What to Think About Cornel West

I never know what to think about Cornel West. He shows that one can combine an astonishing range of brilliance, erudition, and humanity with an equally astonishing range of pomposity and self-involved grandstanding. Today’s headlines provide a case in point.

Chris Hedges quotes Professor West below:

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. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that’s true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It’s a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.

“He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” he says. “He’s got two homes. He has got his family and whatever challenges go on there, and this other home. Larry Summers blows his mind because he’s so smart. He’s got Establishment connections. He’s embracing me. It is this smartness, this truncated brilliance, that titillates and stimulates brother Barack and makes him feel at home. That is very sad for me.

This offends and self-immolates on so many levels—not least in its flattening of Barack Obama’s own biography, Michelle Obama’s life experience, and more. I could do without the “upper middle-class white and Jewish” bit, too.

President Obama merits legitimate criticism for his failure to craft a more progressive populist message, and for his inability at specific moments to advance a liberal agenda larger than himself. Our president is a liberal, cautious, consensus-oriented strategic politician. He was bequeathed a daunting set of foreign and domestic crises. He has imperfectly navigated some of these crises. He has still earned our support in the face of implacable opposition from Republicans and from entrenched economic interests. Then there’s the fact that President Obama spent much of his first two years enacting near-universal health coverage for 32 million Americans, millions of whom are people of color.

The most foolish and poisonous way to pursue these issues is to present oneself as the self-appointed guardian of black authenticity. I’ll take that back. The one more foolish and poisonous thing is to believe that you can peer into a complicated public person’s mind and heart to make facile pronouncements as Professor West does.

I would have thought that a conspicuously pampered Class of 1943 Princeton University Professor would be well-positioned to understand the perils of such pronouncements. Apparently not. Like Barack Obama, Cornel West is a gifted, imperfect person. I hope he learns from the inevitable reaction his ill-considered outburst will evoke.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.