Cornel West rejects attempts by neoliberals to co-opt him

In an interview, the fiery academic activist West defends his harsh criticism of Barack Obama and the neoliberal establishment that he and Hillary Clinton represented. He says he has no regrets because he spoke the truth. He also makes some pointed remarks about the state of elite black political leadership and media figures.

When I said drone strikes are crimes against humanity, when I said Obama bailed out Wall Street rather than Main Street — I shall forever support that. I was just speaking to the reality that people are hurting, and we have to do the same thing under Trump as we did under Obama.

Q: In the original introduction to “Race Matters,” you wrote that there was a crisis of black leadership. Now we’re seeing this whole new generation of black activists: Black Lives Matter, or even N.F.L. athletes taking a knee during the national anthem. Do you still see this crisis?

Well, I was talking about the crisis of black elite leadership. When it comes to black leaders, if the model is to be successful but not publicly attack white supremacy — well, then that’s really about success to fit in. Fitting in, in a neoliberal world, is to be well adjusted to injustice. I’ll give you an example: Dear brother Ta-Nehisi Coates has just come out with a new book.

Q: Yes. “We Were Eight Years in Power.”

Who’s the “we”? When’s the last time he’s been through the ghetto, in the hoods, to the schools and indecent housing and mass unemployment? We were in power for eight years? My God. Maybe he and some of his friends might have been in power, but not poor working people.

Q: There are a lot of black intellectuals dissecting these issues. Coates is just one them.

That’s true. But I mention him because he is currently the darling of the white and black neoliberal establishment.

At the end, he talks about Malcolm X.

Remember what James Baldwin said about Malcolm X? He said that Malcolm X was one of the most gentle men he ever met. He exemplified tenderness. Now, was Malcolm’s language tender? Hell, no. He had to be very harsh in talking about harsh conditions, but it doesn’t mean he’s not a tender person. I believe in tenderness, but I’m not going to be tender for those folk who are engaging in policies that crush poor working people, women, gays, lesbians, trans people, black people, indigenous people. No, no, no, no, not at all.

I remember that when I saw the film Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington, I felt that in his otherwise excellent portrayal, he missed an important element of Malcolm’s personality and that was his sense of humor. You cannot read his writings, listen to his speeches, and see him in action in informal settings and not notice his sharp wit and, yes, good humor. It is true that he was angry about the way that black people were treated in America (who wouldn’t be?) and spoke about it in uncompromising terms, but that was not the only side to him. I would have loved to have spent an evening with him. It would have been intellectually stimulating and there would have been a lot of laughter.


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