Race has often been called the “third rail of politics,” so it stands to reason that people would prefer to avoid one of those Great National Conversations on Race™ by focusing on distractions and dog-whistles. We see this often whenever President Obama’s race becomes a story, most often in the context of birth certificates, fist bumps and food stamps. We can now add inauguration tickets and phone calls to that list.
On last night’s edition of The Ed Show, both Princeton professor Cornel West and his soon-to-be former colleague (and MSNBC contributor) Melissa Harris-Perry were interviewed (separately) concerning a Truthdig column in which Dr. West is deemed President Obama’s “voice of conscience,” there to sway the president away from neo-liberal influences and toward humanist policy that rescues the working class. In the column (and speaking to Ed) Dr. West, who campaigned for candidate Obama in 2008, spoke of his disappointment with the president’s lack of “backbone”:
More and more working people are beaten down. They are world-weary. They are into self-medication. They are turning on each other. They are scapegoating the most vulnerable rather than confronting the most powerful. It is a profoundly human response to panic and catastrophe. I thought Barack Obama could have provided some way out. But he lacks backbone.
Dr. West’s disappointment is in part personal, and he admits as much. He points to the increased infrequency with which candidate Obama would return his phone calls, all leading up to the ultimate insult:
And then as it turns out with the inauguration I couldn’t get a ticket with my mother and my brother. I said this is very strange. We drive into the hotel and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration.
So here we have a tenured Ivy League professor reacting to a working-class guy having a ticket when the Ivy League professor does not – the same working-class guy Dr. West claims to represent in his critiques of President Obama’s economic policies.
And then Dr. West delves into the president’s race:
“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West says. “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 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.
In her column at The Nation published prior to her appearance with Ed, Dr. Harris-Perry criticized Dr. West’s lack of acknowledgement of political realities, particularly when comparing the president’s political term with their academic tenure:
As tenured professors Cornel West and I are not meaningfully accountable, no matter what our love, commitment, or self-delusions tell us. President Obama, as an elected official, can, in fact, be voted out of his job. We can’t….I think an honest critique of Obama has to begin by acknowledging his own privileges.
Obama’s struggle to find peace with himself is essentially the opposite of “deracination,” a term that takes on all the force of an epithet here. Obama is lambasted as a Kenyan anti-colonialist by the likes of Newt Gingrich, and as a wide-eyed surrogate of “upper middle class white and Jewish men” by the likes of West. To have one group of morons question your citizenship while others question your blackness.
Adam asks us to consider of both the president and Dr. West, “Which of these men do you think, is actually free, and which afraid of who he truly is?”