Presidential critic spurs racial debate

Cornel West says he spoke out for the poor. Cornel West says he spoke out for the poor.
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / May 23, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A leading black scholar is unapologetic for his scathing and racially loaded comments about President Obama last week, which have ignited fierce blowback from African-American leaders and intellectuals in arguments that continue to rage in black media and on the Web.

“You can imagine, some are nailing me to the wall or attempting to,’’ Cornel West, professor of African-American studies and religion at Princeton University, said in an interview.

West unleashed a wave of criticism by calling Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats,’’ and seeming to question Obama’s racial identity while attacking the president’s record on issues related to the poor.

Critics have suggested that West’s comments, published on the political blog Truthdig, were motivated by personal slights. West has acknowledged he felt Obama disrespected him and did not return his calls after West stumped for him in the 2008 election. Critics have also described West as a phony, an ivory tower advocate for the poor, or just unhinged.

“My question to Dr. West: Is this personal or it is political?’’ the Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights activist and Obama ally, said in an interview. “Where has the president’s politics changed since when [West] endorsed and supported him for president?’’

Supporters have also rallied to West, defending his instincts to speak out for the poor, if not his choice of words.

“You can quibble with Cornel’s language, you can disagree with some of the formulations, but the fact is that people aren’t talking about the devastation that’s evident in the black and brown communities and poor white communities of this nation,’’ said Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr., a friend of West’s. “I think it’s important that Cornel made that point as powerfully as he possibly could.’’

West’s widely disseminated comments, and the heated response they provoked, illustrated the gulf between the Democratic Party of 2011 under Barack Obama and the populist traditions of the old-school black left.

“This difference simply highlights a broader shift in the ideological center of gravity for black America,’’ said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Dorchester pastor and an outspoken voice of Boston’s black community. “Cornel has managed to completely marginalize himself with an ad hominem attack against an enormously popular president within black America.’’

West, a former Harvard University professor, a musician, author, and philosopher, is a frequent guest on TV talk shows. He has written on issues of race and politics, and appeared in films from the sci-fi “Matrix’’ trilogy.

He maintains that his point was to question the priorities of the administration, which he says favor the interests of powerful institutions over the politically weak.

“It’s unpopular today to really have a profound love for poor and working people and believe they ought to be at the center of public policy,’’ said West in the interview. “People look at you and say, ‘Grow up! It’s survival of the slickest. It’s all about power.’ And I say no, there’s something spiritually empty about that.’’

But in the Truthdig remarks, West also delved into Obama’s upbringing by white grandparents: “I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,’’ West said. “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 acknowledged in the interview that the uproar has distracted from his message about the administration’s record.

“Mention one thing about race, and the whole issue becomes personal dynamics and how it relates to whiteness and blackness,’’ he lamented. “What I meant by ‘culturally white’ was that it becomes difficult in much of white America to have a profound sensitivity to the plight of the black and brown poor. We do have great examples of white brothers and sisters who grow up on the vanilla side of town who have a profound sensitivity, but they’ve got many more cousins that outnumber them.’’

He cited Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a political independent and a socialist, as a leading voice in Washington for the poor. “I don’t want to say that we don’t have some voices out there, just not enough,’’ he said.

Criticism of Obama by African-Americans on the political left is not new. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson in 2008 was caught by an open microphone saying he would like to castrate Obama for “talking down’’ to black Americans. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have accused the president of neglecting African-American concerns and the plight of inner cities. TV host and author Tavis Smiley has been a high-profile African-American critic of Obama’s policies, accusing him of paying too much attention to the “rich and the lucky.’’

The president and his supporters have generally answered by saying Obama is not the president of black America, but of the entire country. “I don’t think anyone thought President Obama was going to have a black agenda speech, and I thought he made it very clear that he was going to deal with the African-American community in the context of everything,’’ said Sharpton.

Jackson, the most successful black presidential candidate before Obama, said in an interview with the Globe that West “was caustic because he was hurt,’’ and urged the president to meet with black leaders to resolve tensions. Jackson cited a sore spot within the black political left: Obama’s insistence that he should help minority communities by improving the economy as a whole.

“The response tends to be that a rising tide lifts all boats,’’ said Jackson. “Some of those who are poor have no boats to rise. Black America and Latino America are in a state of emergency.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at