Cornel West: President Obama as Puppet of Plutocrats?

In a recent probing interview with Chris Hedges, Princeton Professor Cornel West, a leading US intellectual who campaigned exhaustively for Obama, made a harsh assessment of President Obama as selling out to white elite interests. Obama is

a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.

West then briefly painted a broad picture of U.S. imperialism and decay to back his strong critique and call for action:

And even at this moment, when the empire is in deep decline, the culture is in deep decay, the political system is broken, where nearly everyone is up for sale . . . . [What we need instead is] civil disobedience, going to jail, supporting progressive forums of social unrest.

West says he expected a President Obama to be constrained by capitalism, but also expected

some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck.

Yet, with few exceptions, Obama did not do that, but appointed members of the moderate wing of the established white elite to his administration and only pretended “intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy” of the centrist Democratic Party politicians.

West has gotten major pushback for his bold comments from numerous white and black commentators, and some black leaders, and especially for his further comment that his “dear brother Barack Obama” was afraid of independent black men who would stand up to the white corporate elite:

As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. . . . When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. . . . He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.

West concludes that Obama is passing up what he thinks may be the country’s last real chance to counter the corporate plutocrats and oligarchs and bring some semblance of real democracy to the United States.

Several prominent white and black analysts have been very critical of West for his personal comments, including some indicating West feels he has been snubbed by the president. Washington Post commentator, Jonathan Capehart, has accented West’s more personal comments and asserted West is espousing an ignorant perspective and trying to be one of the

self-appointed guardians of what it means to be black — a decidedly limited and ignorant perspective that has more to do with the accuser’s insecurities than the alleged transgressions of the accused.

Over at The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, also a Princeton professor, is very critical of West for his personalizing attack on Obama’s heritage and whitewashed background, even as a hypocritical West himself has lived in a mostly white world since adulthood, especially as a professor at elite white universities. However, like several others, her critique is almost entirely about West’s own life and personal situation, but she mostly ignores West’s on-target structural critique of Obama’s (obligatory?) selling out to corporate America.

Indeed, West is correct that working class and strong progressive, especially independent and forthright black, Americans have very few prominent voices in the top ranks of the Obama administration, including just one cabinet member not from the political or economic establishment. What the critiques of West leave unsaid is that what West is focusing most on how individual black success in U.S. politics, as for Obama, has not meant significant advances for black Americans as a group, nor for Americans of color collectively. Indeed, what is missing from West’s own critical analysis is the next obvious question: Why does the “not independent” Obama play up to the interests and issues of the dominant white elite and larger white population? This is not a character flaw, but rather about the foundational reality and continuing strength of the white racist system. That is the elephant in the room that not even West calls out.

As I and my colleagues have argued before, black candidates for state and national political offices, like President Obama, cannot adopt, even occasionally, a black counter-framed perspective (see chapter 7 here) on the action necessary to deal the extensive discrimination and severe socioeconomic problems faced by black communities and other communities of color, and expect to win. Even in part, black candidates cannot articulate what they will do to deal with extensive racial discrimination and related racial problems if they are elected, yet when white candidates tell white communities what they will do for them, almost no one accuses them of “playing the race card.”

In contrast, black candidates need only to touch on issues of developing anti-discrimination and desegregation programs for black Americans and other people of color, and they are often called out as biased or extremist. Even if the black candidates’ associates or mentors call out the white-racist system, as with Dr. Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 primary elections, they must disassociate themselves from their friends and almost all honest evaluations of a racist U.S. society.

White candidates and elected politicians regularly take action openly benefitting white communities. Although Obama has not ignored the needs of communities of color in his presidency, he has had to take modest action, and that quietly, to benefit the black community, such as on improving funding for black colleges. He has not been able, and will not be able at any point, to talk openly about the massive and systemic racism of U.S. society, including the highly racialized “Jim Crow” system of our oppressive and extensive prison-industrial complex.