Thursday, August 11, 2011

President Obama's Strange Snub Of Prominent African Americans

I ran across this article by Chris Hedges detailing the little-known rift (I didn't know about it until I read this) between Cornel West, a self-described "prominent and provocative democratic intellectual," and President Obama. I like Dr. West. The Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University is nothing if not provocative. He challenges our comfort zones on matters of race and privilege, on the real "class warfare" being waged by rich right wing oligarchs against the poor and the underclass, who are mostly but not exclusively black and latino. As an intellectual of the left, a black man who speaks truth to power, Dr. West isn't a favorite of the mainstream corporate media.

Yet, the article has to be taken with a grain of salt. It's one man's account of a presidential snub that is hard to reconcile with what most of us think we know of the President's public persona, often describe as his terminal "niceness." So it was jarring to read Dr. West's version of his last personal contact with President Obama, although his reference to the controlling Valerie Jarrett has the ring of truth:
Obama and West’s last personal contact took place a year ago at a gathering of the Urban League when, he says, Obama “cussed me out.” Obama, after his address, which promoted his administration’s championing of charter schools, approached West, who was seated in the front row.

“He makes a bee line to me right after the talk, in front of everybody,” West says. “He just lets me have it. He says, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself, saying I’m not a progressive. Is that the best you can do? Who do you think you are?’ I smiled. I shook his hand. And a sister hollered in the back, ‘You can’t talk to professor West. That’s Dr. Cornel West. Who do you think you are?’ You can go to jail talking to the president like that. You got to watch yourself. I wanted to slap him on the side of his head.

“It was so disrespectful,” he went on, “that’s what I didn’t like. I’d already been called, along with all [other] leftists, a “F’ing retard” by Rahm Emanuel because we had critiques of the president.”

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, has, West said, phoned him to complain about his critiques of Obama. Jarrett was especially perturbed, West says, when he said in an interview last year that he saw a lot of Malcolm X and Ella Baker in Michelle Obama. Jarrett told him his comments were not complimentary to the first lady.
This sounds like something Valerie Jarrett would say. Ever since the President unceremoniously threw Van Jones under the bus once Glenn Beck and the wingnut propaganda machine of Limbaugh and Fox smeared him as a Marxist, the White House (Jarrett, evidently) has seemed phobic about presenting President Obama as anything beyond the enigmatic milquetoast that so puzzles us. Because, honestly, I believe Dr. West was quite complimentary of the First Lady. Only a narrow-minded person, or the legions of racist and ignorant Obama-haters, could possibly think otherwise. It's fruitless to speak their talking points — "fair and balanced." They cannot be won over and they will not vote for the President.

I have this nagging suspicion that if Mr. Obama's presidency continues to go south with its conservative and corporatist triangulations, its Hamlet vacillations, ignoring progressives and mangling its message, as it gets into a defensive risk-averse crouch when bold leadership is required, that Jarrett will bear much responsibility for these failings. She may be to President Obama what Bert Lance was to Jimmy Carter and Don Regan was to Reagan. And that's not good. Long-time "family friends" of presidents in sensitive White House perches — literally carrying a ministry without portfolio — can be lethal to a president's success. Just saying.

I do not agree with it, but I can sort of understand why President Obama, at Jarrett's urging, would decide to marginalize and ostracize Dr. West. But to treat Tavis Smiley, a compelling and articulate advocate for the poor, the underprivileged, the wrongly imprisoned, the armies of the chronically unemployed; to treat Tavis with the same neglect, even disdain, isn't just asinine — it's beyond the pale:

African American unemployment in America stands not at 9.3 percent, but at 16 percent. For our first African American president to countenance this without doing anything of significance to address it is disgraceful. Go ahead, Mr. President. Pass the buck to an unconstitutional "super committee" in Congress to cut and slash entitlements from those who can least afford it, while giving the rich another free ride. Now that the markets are down, you'll have an excuse not to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire. Once Baucus flips, you'll have a neat "Voodoo economics" Republican/Tea Party package ready for your signature. ("Signed, sealed, delivered — I'm yours: Tea Party.")

But should you ever feel the moral obligation, the righteous pull to propose an FDR-style government jobs program, at least target it to those who are hardest-hit; the 16 percent African American unemployed. Do it for them, sir. And damn your critics.

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