would give him a C- when it comes to policy, when it comes to priority, when it comes to focusing on poor people and working people — which has to do with the vast majority of black people — that he has really not come through in any substantial and significant way.

We’ve got an interesting dynamic going on that at a symbolic level you’ve got this tremendous impact that is beginning now to run out of gas and on a substantial level, the C-   — jobs, homes, education, health care — he has not been able to come through, and so he’s at a very pivotal moment in terms of black people. He can no longer take the black base for granted.

Kathleen Wells: Do you feel we’re being fair to President Obama? Has any President other than FDR been able to put working class, the poor, at the center of their agenda?

Dr. Cornel West: Well, I think LBJ actually put all the black folk, given the American apartheid in the south and the Jim Crow junior situation in the north, at the center of his agenda right after JFK died. And so, actually, LBJ is probably the best example, even better than FDR, because, you remember, FDR’s New Deal excluded domestic workers and agricultural laborers, which was the vast majority of black people. So that when you really look at the one President who has done that, it has been LBJ in the 20th century and Lincoln in the 19th century. But Obama talked about Lincoln, he talked about LBJ, he talked about FDR, you see?  So it was Obama who raised the hopes of the people.

Kathleen Wells: So he’s one person, he’s the President…

Dr. Cornel West: He’s not one person, he’s the President who chooses an economic team that has put Wall Street and banks at the center of their project and job creation as an afterthought — the homes of ordinary people as an afterthought. Then he’s got a foreign policy team that he chooses, and he chooses to be a war President and escalating the war, not just in Afghanistan, but escalating those lethal drones in Pakistan. You see what I mean?

You know what part of the problem is, Sister Kathleen? That Obama has a team that understands the black agenda to be a narrow, parochial, provincial slice of America that he can assume he always has because he’s a black President. They don’t understand what black history is all about, which is that the black agenda, from Frederick Douglas to Ida B. Wells to Martin King, has always been the most broad, deep, inclusive, embracing agenda of the nation.

Frederick Douglas’s agenda was an agenda, not for black people to get out of slavery. It was for America to become a better democracy. And it’s spilt over for women’s rights; it’s spilt over for worker’s rights and so forth. Martin Luther King Jr’s agenda was not to help Negroes overcome American apartheid in the south. It was to make America democracy a better place, where everyday people, from poor people who were white and red and yellow and black and brown, would be able to live lives in decency and dignity. And that black agenda included a love of Vietnamese people, who were being bombed by American airplanes and repressed by gangster communists, right?

So this notion of a black agenda being some narrow thing is part of the duping that is taking place among — how could I put it — it’s part of the manipulation of those in the Obama administration vis-à-vis the press and vis-à-vis black people.

Our agenda is better than the corporate agenda, it’s better than the Catholic agenda, it’s better than the Jewish agenda, it’s better than the Italian agenda, and I love Italians — special place. This whole notion that the black agenda is something you can just cast aside and view as some kind of calculation for the next election is absurd. It’s nonsense and we refuse — I refuse — to put up with it.

Kathleen Wells: You’re saying this is a concerted effort, an explicit decision on the part of his administration, to exclude the interests of black Americans?

Dr. Cornel West: No, not to exclude, to downplay and to marginalize. We’re not talking about exclusion. He’s not a racist. You know what I mean? No, it’s not exclusion; it’s to downplay and marginalize.

Kathleen Wells: Why is that? What would account for that?

Dr. Cornel West: Because they tilt toward a corporate agenda. If you tilt toward a corporate agenda, then black suffering and poor people and working people is not going to be central. Why? Because corporate America ain’t never dealt that much with poor people and working people, right? That he tilts toward another agenda that he doesn’t want to say — he just calls it the American agenda, which is a cop-out because the America agenda is a composite of a variety of different agendas, of people trying to learn how to live together and help an evolving democracy.

That’s why you never hear Barack Obama or President Obama go to the corporate world and say, “I am a President of all America and not corporate America.” You never hear him say that when he goes to the Catholic world — they have a culture of life — “I am not a President of Catholics; I am a President of all Americans.” He would never go there in the Jewish world. He doesn’t go to a Jewish context and say, “I’m President of all Americans; I’m not President of Jewish America.” But when it comes to black people, he thinks he can get away with that. That’s ridiculous. We’re not putting up with it.

Kathleen Wells: This is a democracy, but it’s also a capitalist system. And so, in free market capitalism, isn’t having a poor or working poor inherent in that system?

Dr. Cornel West: Yeah, that’s true. But keep in mind that we’re not talking about anything in the abstract. Sweden is a capitalist society; it has no poverty.  Japan is a capitalist society, four percent poverty. Canada is a capitalist society, seven percent poverty. See what I mean?

There are different varieties and forms of capitalism, right? There are priorities within the capitalist society so that you can have countervailing forces come in and empower your working people and your poor people. There are capitalist societies that do not have poverty. America needs to understand that. Look at Norway; look at Sweden. There’s a whole host of– I mean, they are not socialist societies.  They are social Democratic societies with a capitalist economy.

Kathleen Wells: Often I’ve heard you say that your calling is Socratic, which is teaching, and prophetic, which is predictive, foretelling.

Dr. Cornel West: No, no. Prophetic is bearing witness to suffering.

Kathleen Wells: Bearing witness to suffering, and that you’re…

Dr. Cornel West: Prophetic is not predicting.

Kathleen Wells: It isn’t?

Dr. Cornel West: No, no, no, not at all. When you say that King was a prophet, you don’t say that he predicted anything; you say that he bore witness. He left a committed life so that people would never forget the suffering of people that he was connected to. King was prophetic because he lived a committed life. Now he did critique society, saying you’re going to go under if you don’t treat your poor right. I mean, that is part of prophetic calling, but it’s not predicting anything. No, that’s a soothsayer.

Kathleen Wells: That’s a soothsayer. Okay, so that was my mistake. So, it’s a…

Dr. Cornel West: I just wanted to clarify that with you.

Kathleen Wells: Yeah, that’s fine. And that you’re committed to unarmed truth and unconditional love. And that…

Dr. Cornel West: That’s right.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (430 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

8 Responses to A conversation with Dr. Cornel West

  1. Pingback: A conversation with Dr. Cornel West « Race-Talk

  2. Naturally, I welcome any feedback/comments regarding this conversation.

    I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed having a conversation with Dr. West. He has given me much food for thought and I will continue to explore the issue of a black agenda, which is historically a broad, all encompassing term, more fully.

    Why should their be a jewish agenda, a corporate agenda, a Catholic agenda and not a black agenda, I ask and Dr. West asked?

    That’s the question, right?

    And how and why is that agenda overlooked, ignored, marginalized and chastised, when it is precisely that agenda that has led to democratic principles in America — it is the only agenda that has done such.

    So, here we go again, with the topsy-turvy way of dealing and addressing issues. And here we go again, with the media mischaracterizing the discourse and only dealing with issues on a superficial and surface level.

    Kathleen Wells
    February 24, 2010 at 3:37 pm

  3. Hi Kathleen

    Thank you for this interesting conversation. I am quite in agreement with Cornel. I was very cautious, worried even when Obama become president. His book, ‘Dreams from my father’ didn’t ring true for me and I got a lot of stick for questioning it.

    Let me explain briefly if I can.
    Obama is brought up by a white woman, but in the book and in the title he lays claim to father. His identification is black. White mother,(other) is marginalised.

    Mother is everything that is not me. His white mother by default is blackness, darkness, feminine, the dark continent, Africa, race.

    Is not his success really his whiteness? The archetypal Western male is symbolic head, intellect, god, rational…where a black male may well be a contradiction.

    His politics is his identity and his identity is not with his m(other)

    which is why his concern is primarily Wall Street.

    best Isabel.

    Isabel Adonis
    February 25, 2010 at 8:26 am

  4. I also agree with Cornell. However I feel Obama’s mainly concerned with Wall Street because they financed his campaign. That’s why he authorized two trillion dollars of bail-out funds (yes, that’s what it’s up to now) for Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley etc. Imagine spending two trillion dollars to help poor people get through the economic recession – to create new jobs for them, help them fight foreclosures and get decent health care. Anyone who suggested that would get locked up for being delusional. http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/about-the-author/

    February 28, 2010 at 9:41 pm

  5. I’ll start by saying I’m younger and didn’t live through the civil rights era. I grew up in the 80s and experienced racism, yet I didn’t let it define me. I acknowledge that some things are not fair; however, I don’t spend time on the inequality…I simply break through them.

    1) If the ‘black’ agenda is really one for humans, why not rename/re-brand it as such? Human agenda / working class/King/democratic agenda. King is credited with leading the civil rights movement, not black liberation or black freedom. Civil rights is a concept that embraces the rights of all. Likewise if the ‘black’ agenda would benefit all, perhaps it could be branded in a more inclusive way. Furthermore, the black population in the states is 13%, behind Hispanics. There are more poor folks than blacks, so the focus is the greater population of poor which is raceless.

    2) Norway is ‘capitalistic.’ There is a high income tax, that American’s wouldn’t accept. There is a lot more government run programs – something that the Republican’s oppose. Capitalism in American forms couldn’t survive under their tax or social structure. Accordingly, there is less poverty because the people are okay with the government run programs helping the poor. This is a good thing; however, the American appetite for government run programs is low.

    3) Focus on jobs won’t bring about real change. A focus on education, science and innovation will lead to new industries in which the USA could take the lead. That’s how we captured global leadership the first time around. The business environment has changed due to globalization. We no longer have the same boundaries that existed before. Now when you compete, you compete against people in India who have top notch education and cost a fraction to employ. Simply graduating more people from high school and college in this global environment won’t translate to jobs, necessarily.

    4) I think groups like academia, the CBC, Urban League, NAACP are responsible for keeping pulse of the community that they serve (black). They communicate the relevant issues to government leadership. Not the other way around. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the presidential administration to take responsibility for any particular group’s interest. ie – it’s not appropriate for the interests of Corporate America to be a priority while a large population of people is unemployed.

    5) West is critical of a slow process of governmental change, one that got messed up over an 8 year period. While I think it’s our right and responsibility to be critical of elected officials, I don’t understand the impatience. We were patient with Bush…heck we elected him twice (well that’s arguable). Health care IMO should take more than 8 months to become a reality. It’s a HUGE change, I would never want something that will impact my life and budget to be quickly slapped together and given to me.

    6) Black churches. To West’s point, it stopped being perceived as the base of the community and is somewhat viewed as a market based institution. For that reason, it has turned many blacks off. Especially in this information age, where people don’t need to receive knowledge through one person, they can access it at their finger tips. Also many churches have been slow to evolve with reality. Things that were taboo and alright to be condemn ‘back then’ aren’t acceptable to condemn now. One example: out of wedlock pregnancies.

    7) His use of jazz to define a ‘black’ thing. I appreciate that a movement can start with a person of a particular race. But I think it’s marginalizing to say that anything started by a person of a race uniquely belongs to that race. Under that logic, there is a lot we’d have to call, “white stuff.”

    Overall great dialogue and discussion! I love hearing our thoughtful leaders share their perspective and knowledge.

    February 28, 2010 at 11:12 pm

  6. Pingback: Dr. Cornell West on Obama « Speaking Life

  7. Pingback: Dr. Cornel West | The Soul Brother Speaks

  8. To that lovely, thoughtful young woman, K.I.M., the discussion can’t be rebranded or reframed, because it’s not a discussion about a product, like which is better the Happy Meal or the Kid’s Meal at Wendy’s, but, rather, about justice. Dr. West continually talks about the need for solidarity, which is not an issue of public relations. It’s a matter of involvement in a movement that addresses the oppressor-oppressed dynamic that was so eloquently written about by Paulo Friere.

    June 9, 2010 at 5:02 pm

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