A conversation with Dr. Cornel WestCornel West, Featured — By Kathleen Wells on February 23, 2010 at 8:30 am
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.
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.
Author: Kathleen Wells (15 Articles)
Kathleen Wells, J.D., is a political correspondent for Race-Talk. Kathleen is a native of Los Angeles and has degrees in political science and law, from UCLA and UC Berkeley, respectively. She writes/blogs on law and politics.
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