How Cornel West went from liberal media darling to pariah.
The first time I met Cornel West was at Disney World. He wasn’t hard to spot.
I didn’t want to bother him — I was with my in-laws, he was with a young member of his family — but just a few weeks after the rough-and-tumble primary season in which both of us dove headfirst into the Sanders campaign, I couldn’t get over the irony of two Berniebros passing in the night. And at Epcot of all places.
Despite the 90 degree weather, he was clad as always in the same black suit, the same white shirt. Except now, instead of that reverential band of cloth he wears around his collar, his shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, the collar spread out like a disco-era leisure suit. It was the only alteration of the iconic Brother West uniform that he would permit under the hot Orlando sun.
It was a much-deserved vacation for West. It’d been a rough few months on top of a rough few years. Only a couple of presidential cycles ago, West was on stage in Harlem, exchanging embraces with then–Senator Obama. But now, West finds himself in a strange place. After his public break with the Obama presidency, the same liberal intelligentsia that once championed West has not only thrown him overboard, but seems to delight in making a public spectacle of their scorn for a man they claim is little more than “embittered” after being “spurned” by the first black president.
Long beloved by liberals as the premier black public intellectual, West is now rejected by the same crowd of Democratic Party apparatchiks that first helped him shoot to fame through television appearances, countless books, a hip-hop album, and even an onscreen role in The Matrix sequels. The Nation’s Joan Walsh has said that West is in the midst of a “tragic meltdown.” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart — the same man who tried to claim a photo of Sanders at a 1962 civil rights sit-in was fraudulent — has called West “no better than a Birther.”
Michael Eric Dyson, in one of the weirder and more personalized anti-West takedowns, published what can only be called a scornful ten-thousand-word breakup letter to his former mentor. Dyson, the Georgetown professor and Aspen Institute regular, spent one particularly lengthy section of his New Republic essay “ranking” black public intellectuals’ prowess according to their equivalent prizefighter. West was given the rank of Mike Tyson.
All of this led up to the great left/liberal schism of 2016 that was Sanders vs. Clinton. As Dyson, Capehart, and Walsh lined up firmly behind the increasingly miserable Clinton campaign, West found himself allied first with Bernie Sanders and later Green Party candidate Jill Stein. At the height of Sanders-mania, while Dyson, Walsh, and Capehart were delivering cringeworthy apologetics for Clinton, West was working with the Sanders campaign in the South, touring black churches and colleges in support of the social-democratic political revolution. In more than a few of these events, he sat alongside Adolph Reed, the man who had written a classic excoriation of both West and Dyson and their entire field of “black public intellectuals.”
The irony of West literally sharing the stage with Reed was lost on few. Written in the 1990s, Reed’s “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?” reads like prophecy today. The black public intellectual, in “Drums,” was a “freelance race spokesman; his status depended on designation by white elites rather than by any black electorate or social movement” only able to claim that status thanks to a long period of depoliticization. His role was to thus interpret “the opaquely black heart of darkness for whites.”
Unsurprisingly, this role fits perfectly within the brokerage model of politics that the Democratic Party has so heavily relied on for years to enact an agenda that is increasingly at odds with the material needs of most black voters. In the original essay, Reed found perhaps the clearest articulation of this role in West’s work up to that point — referencing West-isms like the call for a “love ethic” and a “politics of conversion.”
But in the Obama era, black public intellectuals find themselves in a curious position. It’s a difficult balancing act — how to keep “interpreting the drums” for the Democratic Party elite, as Reed’s argument goes, while staying friendly with that same party that’s overseen a mass economic immiseration of working-class Americans and an exploding carceral state (both of which disproportionately affect black Americans).
The contradictions in this relationship grow even starker as the rhetorical victories have stacked up. Today, even Silicon Valley CEOs proudly proclaim that “Black Lives Matter.” The discourse of diversity and the grad student seminar has become entrenched in everything from television criticism to celebrity tabloids. The Obama years have been a boon to the salaried intellectual class of all races, but lean times for the working-class constituents whose needs, hopes, and desires the black intellectual class vies to interpret for white audiences. What is the role of the black public intellectual when the discourse of “race relations” is now perhaps the liberal class’s preferred way — some would say only way — of talking about our never-ending barrage of social injustices?
Needless to say, the Obama era has been a hell of a trip for Brother West. As the analytical role of black public intellectual became increasingly unable to explain the growing social inequalities in American life, West bolted from the political mainstream to the margins. Where he once shared the stage with President Obama, he now occupies it with people like Revolutionary Communist Party leader Bob Avakian. While the Hillary Clinton campaign enlisted the Democratic Party’s black bourgeoisie to batten down the hatches against the Sanders threat, West assailed the Obama legacy as one of illusory racial uplift alongside the material reality of a post-crash society in which single black women were left with a median net worth of five dollars.
When Clinton’s black surrogates shamelessly accused Sanders of racial aloofness, West fought back using the same rhetoric of a “black public intellectual” that had helped build his career. But now, he was attempting to forge that same language into a weapon of social-democratic demystification, wielding it against the Clintonite fog of cultural studies jargon, meritocratic appeals, and subtle free-market apologetics.
It was always doomed. To no one’s surprise, West’s exhaustive intervention failed. No matter how much he vied with his former comrades for the “black public consciousness,” Clinton swept the South by even larger margins than anyone had expected. The same brokerage politics of racial authenticity that had, decades ago, delivered black votes to the Clinton machine weren’t about to win them away for a seventy-four-year-old senator few had heard of. The Wests of the world can deliver only righteousness and fiery passions. Congressmen Jim Clyburn and John Lewis can deliver jobs, networks, and targeted legislation.
As much as West tries to summon what he calls “the black prophetic tradition” in order to make it work for the democratic-socialist agenda he sincerely believes in, the battle over that discourse has long since been lost. The Democratic Party has only grown more skilled at “interpreting the drums,” even as it continues to abandon or rewrite historical commitments to trade unions and social insurance programs — commitments that disproportionately benefited black Americans.
We live in an era in which Clinton — who proudly supported mass incarceration and the obliteration of welfare — declares that a social-democratic program of financial reform and single-payer health insurance “won’t end racism.” A recent WikiLeaks publication of internal Clinton campaign emails reveals another line they were testing out against Sanders: “Wall Street is not gunning down young African Americans or denying immigrants a path to citizenship.”
It’s a sentiment that would’ve bewildered civil rights veterans like A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr, John P. Davis, Bayard Rustin, and Lester Granger, all of whom were committed to social-democratic politics as a crucial means of putting racism on a path towards ultimate extinction. The tragedy of West isn’t that he’s “full of bitterness,” as his liberal detractors claim. It’s that the politics of West’s “black prophetic tradition,” try as he might to wield them for socialist ends, will today find their strongest, clearest articulation in the same old quest of “interpreting the drums” for a mostly white ruling class.
Earlier in the primary season, during an interview on the Real News Network, West directly called out the black elite — whom he calls “the lumpenbourgeoisie” — for abandoning “the black prophetic tradition” for “individual upward mobility” and the “formation of the black professional class.” As he put it, “Black folk for the most part became just extensions of a milquetoast neoliberal Democratic Party. But Adolph Reed and a host of others told this story many years ago. It’s becoming much more crystallized. We have to be willing to tell the truth no matter how unpopular it is.”
West didn’t hesitate to proclaim that his biggest left-wing critic had been right all along. But the fact that he felt betrayed by this “lumpenbourgeoisie” in the first place only shows the limits of this political vision and the power of Reed’s original critique. After all, why would a “lumpenbourgeoisie” act different than any bourgeoisie? A vision of a harmonious insular black “community” without any internal class tensions might sound appealing to some in 2016 — particularly to the Democratic Party — but it’s a delusion no serious leftist can afford to entertain.
But as tragic as West’s crusade can appear, the sincerity of his commitment to a more just and egalitarian world — and the righteousness of his passion — cannot be called into question. Those who, like Michael Eric Dyson, claim that West’s political commitments now derive from nothing more than hurt feelings over unreturned phone calls to Barack are either not paying attention or shamelessly projecting their own guilty consciences onto West.
As soon as Sanders laid down his arms and endorsed Clinton, West was already on the trail for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, telling Bill Maher that “the Clinton train — Wall Street, security, surveillance, militarism — that’s not going in the same direction I’m going . . . she’s a neoliberal.” And while many criticisms of the Green Party’s electoral myopia are warranted, it’s impossible not to respect West’s drawing a line in the sand against the Democrats — a party he sees as irredeemable. If his break with Obama made him “sad and bitter,” one can only wonder what his elite critics think of him now.
The truth is that Cornel West is being punished for choosing a genuine commitment to a more egalitarian society over the faux radicalism (and career opportunities) of the DNC and MSNBC black intelligentsia. On an appearance on late-night television a couple years ago, David Letterman pitched him a softball question on the overall improvement in “race relations.” Instead, West chastised Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder for their inaction on police violence: “It’s a question of what kind of persons do you have, not just black faces.” After Letterman pointed out how at least things had improved for the LGBT population, West countered: “The system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43 percent of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper–middle class and above, but the gay poor, the lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell . . . It’s not just black. It’s white. It’s brown. It’s the structure of a system . . . it’s worse [than ever].”
I was thinking about that when I stuck my sweaty hand out to shake West’s on the Epcot promenade. I was also thinking about the first time I ever heard him speak in public. It was at Left Forum just before Occupy Wall Street and just after the Wisconsin protests and the Arab Spring. And while I’ve never been shy about poking fun at that venue’s tendency towards “Comic Con for Alternative Politics,” that year was different. It felt like that disparate coalition of marginal ideologies we call “the radical left” was beginning to cohere into something. And West’s fiery speech that day made that possibility feel just within reach. Sure, there were a few airy West-isms and of course weaving in references to his favorite musicians as sources of potential “radicalization” trickling through the culture (“listen to a little Curtis Mayfield, listen to a little Bob Dylan, listen to a little Bruce Springsteen, listen to a little Aretha — her birthday’s on Monday!”).
But it didn’t matter. Because for the first time in years, it seemed like something really was happening. And the man on stage was the perfect one to give voice to that excitement, to that first hint of a lifelong passion and commitment. I remember looking around the auditorium: the young, this new generation who would soon file out in Occupy and, a few years later, join the Sanders campaign, were hanging on his every word as they listened to West define what it meant to be radical, what it meant to be on the Left. “That means we cut radically against the grain of the last forty years, especially in the American empire, where we have been told lies. Unfettered markets generating self-sufficiency, prosperity, and justice is a lie!. . . Wall Street oligarchs and the corporate elites are sucking so much of the blood of American democracy in such a way that more and more people are just useless, superfluous. And they don’t care! They think that they can get away with it because there’s been no resistance of large scale! And they think in the end, the chickens don’t come home to roost, that you don’t reap what you sow . . . we simply say at Left Forum,” and here he backed away from the mic, lowered his voice and smiled, “We stand for the truth.” People were on their feet, exploding in applause.While West’s reputation has suffered greatly among liberals, it has never been better among socialists. And while still marginal, after the Sanders challenge to the entire liberal class, ours is a corner with some confidence now. West is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America and his reputation for generosity among younger members is unparalleled. He seemingly has time for everyone. Especially those who offer him nothing in career opportunities or elite respectability.
Unlike his former student Dyson, I doubt Cornel West will be receiving any new invitations to the Aspen Institute, at least for the time being. The Democratic Party and MSNBC elite may hate him, and we might quibble about the usefulness of his conversations with Bob Avakian, but it seems at long last Brother West has found his home.