- Racial Equity
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Kathleen Wells: And that President Obama’s calling is to progressive governance and trying to shape policy. So, how do these two roles, these two commitments, how are they reconciled? Where do we find common ground?
Dr. Cornel West: Oh, no…well, we do. One is, as you know, I did 67 events for the brotha, right? From Iowa to Ohio. Why? Because I was convinced — and I would do it again — that he was the best politician, given our relative options of McCain and Palin, to take us beyond the age of Reagan. We had to get beyond the greed-run-amok. We had to get beyond indifference to the poor and working people. We had to get beyond polarized politics.
Barack talked about — not greed — he talked about fairness; not indifference — he talked about compassion; not fear — he talked about hope. I was with him all the way. But, of course, I knew that, as a person who would govern, that his democratic rhetoric during the campaign was going to be challenged by technocratic policies of his party and experts who he hired. I understand that.
We have significant overlap. One is, I do want to protect him against the vicious right-wing attacks, many of which are lies. I do want to make sure he is respected as a human being, as a President and as a black man in the White House with a precious black family. But I want him corrected when he leans toward the strong and not toward the weak. I was hoping he would be a progressive politician. That’s a politician like Russell Feingold, like the late Paul Wellstone — who leaned toward the weak as a politician — like Harold Washington in Chicago. Has he been a progressive politician who leaned toward the weak? Well, that’s a good question.
Healthcare. What does that look like? Public option is negotiable. Deals behind the counter with pharmaceutical companies because they know that the government is the biggest seller of the drugs that they sale. That doesn’t look like progressive in that regard. It looks like typical centrist manipulation of the forces — interest groups — in order to make deals.
Kathleen Wells: And this goes back to what I sort of touched on before. Is America ready for that kind of radical change, that kind of revolutionary change?
Dr. Cornel West: It’s not revolutionary, though. To give money to community banks and small banks rather than billions and billions and billions of dollars to a few huge investment banks too big to fail and the rest of it too small to be rescued? That’s not revolutionary at all.
What I’m talking about is really consistent with much of what you read in the columns of New York Times with Paul Krugman, and Bob Herbert and Joseph Stiglitz’s wonderful new book, Freefall, that needs to be read and reread. I don’t think that calls for anything revolutionary. In fact, I am a bit more radical than they are, but I resonate with what they have to say, but it’s not revolutionary, I don’t think, at all. In fact, I think it’s common sensical. I think if Obama doesn’t begin to move in that direction, he’s going to lose the black base. The white Independents have already begun to distance themselves, and the right-wing are coming on with tremendous vigor, and it’s dangerous.
These tea-party brothers and sisters — I’m telling you … conservative? They’ve got some crypto-fascist element. And Barack, if he can’t somehow displace that populist energy that they have in a progressive way, he’s going to be left dangling there with his experts and brainy smart folks who refuse to side with the weak. Then we got a bigger mess.
Kathleen Wells: So, give me some specifics. How can he change this C- or C+ into an A?
Dr. Cornel West: He’s got to zero-in on jobs. He’s got to use his might to try to push through serious legislation for jobs and investment and infrastructure, job-training centers. He’s got to re-channel much of this money to these small banks who are lending and make accountable these big banks who got all of these billions of dollars, and not just giving them out for bonuses for their executives, but are sitting on it because they don’t trust one another, and none of the money is getting down to the ordinary people who need the money for lending to get their own projects off the ground, their lives together.
And so, once you get caught within that kind of Wall Street connected — or put it this way, intimate relation between Wall Street, Washington elites and the investment bankers — then you can’t talk about job-creation. Job creation has to be a very, very slow evolutionary process in which the Federal Reserve that has no public accountability whatsoever. Who did he choose to be head of the Federal Reserve again? Same chap who got us in the mess in the first place. He certainly came to his defense strong, didn’t he? Come to Van Jones’ defense? No, no. But he came to Bernanke’s defense strongly. He came to Geithner’s defense strongly. Progressives — sell down the river; centrists who are elites — come to their defense strongly because he gives us a sense of where he leans — what his priorities are. That’s what I find upsetting and disturbing.
Kathleen Wells: You mentioned, you said, the President is going to lose the base, the black base. He’s going to lose us as a base.
Dr. Cornel West: That’s because black people will sleep-walk, tied to symbolic victories, only for so long. Once they wake up and see, My God, my child has gone to Afghanistan! My God, my girl is still unemployed and these schools are still dilapidated and this housing is disgraceful and I see more and more an Obama administration siding with bankers, investment, commercial insurance companies, black folk are gonna say, “Wait a minute, this symbolic victory only goes so far. I am waking up.” Then he’s in deep trouble.
Does it make sense to you though, my sister?
Kathleen Wells: It makes sense to me. But…
Dr. Cornel West: You think I’m being too unfair? I don’t want to be unfair, I love my brother. I just love the people more than I love him.
Kathleen Wells: I know that, and I’m just thinking of the mechanics of D. C., all the competing and conflicting interests.
Dr. Cornel West: That’s real. That’s real.
Kathleen Wells: That’s real, and so…
Dr. Cornel West: That’s very real. But the part of it is, you got to tell the people that. You see what I mean? Just explain to the people: “You know what, I’ve got these lobbyists paying millions and millions of dollars. It’s around my neck. I’ve got these banks that put a gun to my head.” Just explain that to the people the way that Harold Washington used to explain it. And say, “I can’t do that much.” Right? That’s not what he’s doing? What have they said this past week? Look at that, Sister Kathleen? They are arguing there’s not even such a thing as a black agenda. That’s what Al Sharpton, that’s what Charles Olgetree, that’s what Marc Morial, that’s what Benjamin Jealous have said. Now, that, to me, is ridiculous.
How could there be a corporate agenda, a Catholic agenda, a Trade Union agenda, a Jewish agenda — whatever agenda — but when it comes to black people, especially with 96 percent behind him, we don’t have an agenda? He must be losing his mind, especially when we have the best agenda for the country if we take the legacy of King as our agenda, you see? We got the best agenda out there — accountability for the corporations, job creation, priority on education, focus on the young children until the early child educational development, green policy, be cautious when you go to war — that’s King’s legacy. Was King a black man? Was King part of a black agenda? Was he at the center of black history?
Kathleen Wells: But what accounts for this? What is the intention? What is the motivation?
Dr. Cornel West: It’s because Obama people have predicated their whole project on speaking to the white moderates and white Independents to easing their fears and anxieties, and assuming that there is black solidarity by giving black folks only something symbolic, and not wanting to respond with any substantial way and saying, “Just let it trickle down like everybody else.” And you know what? The white Independents have now backed off and the black base is upset. So they are in a world of trouble. That’s why I pray for them ’cause I’m a Christian, too, you know?
Kathleen Wells: So, is this basically a political strategy and you’re saying it’s failed?
Dr. Cornel West: Absolutely. And I’m saying also that you can only engage in a strategy of cutting deals that will take you so far. You have to end up taking some stands. And he has been reluctant to take stands when it comes to poor people and working people and black folks.
Kathleen Wells: And we should also keep in mind, this has just been his first year, correct?
Dr. Cornel West: Yeah, that’s true. And he can change, you know? You’re absolutely right. But a lot happens in 12 months, though.
And part of the problem is, is that, as you know, given this sped-up process and 24/7 cycle of news, they’re already talking about 2012 anyway. It’s permanent campaign. Now, permanent campaign — what did he do during the campaign? Couldn’t get too close to black folk ’cause he assumed black people are going to vote for him. Have to present himself as the non-angry black man for the white moderates in order to win. So black folks say: “OK, on the down-low, we know, you’re with us, but you can’t be connected too closely with us because you will lose.”
That goes over and over again for eight years? And there’s no serious wrestling with the level of suffering, not just in black communities, but in poor communities, and working communities. With an economic team that is in the back pocket for the most part of Wall Street. Come on now.
Kathleen Wells: You’re presenting a really persuasive argument of course, right?
Dr. Cornel West: I think I’ve got a case that you seriously have to come to terms with and there is no doubt about that. Keep in mind, the aim is not for me to be right. The aim is to make sure that we keep the focus on the people who are suffering. That’s what we’re here for, you know?
Kathleen Wells: And so this goes back to me about expectations. What can we reasonably expect?
Dr. Cornel West: I think that part of what is needed (and I applaud the Huffington Post for being very much a part of this — Tavis Smiley is a part of it; Amy Goodman is a part of it) that in the end, until we have a social motion and social movement to put pressure on Barack Obama from the vantage point of poor and working people (because we love poor and working people and they are too unloved in our society; they are low priority in our society) we have to keep our voices consistent, strong and hope that an awakening takes place of the sleepwalking of poor and working people so that there’s some kind of movement to put pressure on Obama.
If we had 300,000 poor and working people in the streets in Washington, D. C., while Obama is having one of his nice little socials where they’re listening to some music, then they’d have to take notice. And people would say, “Oh my God, why would they be marching against him? That’s the fundamental part of his constituency!” No, he is symbolically speaking to that constituency. But he’s not substantially speaking to the conditions of that constituency. So in some ways, the ball is also in our court.
Kathleen Wells: It’s totally in our court, I believe, because Obama said, during when he was campaigning, that he needed us. We the people…we the people are the government. So where is the answer to…
Dr. Cornel West: There’s another side to it you’ve got to keep in mind. He has to be receptive. He has to be receptive. I want to listen to “We the people.” But he has nobody in his circle who has this perspective other than Eric Holder and probably Christina [Romer] and Cecilia Rouse. But, for the most part, the people who are closest to him — the Rahm Emanuels and the Geithners, and the Summers and the Valerie Jarretts — they are not thinking this way at all. So then, in other words, when he said “We the people,” he was saying either we make a loud noise because he is not really listening that closely when we don’t speak that loud. And those who he does listen to view those of us as these — what did Rahm Emanuel say? — these “f-ing activist?” Isn’t that what he called us?
Kathleen Wells: [laughter] Where did you read that?
Dr. Cornel West: Pray for you, Rahm. Pray for you, Rahm.
Kathleen Wells: Where did you read that?
Dr. Cornel West: That’s what he told the … It’s in the issue of Rolling Stone, the recent issue of Rolling Stone. When he met with the Organizing for America, people who wanted to try to galvanize into a movement, and Plouffe said, “No, we’re going to push them into the Democratic National Committee.” So they got incorporated, diluted, and they capitulated, just like so many black leaders right now are incorporated, diluted, and incorporated into the Obama administration and not speaking to the needs of black people and poor people.
Kathleen Wells: Well, I don’t mind telling you that it disappoints me to hear this. I don’t know if it’s cynical or pessimistic. But I’m…
Dr. Cornel West: Oh, but I’m not pessimistic, because poor people tend to bounce back. We’ve been through worse than this — working people been through worse than this. We’ve got slavery and Jim Crow. We’ve got workers with no rights up until `35. We’re going to bounce back. We are resilient, resisting people. So, it’s not pessimism, but it is blues-like. It’s not optimistic. We’re just prisoners of hope, that’s all.
Kathleen Wells: Prisoners of hope. Well, I wanna ask you. There is no grassroots movement. There is no answer to the tea party movement. I mean, we have to at least start there before we…
Dr. Cornel West: That’s right. Actually it’s around but it’s not organized yet. We haven’t reached the point where we’ve come together. We’ve got different fragments of expressions of it here and there in poor communities, progressive trade unions. We’ve got certain black activists who have been very critical from the very beginning of Obama administration, just haven’t come together.
And right now, we’re working on the churches because, as you know, you know Obama does not have a strong relation to the black churches. He has a strong relation to black talk radio. He can call up Steve Harvey. He can call up Tom Joyner and talk with them anytime he wants. But the black church leaders, they’re getting more and more frustrated. Can you imagine telling black churches that there’s no black agenda in America given all the suffering they have to go through and all the funerals they go to and all the hospital rooms they have to attend to?
Rahm Emanuel and company must be losing their minds when they tell Barack that and he allows them to say that. Good God almighty! [laughter] They are not going to put up with that too long.
Kathleen Wells: Well, I’m glad you brought up the black churches because, as a professor of religion, speak to me about the tradition of religion in the black community. Has it been a disservice and a service? Can you approach it from that point of view?
Dr. Cornel West: Well, what happened, so many black churches went to sleep during the age of Reagan, became addicted to prosperity gospel, the market- driven conception of religion, of chamber-of-commerce religion, a market spirituality, a commodity-centered religion. Lexus, Lexus, Lexus, commodity, commodity, commodity becomes a means by which blessings are distributed. It’s a sick, impoverished form of religiosity but it was — it went hand in hand with– the market-obsessed culture, a market-obsessed religion. You saw the mega churches that became dominant. These mega churches — you see an ATM before you see a cross on a lot of these churches.
Kathleen Wells: How can this be addressed?
Dr. Cornel West: We got to tell the truth. We got to love the folk enough, tell them that we can’t turn the blood of the cross into Kool-Aid. That there’s a difference between just gaining access to a commodity as opposed to a spirit that allows us to live a life of love and justice, that when crisis and catastrophe hits you, that the biggest mansion in the world is not going to help you. If you don’t have anybody who loves you, if you don’t have any God who cares for you, that you’re not going to have what it takes to move to the next stage in your life. And the prosperity gospel is coming to a close just like the age of Reagan is coming to a close, and the churches are also beginning to wake up.
And Obama, of course, wants to be able to incorporate them, too, but one thing you can rest assured is that when you let the Holy Ghost loose among black people, no politician can control it. It’s just that the churches have been sleeping for a long time. A lot of people argue that the churches are even dead. I don’t believe they’re dead, but they’ve been sleeping, but they, I hope, will wake up, and that’s one of my tasks is to make sure they wake up as much as they do before I die.
Kathleen Wells: What are you doing specifically to make sure they wake up?
Dr. Cornel West: Well, you read the Chicago Sun Times today where I was at a black church in Chicago, saying exactly what I just told you. In fact, you can get the tape — it’s an hour. Life is too short to get the whole thing. But it was a sermon, precisely on this issue: How do we wake up, how do we protect, respect, and correct Obama? How do we create possibilities for movement? How do we ensure that we bear witness to a deep and profound love of poor people and a deep and profound love for working people? Not hating the rich but just knowing that the rich have had priorities and privileges from the S&L crisis of the ‘80s to the bail-out of last year that is unprecedented and it’s nothing but corporate welfare at the highest level, and, therefore, their priorities ought not to be at the center of public policy right now.
I do that every Sunday.
Kathleen Wells: You do that every Sunday? I wasn’t aware of that. That sounds interesting and I would be interested in hearing a tape on that.
Dr. Cornel West: It’s the Chicago Sun-[Times]. You know that newspaper?
Kathleen Wells: Right.
Dr. Cornel West: They had a story this morning on the sermon. I think it was: “West’s tough words for Obama” or something like that.
Kathleen Wells: OK, let me…what would you say…
Dr. Cornel West: One last question. I gotta let you run here, though. So good talking to you, but I had a 6 o’clock thing and it’s almost 6:30 now.
Kathleen Wells: OK, let me say, thank you very much for taking the time.
Dr. Cornel West: But did you want one more question now?
Kathleen Wells: Oh, yeah, I have one more question.
Dr. Cornel West: OK, sure.
Kathleen Wells: Race-Talk is committed to revolutionizing the way we talk about race and promoting equality. How have we been talking about race? How can we do better, and what does equality look like?
Dr. Cornel West: All talk about race that is serious and substantive is tied to how we expand the possibilities for democratic practice. What I mean by that is that all talks about legacies of white supremacy must be tied to empowering the lives of poor and working people as a whole. This is precisely what I meant at the very beginning when I talked about the black agenda — from Frederick Douglas to A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr, Fannie Lou Hammer to Ella Baker– has always been tied to race talk inseparable from expanding possibilities of democracy, expanding empowerment of everyday people.
And in that sense, the black agenda becomes the best agenda that we have right now in the country. But for 40 years there’s been such a vicious attack on any talk about race or any talk about black agenda that is not cast as — they would want to reduce the black agenda to some narrow parochial, provincial agenda about the interest of black people only — that has no moral content, no ethical substance, just Machiavellian calculation. That has never been the black agenda. That’s not what Martin King was about. That’s not what Frederick Douglas was about. That’s not what A. Philip Randolph was about.
There is no evidence whatsoever in the history of black people at our best that our black agenda was just being concerned about us. But that is how it is cast. And it’s wrong. It’s a lie. It needs to be revisited. And that, in fact, the irony is we got a black President who needs to be saved from himself and his experts and cabinet, for the most part, because only a black agenda can save him, because the legacy of King is the very thing that must be expanded if America is to be free and democratic in the 21st century. It’s just as simple as that. Somebody said, “Well, well, King, he didn’t really have a black agenda. He had a — What kind of agenda did he have? He had a democratic agenda.” That’s the point. Yes, he did have a democratic agenda. But it was a black agenda because it started with what? The needs of black and working poor people. And he had a spill-over love that went to poor and working people across the board of all colors. And then he had a critique of American imperial foreign policy, of invasion and occupation of Vietnam in his day, Iraq in our day, Afghanistan in our day, drones in Pakistan in our day. That was — The black agenda has always been like that.
And the best analogy, of course, is music. Anybody who thinks that Louis Armstrong is only concerned with black music, tied to black people, don’t understand what jazz is. Is jazz black music? I think so. Is it a music for the world? Absolutely. Because it’s always been all-embracing. It’s always been cosmopolitan, but it’s rooted in a specific people’s creative vision and practice. It is black music. Is Stevie Wonder black music? Absolutely. Is it narrow, parochial, provincial? When was the last time they heard Stevie’s records? It is as cosmopolitan and universal as it can get.
And that’s the same truth for black agenda, if we’re talking about black history as I understand it. Now, somebody else might have a different version of black history, you know what I mean? The black history that I understand — Douglas, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Martin King — that is the center of the black freedom movement. That’s the center of American democratic expansion. Do we have any other movement that has done more for American democracy than that movement? And Barack says he comes out of that movement, but now, all of a sudden, there’s no black agenda. Please. Please, my brother, let us have cognac together and learn some history.
Kathleen Wells: Well, I want to thank you for taking the time…
Dr. Cornel West: Thank you so much. I’m sorry to go on, and I hope that my holy anger and righteous indignation was not viewed in any way as either disrespect of either you or my dear brother, Barack Obama. But I’m deeply concerned about this crisis and all this suffering out here.
Kathleen Wells: I really appreciate you taking the time.
Dr. Cornel West: Definitely. You take good care now.
Kathleen Wells: Okay. Thank you very much.
This is Kathleen Wells, political correspondent for Race-Talk. Thanks for listening.