Malbreaux: The Cornel West Wing

A controversial academic is coming to Dartmouth, and you should care.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 4/20/17 12:15am

While finishing problem sets at a dimly lit desk around 1 a.m. this past Thursday, a phone notification called to me the arrival of a fresh batch of news from Vox Daily. Scrolling through the typical quotes and announcements, I noticed that the outspoken “brother” — as he affectionately calls everyone — Cornel West will be visiting campus on April 27 to deliver a lecture on the importance of the humanities in the President Donald Trump era.

Given his provocative style and radical, socialist views, I am surprised he is not well known amongst most students I have spoken to. Dartmouth students I have encountered either do not know him at all or can only describe vague instances of hearing his name without recalling anything else about him. One would think that at a center-left school like Dartmouth, West’s works would be, at the very least, familiar to the average humanities major.

In black intellectual circles, though, West’s name carries a lot of weight. He has held professorships at the most elite institutions, including Harvard University, Yale University and Princeton University. His books “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters” have topped bestseller lists and sold thousands of copies. Yet it seems that his influence has waned over the years.

But why? His self-described “black prophetic tradition,” similar to the styles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, once made him popular with many, from political leaders to celebrities like Sean “Diddy” Combs (West was once asked to attend Combs’ gun possession and bribery trial for “moral support”). However, since the election of former President Barack Obama in 2008, West’s public profile has deviated from that of the all-wise civil rights leader toward the more outlandish radical that critiques almost every other black political leader that does not agree with him. The result has been a rebuke of West by the mainstream black political establishment and the decline in West’s popularity.

His downward trend in the eyes of the black community began with a public feud with Melissa Harris-Perry, then a professor at Princeton University. The African-American studies department at Princeton University, where West taught at the time, had recruited Harris-Perry as an associate professor in 2006. After being denied a full professorship by the African-American studies department, Harris-Perry left Princeton to teach at Tulane University in New Orleans. West saw Harris-Perry’s book “Sister Citizen” as an academically unimportant text that did not hold up to Princeton’s standards.

“There’s not a lot of academic stuff with her, just a lot of twittering,” West said in an interview with Diverse magazine, calling her book “wild and out of control.”

West did not stop at Harris-Perry, however. An ardent supporter of Obama during the 2008 presidential election, he quickly became a critic following Obama’s inauguration. He accused Obama of not being a true progressive, instead referring to him as a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” In 2013, he likened Obama’s use of drone strikes in the Middle East to George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, calling Obama a “global George Zimmerman.” On an airing of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” he went to the extreme of calling Obama a war criminal, along with every other U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.

Obama’s allies are not safe from West, either. He called Rev. Al Sharpton a “mascot” for the administration, working in the metaphorical fields of the “Obama Plantation.” Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State in Obama’s administration, was also, according to West, one of the many neoliberals — he uses this term pejoratively — who were puppets of the Wall Street machine and did not care about the plight of blacks and minorities in undeveloped communities.

I do not wish to say that West’s claims are completely baseless. Obama’s drone strikes killed at least 117 civilians during his presidency — and even that high figure is called too low by some human rights groups and media figures. It is also true that, while the unemployment rate decreased during Obama’s presidency, black unemployment remains at 8.8 percent as of last year, twice as high as it is for whites. But to scold Obama with such degrading remarks — to call him a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats” — should be below West’s stature. Furthermore, it is a mischaracterization of the Obama legacy of attempting to end societal ills in minority communities.

Maybe West does not factor in the amount of political capital needed to advance complex policy priorities when assessing Obama’s presidency. After all, West is somewhat removed from the plight of the nation’s poorer communities, as his current home in Cambridge, Massachusetts is not afflicted with the kind of poverty that, say, the South Side of Chicago faces. In addition, spending most of his life learning and teaching in elite institutions makes West prone to accepting idealistic solutions to messy, real-world problems. Even though West considered Obama’s use of drones to be reckless, he never mentioned that the number of slain non-combatants in wars has diminished in recent years thanks to drones’ technological precision. While the loss of innocent lives is always tragic, the increased use of drones has prevented the need for unnecessary deaths that could be caused by deploying U.S. troops to unstable regions.

Even though I think his rhetoric can be abrasive and incendiary, I look forward to attending West’s lecture. His contributions to academia should place him alongside some of the greatest thinkers of our time. With a little bit of careful reframing of his ideas, I think West could reintegrate back into the political mainstream of the black intelligentsia and cement his legacy in American black political thought.