There are some in the Black community who feel that the controversy ignited after Dr. Cornel West slandered President Obama is counterproductive. Dr. West of Princeton University accused President Obama of being “a Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” He then went on to say that Obama was threatened by “a free Black man.” Critics of the resulting firestorm against Cornel West dismiss it as nothing but an exercise in Black intellectual elitists contemplating their navels and airing the Black community’s dirty laundry in public.
In her article, “Cornel West: The Fallout Continues Over Obama Comments,” that appeared in The Root, Dr. Nsenga Burton says the following:
“Isn’t it interesting that Black male commentators are using stereotypes ascribed to Black males to critique West, and diminishing his intellectual contributions in the process? Instead of a ‘bloody lip,’ in the game of dozens when one goes too far, West’s virtual ‘bloody lip’ is the result of blogosphere gone awry.”
The above take on this issue is so far off the mark on so many levels that I feel obliged to address much of it in the first person.
While admittedly, many of us will feel an innate visceral attachment to Dr. Burton’s argument, our commitment to logical thought should force us to reject it out of hand. First, every debate is a source of knowledge, so to say that any source of knowledge has “gone awry” is counterintuitive on its face. Secondly, I personally reject the entire concept of fixating on Black stereotyping. Allowing ourselves to become consumed by this issue is a gross waste of intellectual energy, since we should never allow our concern over what other people think to overwhelm our vision of how we see ourselves.
Instead of becoming obsessed with how others portray us, our energies should be directed toward living above any kind of negative stereotyping. That’s one of the things that Obama does so well, and it’s the primary reason why he’s hated so intensely by his enemies–both Black and White. To my knowledge, Obama hasn’t said a word in response to Dr. West’s tirade. He’s handling it just like he handled Donald Trump–instead of preaching us a sermon, he’s living us one. While there’s room to criticize any president, and I too have criticisms of Obama, every person in America should take great pride in the way that young brother represented this nation during his recent trip to Europe. That’s the way you address negative stereotyping, through excellence.
But even if we do take stereotyping into consideration, I don’t see what calling an idiotic statement idiotic has to do with Black stereotyping, that is, unless we consider Cornel West’s behavior representative of the quintessential Black man. If we do, and we feel that we have to hide it as “dirty laundry,” that suggests we feel that Black people corner the market on idiocy, a position that I would vigorously reject.
Dr. Burton’s position also seems to suggest that the ongoing debate occupies intellectual terrain that is somehow remote from the average Black person’s frame of reference. That’s the worst kind of stereotyping. Such a position is not only condescending to the Black community, but it also betrays an intellectual elitism that grossly underestimates the intelligence of the Black community.
She quotes me in the Black Star News as saying,
“The fact is, anyone who considers West’s remarks toward President Obama merely an objective and scholarly critique of the political environment needs to go back and take a refresher course in both freshman English and forensics. The comments directed at President Obama by Cornel West was nothing short of a racist and petty personal tirade by a woefully presumptuous and undisciplined mind. His comments were not only less than constructive and nonspecific, but they were also saturated with unsubstantiated personal attacks against the president. They were, indeed, Palinesque in both nature and intent.”
I stand by every syllable unequivocally, and I challenge anyone to show me where I was in error. Yet, Dr. Burton says the following regarding my comments, and the comments of others, attendant to this controversy:
“But we do hope that this plantation narrative that is spiraling out of control in the new-media space will right itself and become a discussion about something meaningful–explicit policies to protect the poor–as opposed to an abundance of attacks on a brother, even West, who admittedly was dead wrong. Bashing West the same way that he bashed Obama is hypocritical and is not moving the discussion, the intellectual community or this country forward.”
I find Dr. Burton’s position quite curious. Why is it that every other group in America feels free to debate and criticize one another ad nauseam, yet the minute we point out that Cornel West made a damn fool of himself it becomes “plantation” mentality? If we are ever to move forward in the Black community, we must feel just as free as any other segment of the population to call a hat a hat, and a fool a fool. If we embrace that as a tradition, maybe the next Cornel West will be much more circumspect before making a foolish and self-serving idiot of himself.
Thus, instead of refraining from criticizing fellow Blacks, we should do it much more often. If we’d spoken out more aggressively against Clarence Thomas we probably wouldn’t be suffering from his ignorance today. And frankly, I don’t see a discernable difference–a demagogue is a demagogue, regardless of political persuasion. If Obama would have embraced West after his election, believe me, West would have undoubtedly been one of Obama’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders. He’s clearly demonstrated his character in that regard.
So the fact is, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d been even more critical. Because if West is indeed as concerned about the Black community as he claims, he needs to resign from the rarified environment of Princeton and come teach third grade in the hood. If that’s too big a price to pay for the people he claims to love, he needs to just shut up and write a book; that way we’ll have a choice as to whether or not we want to listen to him.
And by the way, I am far from an Obama cheerleader: http://wattree.blogspot.com/2011/01/obama-supporters-vs-cheerleaders.html. The only reason I have to point that out is because Tavis Smiley and West have muddied the waters so badly that when we speak out, we must now convince one another that we’re not just lackeys for either one side or the other. That’s a gross disservice to both the Black community, and America.
Eric L. Wattree
Citizens Against Reckless Middle-Class Abuse (CARMA)