Bear with me, but in order for this article to be clearly understood, and to further that clarity into what I’m sure will be an interesting dialog amongst the TBSports readership, I’ve got to define some terms.
The first comes from the title. The best way I can describe “Approved Black” status is to say it is best exemplified by the looks on the faces of white liberals who are astounded to find out that as an educated black man, I am not an Obama supporter. You can see the words dropping out of their heads onto their tongues like a gumball machine, but they always seem to catch them before they violate their own precious codes of political correctness. They are dying to say bullshit like “But he’s YOUR people” or some other incredibly racist gem. Don’t even try to tell me there isn’t anything other than the most virulent form of racism in the idea that all black people are supposed to think alike based solely on our skin color.
This is where Cornel West comes in. You can catch a glimpse of what this guy is all about from the bio included in the article which I will be quoting.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. A current professor at Union Theological Seminary, he has also taught at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. The recipient of more than twenty honorary degrees, he has written many important books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters. He appears frequently on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, Democracy Now, CNN, C-SPAN, and other national and international media. He lives in New York City.
Basically, what that boils down to is he is an Ivy League blow-bag who has never had a single word he’s said challenged by the liberal intelligencia because to do so would be to violate the prime tenet of political correctness which dictates that ANYTHING critical of black people in any way, shape, or form is inherently racist, and more importantly, would put them in a position of taking on their own academic “Frankenstein.” The same Ivy League pointy-heads who concocted crap like “political correctness” created Cornel West, and now just like the monster they can’t control, he’s creating some big problems for them.
You have to understand that for the liberal intellectual elite in this country, the fact they got Barack Obama elected President is their supreme political accomplishment. It trumps all the other things they take credit for, because for the first time ever, the New American Left had real political power because they finally got middle America to buy their “Hope and Change” bullshit. The problem is now that those same middle Americans are realizing what a bill of goods they were sold, all the “traditional” Democratic/New American Left constituencies are supposed to be closing ranks around their embattled president. However, it seems Cornel West didn’t get the memo, as is evidenced by his recent article excoriating the President for the condition in which he perceives Black America to be.
The great irony of our time is that in the age of Obama the grand Black prophetic tradition is weak and feeble. Obama’s Black face of the American empire has made it more difficult for Black courageous and radical voices to bring critique to bear on the U.S. empire. On the empirical or lived level of Black experience, Black people have suffered more in this age than in the recent past. Empirical indices of infant mortality rates, mass incarceration rates, mass unemployment and dramatic declines in household wealth reveal this sad reality. How do we account for this irony? It goes far beyond the individual figure of President Obama himself, though he is complicit; he is a symptom, not a primary cause. Although he is a symbol for some of either a postracial condition or incredible Black progress, his presidency conceals the escalating levels of social misery in poor and Black America.
There’s a lot of buckshot in that paragraph, and much of it needs to be decoded.
First of all, watch that term “Black prophetic tradition;” West is going to use it approximately a billion times in this 1,000-word article. To save some time, instead of making you read the entirely of his piece to understand what it means, I’ll summate for you. “Black prophetic tradition” really means that there has been a shift in political power in this country, and it is a shift which is heading away from the Cornel Wests of the world. That’s why the majority of that paragraph bemoans all the same “social injustices” West and his ilk were crying about in the 1960s. That what makes the last sentence in that sentence so much more fun; notice how West blames Obama for this, but leaves himself “wiggle” room for later back-pedaling if needed. Keep that in mind as we continue through this.
Another thing which is crucial to note is the inclusion of the term “poor” in West’s appeal. That’s important because that way if he ever gets called out for this, he can always say “this isn’t a race thing, this is a socioeconomic thing.” I’ve got news for you…Cornel West cares about as much about poor people as much Kanye West cares about disabled people. That’s another thing which will become more apparent as we progress.
The leading causes of the decline of the Black prophetic tradition are threefold. First, there is the shift of Black leadership from the voices of social movements to those of elected officials in the mainstream political system. This shift produces voices that are rarely if ever critical of this system. How could we expect the Black caretakers and gatekeepers of the system to be critical of it? This shift is part of a larger structural transformation in the history of mid-twentieth-century capitalism in which neoliberal elites marginalize social movements and prophetic voices in the name of consolidating a rising oligarchy at the top, leaving a devastated working class in the middle, and desperate poor people whose labor is no longer necessary for the system at the bottom.
The key to translating this paragraph lies in the phrase “the shift of Black leadership from the voices of social movements to those of elected officials in the mainstream political system.” In the last fifty years, Black political power in this country marched from the streets of the South to the White House, which on the one hand can be see as a triumph, it must also simultaneously be seen as a burden. This is because now the genesis of that power went from appealing to social mores to winning elections. The problem with that is not the fact that it is a burden, but for who gets to bear the burden. Guys like West thought the Obama presidency was going to be their political “salad days;” they would be given prime opportunities to shape America in their vision. What they didn’t realize is that fuel which drives the American political machine is not money or power, it is self-preservation and 100% pure,uncut capitalism.
Allow me to define what I mean by “capitalism.” An easy way to simply define that term is to say capitalism is in it’s purest form is an exercise in “I’ve got mine, you get yours.” That’s why the New American Left hates it so much, and it’s why they are going to react so violently to my calling their poster-child a capitalist. But bitch as they may, despite all his political blowhard-ism, Obama is all about what’s good for Obama. In the last years of his last term, Obama is going to do absolutely NOTHING which will endanger his ability to command top-dolllar on the post-Presidential book-writing/ lecture circuit. That’s really what has guys like West so pissed off; they thought this was going to be their time when their ilk would all join hands, sing a chorus of “Kumbayah” and fix all the “social injustices” they’ve been crying about since before the “Great Society.” It didn’t happen, largely because West and people like him fundamentally miscalculated how American politics really work.
Second, this neoliberal shift produces a culture of raw ambition and instant success that is seductive to most potential leaders and intellectuals, thereby incorporating them into the neoliberal regime. This culture of superficial spectacle and hyper-visible celebrities highlights the legitimacy of an unjust system that prides itself on upward mobility of the downtrodden. Yet, the truth is that we live in a country that has the least upward mobility of any other modern nation!
The use of the term “neoliberal” is what is really telling here. Remember a few years back when the New American Left was looking for a “catch-all” term for all the guys they hated like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Remember how they did that with “neoconservative?” Don’t think it’s a coincidence that a card-carrying member of the New American Left like West just happens to be around the coining of both those terms. More importantly, this is the part where West admits I’m right; he’s pissed because Obama sold him out. “Culture of raw ambition and instant success?” “Neoliberal regime?” “Superficial spectacle and hyper-visible celebrities?” West knows that Barack Obama is little more than a political Kim Kardashian, and he’s pissed off he got left off the gravy train. West and guys like him spent fifty years building that train, and along comes Obama who hopped in the engineer’s seat and pulled out of the station without them.
Third, the U.S. neoliberal regime contains a vicious repressive apparatus that targets those strong and sacrificial leaders, activists, and prophetic intellectuals who are easily discredited, delegitimated, or even assassinated, including through character assassination. Character assassination becomes systemic and chronic, and it is preferable to literal assassination because dead martyrs tend to command the attention of the sleepwalking masses and thereby elevate the threat to the status quo.
And there it is. The “assassination” reference is the key; West is upset because the New American Left elevated Obama to the head of the “Black prophetic tradition” table over the sainted Martin Luther King, Jr. They did so with the understanding that Obama was going to carry their ball across the goal line; instead he became just another cog in the “neoliberal regime.” Remember the argument I made about the coining of of the terms “neoconservative” and “neoliberal?” Keep it in the back of your head as you read the next few paragraphs.
The central role of mass media, especially a corporate media beholden to the U.S. neoliberal regime, is to keep public discourse narrow and deodorized. By “narrow” I mean confining the conversation to conservative Republican and neoliberal Democrats who shut out prophetic voices or radical visions. This fundamental power to define the political terrain and categories attempts to render prophetic voices invisible. The discourse is deodorized because the issues that prophetic voices highlight, such as mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and war crimes such as imperial drones murdering innocent people, are ignored.
The age of Obama was predicated on three pillars: Wall Street crimes in the financial catastrophe of 2008; imperial crimes in the form of the USA PATRIOT Act and National Defense Authorization Act, which give the president sweeping and arbitrary power that resembles a police or neofascist state; and social crimes principally manifest in a criminal justice system that is in itself criminal (where torturers, wire tappers, and Wall Street violators of the law go free yet poor criminals, such as drug offenders, go to prison). This kind of clear and direct language is rare in political discourse precisely because we are accustomed to be so polite in the face of crimes against humanity. The role of the Black prophetic tradition has always been to shatter the narrow and deodorized discourse in the name of the funky humanity and precious individuality of poor people. How rarely this takes place today! The profound failings of President Obama can be seen in his Wall Street government, his indifference to the new Jim Crow (or prison-industrial complex) and his expansion of imperial criminality in terms of the vast increase of the number of drones since the Bush years. In other words, the Obama presidency has been primarily a Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, mass surveillance presidency unwilling to concretely target the new Jim Crow, massive unemployment, and other forms of poor and Black social misery. His major effort to focus on poor Black men was charity and philanthropy—not justice or public policy.
If you missed the over-the-top attempt to make Obama the new Bush in terms of who the New American Left is supposed to hate, its time for you to head directly to the optometrist. My favorite part is when he transmogrifies “neoliberal” into “neofascist.” West stops just short of calling the President of the United States a Nazi. Couple that with the repeated use of the word “imperial,” and it’s pretty clear Cornel West wants nothing more than to rescind his vote from 2008. Guess what, Cornel? You are more in tune with “middle” America than you’d care to admit; especially since if you were white, those comments would have got your ass fired from your soft-ass professor job, and you’d be working at the layaway counter at a Wal-Mart right now.
This brings us to the “meat and potatoes” of West’s beef with Obama…this shit is about to get REAL.
The state of Black America in the age of Obama has been one of desperation, confusion, and capitulation. The desperation is rooted in the escalating suffering on every front. The confusion arises from a conflation of symbol and substance. The capitulation rests on an obsessive need to protect the first Black president against all forms of criticism. Black desperation is part of a broader desperation among poor and working people during the age of Obama. The bailout of Wall Street by the Obama administration, rather than the bailout of homeowners, hurt millions of working people. The refusal of the Obama administration to place a priority on jobs with a living wage reinforced massive unemployment, and the sheer invisibility of poor people’s plight in public policy has produced more social despair among weak and vulnerable citizens. The unprecedented historical symbolism of the first Black president has misled many if not most Black people to downplay his substantial neoliberal policies and elevate his (and his family’s) brilliant and charismatic presence. Needless to say, the presence of his brilliant and charismatic wife, Michelle—a descendent of enslaved and Jim-Crowed people, unlike himself—even more deeply legitimates his symbolic status, a status that easily substitutes for substantial achievement. The cowardly capitulation of Black leadership to Obama’s neoliberal policies in the name of the Black prophetic tradition is pathetic. The role of the NAACP, National Urban League, and Black corporate media pundits, who so quickly became Obama apologists, constitutes a fundamental betrayal of the Black prophetic tradition. The very idea of Black prophetic voices as an extension of a neoliberal and imperial U.S. regime is a violation of what the Black prophetic tradition has been and is. This violation enrages me when I think of the blood, sweat, and tears of the people who created and sustained this precious tradition. The righteous indignation of the Black prophetic tradition targets not only the oppressive system that dominates us but also the fraudulent figures who pose and posture as prophetic ones while the suffering of the people is hidden and concealed. To sell one’s soul for a mess of Obama pottage is to trash the priceless Black prophetic tradition. Is it not hypocritical to raise one’s voice when the pharaoh is white but have no critical word to say when the pharaoh is Black? If the boot is on our neck, does it make any difference what color the foot is in the boot? Moral integrity, political consistency, and systemic analysis sit at the center of the Black prophetic tradition.
He’s certainly not pulling his punches, is he? He was so careful earlier to give himself an out, then he just starts throwing haymakers. The funniest part is while West is making such an impassioned case, I’m not sure he realizes that he’s actually quoting Rush Limbaugh. “Symbolism over substance” is a theme Limbaugh beat the shit out of in his first two books, and it is nothing short of hilarious West is cribbing that bit. I wonder what Cornel West thinks about Donovan McNabb?
Forget that. Go back to the aforementioned part where I first defined “Black prophetic tradition.” That last ranting paragraph is where West lays to rest any doubts that I have him pegged. His call-out of “Black leadership,” especially since he goes out of his way to not mention who he is really talking about…he’s really trying to light a fire under the guys who used to do all his racial “heavy lifting.” The problem is that since the ascendancy of Obama, those guys have lost all their power. Specifically, I’m talking about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Those are the two guys who carried the “Black America” flag for the better part of the last 30 years, and now where are they? Sharpton has been reduced to a clownish role on his own “O’Reilly”-type cable-news program, where he does little more than reinforce the idea he was a “short bus” kid, and Jesse Jackson might as well be a face on a milk carton.
But the really nasty secret about Obama is there is a huge part of the black community which does not consider him to be “black.” West gives that away with the following:
“…Michelle—a descendent of enslaved and Jim-Crowed people, unlike himself…”
That’s an undeniable “shot across the racial bow,” because he’s referring to something I’ve made mention of before…Barack Obama is as white as he is black. Since Barack was a mixed-race kid raised by a white mother in places outside of the south in the 1960s and 70s, West’s argument is that he never had to deal with stuff that his wife’s forebearers did, which is true. The part he doesn’t tell you is that Michelle was a child of privilege in her pre-Mrs Obama days as well.
In any event, the part that matters here is that West is letting the big racial secret out of the bag; Obama is only “black” based on a definition which is solely determined by what white people and/or the New American Left think “black” is. Here’s where West is going to explain that for you.
Since the rise of the neoliberal regime, the Black struggle for freedom has been cast or reduced to an interest group, one among other such groups in American politics. Even the motto of the Black Congressional Caucus, the apex of Black elected officials, is “We have no permanent friends or permanent enemies—only permanent interests.” How morally empty and ethically deficient this motto is— no reference to moral principles, ethical standards, or grand vision of justice for all; just permanent interests, like the Business Roundtable for Wall Street oligarchs, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for the security of Israel, or the National Rifle Association for gun ownership. The Black prophetic tradition indeed includes interests but goes far beyond such narrow calculations and stresses a moral high ground of fairness and justice for all. The Black prophetic tradition surely begins on the chocolate side of town, but like the blues and jazz, it has a universal message for all human beings concerned about justice and freedom.
Ahh, the “universal message.” This is the same “universal message” that former New Orleans mayor and current convicted felon Ray Nagin used when he said that “New Orleans would once again be a chocolate city” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If you haven’t figured it out by now, “chocolate” is code for not just “black,” but “approved black.” The thing to remember here is that “approved black” doesn’t necessarily have to be about actual race. There are plenty of actually black people who have been kicked off the island for saying things that were not viewed favorably by the Cornel Wests of the world (think Bill Cosby here). Let’s not forget that Bill Clinton actually got away with calling himself “the first Black president.
What’s important here is that West is setting the stage to revoke Obama’s “approved black” status. He doesn’t have the juice to do it alone, which is why he is clearly campaigning. In other words, the “Black prophetic tradition” is really just the same old “class warfare” drumbeat dressed up in Ivy League language. Think about it. Why else does West feel the need in one article to simultaneously attack Barack Obama’s background while bemoaning the system in which “neoliberal elites marginalize social movements and prophetic voices in the name of consolidating a rising oligarchy at the top, leaving a devastated working class in the middle, and desperate poor people whose labor is no longer necessary for the system at the bottom?” He’s clearly appealing the to common denominators amongst those who grant “approved black” status.
Don’t forget West deliberately included all “poor” people in his run up to his real point, and as I said, that was done solely so he had a shred of deniability for the eventuality that he gets called out for the obvious racial overtone in this piece. To cap it all off, he goes for the throat by insisting that not coming to the defense of “Black prophetic tradition” may in fact mean the end of America as we know it.
It is no accident that the “permanent interests” of the Black Congressional Caucus so quickly became Black middle-class interests given the neoliberal regime to which they were accommodating. To be a highly successful Black professional or politician is too often to be well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference toward poor people, including Black poor people. The Black prophetic tradition is fundamentally committed to the priority of poor and working people, thus pitting it against the neoliberal regime, capitalist system, and imperial policies of the U.S. government. The Black prophetic tradition has never been confined to the interests and situations of Black people. It is rooted in principles and visions that embrace these interests and confront the situations, but its message is for the country and world. The Black prophetic tradition has been the leaven in the American democratic loaf. When the Black prophetic tradition is strong, poor and working people of all colors benefit. When the Black prophetic tradition is weak, poor and working class people are overlooked. On the international level, when the Black prophetic tradition is vital and vibrant, anti-imperial critiques are intense, and the plight of the wretched of the earth is elevated. What does it profit a people for a symbolic figure to gain presidential power if we turn our backs from the suffering of poor and working people, and thereby lose our souls? The Black prophetic tradition has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment. Is it redeemable?
The proof is nicely wrapped up in this sentence: “To be a highly successful Black professional or politician is too often to be well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference toward poor people, including Black poor people.” If that isn’t an Ivy League way of calling somebody an “Uncle Tom,” I don’t know what is. The problem West has is undeniable; Obama is a politician, and there is little political reward in carrying the banner reward for “Black prophetic tradition.” Its’ all about numbers. Blacks comprise roughly 10% of the population of this country, which in and of itself poses two major problems for politicians. First of all, blacks are no longer the largest minority group in this country; the day is coming sooner rather than later that Hispanics will exert major political power.
But more importantly, and more to West’s war-cry, the very idea of “Black America” completely ignores the fact that over the past 40 years, a sizable black middle-class has developed in this country. As a member of that group, I can speak for a large number of us who are really getting tired of listening to the Cornel Wests of the world who bemoan the plight of poor blacks while attacking those who took steps to do something about it. That matters here because as middle-class blacks, a lot of us have been kicked off the “black” island, and we EXACTLY know what being called an “Uncle Tom” means.
Make no mistake, that’s exactly what Cornel West is calling Barack Obama, because that’s the first step in getting one’s “approved black” status revoked.