CORNEL WEST: ‘Obama is the pinacle and the end of the American Dream’

The American elections are this fall’s hottest news item. And in the centre of global attention is Barack Obama. Time for a conversation with one of the most respected African-American intellectuals: Cornel West. He supports Obama ‘because McCain is merely a continuation of the disastrous Bush policies’, but he does have some doubts concerning Obama’s social and economical points of view.
According to Robert Newman, vice president of the University of Utah, ‘for more than two decennia now, Cornel West is one of the most influential, diverse and challenging academics in American higher education institutions’. West earned this reputation by writing seventeen books, among which political-philosophical bestsellers as Race Matters (1993) and Democracy Matters (2004). He lectures religion at the prestigious Princeton University, but at the same time made two rap-cd’s – the latest one, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, with the cooperation of celebrities like Prince, KRS-1 and Jill Scott. That is the reason why West was one of the black intellectuals Barack Obama consulted when his appeal to African-American voters seemed to be less strong than of his then rival Hillary Clinton.

It is hard to get hold of Cornel West as he is always on the road. Up to again another lecture, a congress in Brazil, or to some prize-giving event. But once on the line, conversation nor time are restrained. West makes his answers sound like a combination of the god-fearing gospel of his grandfather-preacher and the always aggrieved rappers whom his children and grandchildren adore. His criticism of hip-hop culture, fascinated as it is with bling and oversized cars, raps with ringing echoes of Martin Luther King: ‘We have to shift from bling-bling to Let Freedom Ring’.
Your most famous book is Race Matters. Obama has gone to great lengths to show that race does not matter. Who’s right?
Cornel West: I still hope that we are actually saying the same. When I say that race matters, I mean that people of colour are important, that their sufferings are important and that their problems still need to be addressed. And most importantly, that this challenge should not be hidden behind the success of just one black American who could be on his way to the White House. You can not talk about race or color without referring to class and social inequality.
Do you feel that Obama has a political program that addresses the expectations of Americans of colour?
Cornel West: Not really, I’m afraid. Look at who advises him on economical issues - Robin Rubin, Larry Summers, Paul Volcker– and you immediately recognize the same neoliberal personalities that dominated policy-making during the Clinton administration. Time after time they failed to take the opportunity to do something about this country’s poverty and racism. Clinton’s policy resulted in a war against the poor, with more and longer imprisonments for the poor and more inequality. This economical position could be an election strategy, a way to win the votes of the middle class. But the worst-case-scenario is also possible: that Obama is a true neoliberal who will continue these policies of inequality. In this second case, we will need a strong movement to exert pressure from the grassroots up.
Does a sufficiently strong social movement to mobilize such a pressure exist in the United States?
Cornel West: Barack Obama is very good at translating into words the hopes and imagination of many idealist Americans – millions of men and women - who devote themselves to all kinds of social justice organizations. Most of these people now side with Obama, if only because McCain is so massively conservative. But this also means they will not just let it happen when possible president Obama disappoints them by setting a neoliberal course.
A disappointment that by the way has already begun with his support for Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel – to gain the Jewish votes – and with his support for possession of arms, tapping phones and death penalty.
If so many Americans fight for social justice, why are they so invisible in the existing balance of power?
Cornel West: The United States have gone through about forty years of political Ice Age, in which it was very fashionable to be indifferent to the problems of vulnerable fellow-citizens. This right-wing hegemony makes the voices of opposition invisible. For example, there was a huge and powerful resistance against the Iraq war, although we lost that battle at the time. Meanwhile public opinion has switched and the majority of the Americans realize that we are fighting a very wrong war out there.
The two-party system in the US makes it extremely hard to bring real democratic feelings to the surface of the political system, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. The appearance of Obama on the political scene doesn’t bring an end to that ice age, but it does create a very real chance that America’s citizens will wake up from their years of sleepwalking. Obama will – if elected president – however not be judged by his symbolic value, but on whether he truly realizes changes for the poor. According to the polls, Obama now has the support of 91 percent of all black Americans. At the same time more than 80 percent of black Americans want a system of universal health care, 75 percent of them is in favor of massive investments of the government in education, day-care, employment… For years now, we have been talking about some sort of Marshall plan for poor America. It is time to make that happen now.
Are black organizations willing to criticize the person who can become the first black African president of the US?
Cornel West:  Indeed, that will be very difficult. But people like Tavis Smiley, one of the most prominent Afro-American media celebrities, already warn for the hysteria and hype – although that hasn’t gained him much love from the audience. At the same time I don’t want to ignore the symbolic importance of the candidacy and a possible victory of Barack Obama. The fact that a black man could be president after centuries of the cruelest racism is the American Dream in the true meaning of the word. At the same this high point just might forever prove the emptiness of that same American Dream. Because the poverty of black Americans will not disappear. Schools will continue to be in bad condition. The deteriorisation of houses, inaccessible health care, wages too low to survive: all that will continue. And that will show that the success of one individual doesn’t make the difference. A black face in the White House is nice, but not if he lacks the courage to fight poverty. In other words, Barack Obama will have to break the ideological model that dominates the whole world ever since Margaret Tatcher.
In order to do so, he will not only need the support of progressives, but also from the religious side. And this religious America seems to have attached itself to the neoliberal or neoconservative political powers.
Cornel West: That is true. In fact, this is an area in which progressive America should really learn from black America. Throughout American history, black leaders and freedom fighters have linked the language of deep democracy to the language of prophetic Christianity. This is of utmost importance in a country in which 96 percent of the people believe in God, 72 percent in the fact that Jesus Christ is the son of God and half of them pray at least three times a week. If within this context you engage in a battler over ideas without the language of faith, you can never reach the masses. And that language needs to be real, true, credible. As with Martin Luther King. Or Tavis Smiley, whose book The Covenant with Black America – about the responsibility of the black community for each other – in a few months time sold about half a million copies. No New York Times review, no little chat with Oprah Winfrey. And still that massive success among the black community, while white Americans never heard of it. Segregation is still a very tangible reality in the United States.
How important is that fact to explain Obama’s popularity?
Cornel West: It mostly explains why it was so important to give Michelle Obama a bigger part in the campaign. You shouldn’t forget that Barack Obama, from the perspective of the US, doesn’t have any Negro in his ancestry. But his wife Michelle originates from families who have known centuries of slavery, apartheid, hatred and discrimination. That is a totally different emotive subject. You will never hear sister Michelle saying that race nor color matter. She knows what it means to be a Negro, to be black, having to fight against white supremacy. Just because she embodies that history so much, she is being attacked much more viciously than Barack.
This summer Barack Obama has already been celebrated in Europe and the Middle East. Does that strengthen his position in the US?
Cornel West: I think so, because the majority of Americans is worried by the worldwide negative image of their country, their government, their fellow citizens. The enthousiasm Obama created in Europe sounds promising to the Americans.
Why didn’t he travel to Latin-America?
Cornel West: Because he realizes very well that the Latin-Americans want more than hopeful promises of vague changes. Countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela are not waiting for a new face. They want content and tangible changes. Latin-America at this point is literally the vanguard of a worldwide resistance to neoliberal globalization. Just look at how in no time they have freed themselves from the restraint of the IMF. For example, I love the way Hugo Chavez invests the wealth of his country in real improvements of the life of the poor, although it frightens me when I see how he approaches the rights and freedoms of his citizens.
Does that shift to the left influence Latino voters in the US?
Cornel West: No, although I would like it to. But I fear that most Latin-American immigrants in the US are too happy to have made it to the Land of Opportunities. So they stay at a safe distance from the progressive politics that win the day in their home countries. And the Obama-campaign has done hardly anything concerning Latin-America. The team delivering the ideas for Obama’s foreign policy is full of people with a Clinton-background. Which doesn’t promise any good.
Is a return to the Clinton period not preferable to a continuation of the Bush administration?
Cornel West: It sure is. But I prefer policies that aren’t based on neoliberal globalization or on domination of the world. Because it is globalization that has forced people back into ethnic and fundamentalist defensive positions. What we need now is a new story, showing people the possibility of a democratic identity transcending all tribal, family and religious belongings.
Are young Americans open to that kind of civic identity?
Cornel West: Of course they are, when you talk with them in a way they recognize and understand. That is the reason why I chose to involve myself in rap music. You can call it ‘danceable education’ or a singing Socratic conversation. These cd’s open up the possibility to ask my questions and bring my message on stages where otherwise the only subjects are sex and gold. I’ve even been “Artist of the Week” on MTV for a week. Can you imagine, a professor from Princeton?
And that’s more than a freakshow? Do you really influence these circles?
Cornel West: Absolutely! One of the bestsellers in hiphop is Lupe Fiasco. He named one of his cd’s The Cool, after a lecture of mine he attended, in which I stated: “We should make it cool to be a freedom fighter again, we should make it cool to care about each other’s faith again, we should make it cool to link intellectual work with the fight for justice again …”
If a professor really rocks, he can have an impact on the youth?
Cornel West: You’re absolutely right, brother.

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