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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “What to think about Cornel West…”

  1. Cornel West is steeped in theology. (Look at his CV.) He thinks in terms of right and wrong. In this respect, he shares much in common with the political right, who also view the world of affairs as a morality play, in which righteousness trumps consequences.

    Barack Obama is steeped in law and politics. He thinks in terms of good and bad. He is an Enlightenment fellow: a Benthamite kind of guy. He is willing to do wrong in the interests of the good.

    Never the twain shall meet.

  2. “I hope he learns from the inevitable reaction his ill-considered outburst will evoke.” Not likely. Aside from having an enormous ego, Cornel West has a stable of sycophants who can be counted on to praise this deep insight. The reaction will come, of course, from (Jewish) whitey and can be fully discounted.

  3. I’m going to indulge in the same kind of armchair psychology that Prof. West does and say that Prof. West has trouble dealing with a strong, independent black man who doesn’t feel the same level of insecurity and resentment toward the world that West does.

  4. 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.

    Which is another way of saying: Scratch off the veneer, and a learned lector, may very well pee on his rival’s office door too…
    We’re all human baby. And we all come with racism built in:

    Psychologists have long known that many people are prejudiced towards others based on group affiliations, be they racial, ethnic, religious, or even political. However, we know far less about why people are prone to prejudice in the first place. New research, using monkeys, suggests that the roots lie deep in our evolutionary past.


    All the book-learning or religious training in the world won’t necessarily help you rise above those genes. Especially if you haven’t first acknowledged the genetic color-coding within yourself. Anybody setting themselves up as the self-appointed guardian of black authenticity or any authenticity, hasn’t drained the cup-of-self sufficiently. Until you drain that cup, you can have an IQ of 180, and be no more thoughtful a human than Rush Limbaugh. Or to amend Bertrand Russell’s famous quote:

    If you wish to become a philosopher, you must try, as far as you can, to get rid of beliefs which depend solely upon the place and time of your education, and upon what your parents and schoolmasters told you, and upon which your genes tell you.

  5. Larry Summers was a disaster as President of Harvard, and his famous speech on the inadequacy of women was egregious, but his confrontation with Prof. West over the latter’s apparent disinclination to pursue serious scholarship or teaching while embarrassing himself and his institution in his never-ending self-indulgent quest for ever-greater vistas of exposure certainly had its merits. I’m not saying Summers handled it at all well, that the confrontation was worth having if handled so poorly, or that there weren’t other Harvard professors for whom such an intervention was equally or more greatly justified, but Summers’s assessment of West was not wrong. And anybody whose NPR affiliate plays Cornel West’s (and Tavis Smiley’s) show can certainly tell you that this particular outburst of jackassery is completely par for the course.

  6. I’m with Harold that these outbursts of nincompoopery are a mystery when you hear the man when he talks sense (albeit sometimes the search for pearls is long and arduous). Surely someone with that brain can come up with a more functional criticism of someone who disappoints you.

  7. I don’t know who first noted the similarity of deciding that a guy from Hawaii is from Kansas and that he is from Kenya, but I wish it had been me.

    Note the “savvy” slander — West is noting that Obama noted that Dimon and Blankfein are savvy to sweeten the bitter pill of his proposal to make CEOs get shareholder approval for their bonuses (I don’t blame West the word was removing the necessary text since merely removing necessary context is so 20th century).

    Note also the name “Summers.” The claim about Obama is absurd. Obama invited Summers to take a demotion from Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration to chairman of the NEC. The (mild) surprise is that Summers agreed. However, Summers did scold West enough that West resigned his job as a Harvard University Professor (Harvard’s highest academic honor which is not automatically offered to Nobel memorial prize winners, because Harvard has to maintain standards). Therefore, offering Summers anything at all is not OK.

  8. I, too, am with Harold in that I think West veers between being insightful and pernicious. But I’m inclined to defend West here. West is talking about himself as much as he’s talking about Obama. One could rephrase West’s quote and have it sound sympathetic and complimentary; West’s comment is really about how West feels about the world as much as it is about Obama.

    What makes Obama tick? It’s a puzzle to someone like me (white, middle class, relatively untalented), but the fact that it’s a puzzle doesn’t stop me from bootless speculation. We all do it. I don’t begrudge West the right to speculate, and I don’t find his speculations any more ridiculous than those of any other observer. Say what you will about West, he ain’t Dinesh D’Souza.

  9. Ebenezer, I earlier hesitated to post, but I still wonder — how the heck to you get from your apt-enough observations that West’s intellectual style is formed by theology, and Obama’s by the law, to the rest of your obiter dicta?

  10. Nobody’s saying he’s in the same hemisphere as that racist D’Souza clown.

    I’m really really really disappointed in Dr. West for this. I could respect his attacks on Obama’s policies, however I may disagree. But that entire “fear of free black men” passage strikes me as a more eloquent version of that bulls*** B-Hop was spittin about McNabb. The fact that he can’t even sense the irony in his “establishment connections” attack says a lot. Like ay, homie, 40 of your 57 years have been spent in the same academic ivory tower that reared the those “elites” you despise. Lloyd Blankfein was one of your classmates….nigga please.

    I’m not even gonna touch on him complaining about not getting an inauguration ticket. “wahhh, I had to watch it on TV like a nobody!”

  11. Yeesh. The reason I’d never (not even for purposes of this rhetorical exercise) question Cornel West’s own “blackness” is because to do so would be racist on its face, and not just because I’m not black. Cornel West is an absolute titan of academia, with a book-length CV, moving in circles my lowly assistant-professor ass will never even glimpse. So to make any statement evaluating his authentic “blackness” would be more or less to imply that I think that “blackness” is somehow in tension with all that. Oh, you mean you think real African-Americans can’t have their stipple-portraits on the side of the Harvard Bookstore’s shopping bags?

    (Plus, there’s the awkward question of how we measure “authentic” blackness. Is it his rate of emission of some theoretical blackness particle, or is it a subjective score like in gymnastics, or some kind of a batting average-type calculation? Or do we just know it when we see it? Enlighten us, Dr. West.)

    Now, Cornel West writes and thinks about race all day, so maybe he really does have some special insight here. But even granting that, this reads like almost pathological projection if not outright jealousy. Light-skinned, irrepressibly intellectual, midwestern-TV-news-anchor-soundalike Barack Obama didn’t seem to have any real trouble relating to, ahem, “real” black communities before he got into politics, and for all that every single black Republican during the 2008 election got their own CNN special to explain why they were voting for McCain, I don’t recall any of them saying, “Well, Obama’s just not really black black, y’know?” I’m guessing West hasn’t always fared so well in that regard.

    Beyond some bland demographic averaging of what makes someone “typically” black (and by those numbers, Cornel West is not only not “black,” he hasn’t met a “white” person in decades, either) I don’t know what qualifies someone as a “proper” African-American. But clearly West thinks he does, and from reading this I’ll be damned if in his heart of hearts he thinks he measures up himself.

  12. Cornel West is who he is, & if Princeton wants to regard him (and pay him, exorbitantly) as a “college professor,” then we must defer to their judgement. Even if that judgement appears less sound than, say, Harvard’s in hiring Larry Summers as its president, for a while.

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