There are levels upon levels of complexity and nuance in the Cornel West vs. Barack Obama fracas. As I hinted at earlier, there is some serious inside baseball going on here that will inevitably come to light--especially as more public intellectual academic types join the rumble.
Some have suggested that the election of Barack Obama was a moment wherein the old guard of the Afrotocracy was forced to face their obsolescence. From Jesse's desire to crush Obama's nuts, Reverend Wright's powerful truth telling, to Dr. West's hurt feelings and wanting to son the President for "not being a free black man," divides between the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights generation are inevitable. The question remains unanswered if these differences are either healthy and/or helpful to the long, glorious Black Freedom Struggle.
Moreover, the West vs. Obama episode does not signal the end of "identity politics" as some have over-reached in suggesting. As long as there are White people there will be identity politics in this country. As long as there are Black people there will be black politics, black political interests, and a black agenda. And with the "browning" of America race will remain salient, precisely because it is a cognitive map that we use to navigate the world. Ultimately, the "race business" is really a reflection of how deeply white supremacy structures this country's social and political institutions.
Eminent Professor Joe Feagin (an amazing sociologist and all around nice guy by the way who I finally met a few months ago while he was here in Chicago) has some words of wisdom and measured reflection on President Obama's challenge in navigating the perilous straits of being the first President who happens to be black. On his site Racism Review, Dr. Feagin makes the sharp observation that:
Over at The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, also a Princeton professor, is very critical of West for his personalizing attack on Obama’s heritage and whitewashed background, even as a hypocritical West himself has lived in a mostly white world since adulthood, especially as a professor at elite white universities. However, like several others, her critique is almost entirely about West’s own life and personal situation, but she mostly ignores West’s on-target structural critique of Obama’s (obligatory?) selling out to corporate America.
Indeed, West is correct that working class and strong progressive, especially independent and forthright black, Americans have very few prominent voices in the top ranks of the Obama administration, including just one cabinet member not from the political or economic establishment. What the critiques of West leave unsaid is that what West is focusing most on how individual black success in U.S. politics, as for Obama, has not meant significant advances for black Americans as a group, nor for Americans of color collectively.
Indeed, what is missing from West’s own critical analysis is the next obvious question: Why does the “not independent” Obama play up to the interests and issues of the dominant white elite and larger white population? This is not a character flaw, but rather about the foundational reality and continuing strength of the white racist system. That is the elephant in the room that not even West calls out.
As I and my colleagues have argued before, black candidates for state and national political offices, like President Obama, cannot adopt, even occasionally, a black counter-framed perspective on the action necessary to deal with the extensive discrimination and severe socioeconomic problems faced by black communities and other communities of color, and expect to win. Even in part, black candidates cannot articulate what they will do to deal with extensive racial discrimination and related racial problems if they are elected, yet when white candidates tell white communities what they will do for them, almost no one accuses them of “playing the race card.”
In contrast, black candidates need only to touch on issues of developing anti-discrimination and desegregation programs for black Americans and other people of color, and they are often called out as biased or extremist...
White candidates and elected politicians regularly take action openly benefiting white communities. Although Obama has not ignored the needs of communities of color in his presidency, he has had to take modest action, and that quietly, to benefit the black community, such as on improving funding for black colleges.
The questions surrounding race, identity, group interests, loyalty, and the symbolic power of America's first Black President--and his obligations (if any) to the African American community--are not going away anytime soon. At times, it is necessary to state the obvious. President Obama is not perfect. He is a man who happens to be both black and the President of the United States. He is not a magical salve or a superhero. And as hard as this is for some to hear, Obama's blackness and his presidency are coincidental--and given America's history, almost mutually exclusive to one another.
I have thought much on the following point and am surprised that more have not signaled to it: Obama as a "first" carries the burdens and dreams of so many on his shoulders. Sadly, realpolitik demands that he disappoint even as he blazes a trail forward. Obama is a consummate politician. His success in that milieu is a twisted sort of progress, for in a way he is just like all the others. That my friends is the unintended (or was it intentional?) consequence of the triumph of "colorblind" politics in the post-Civil Rights moment.
In total, disappointment knows no boundaries of color, race, or creed, for disappointment and compromise are the cement of politics both before and after the Age of Obama. That is a reality which will not change anytime soon. We should learn to accept it, even as we push Obama to be more true to the progressive vision he offered during the campaign.