As an observer of American politics, I must confess that I've viewed the attacks on Professor Cornel West by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry and others with some degree of curiosity. I am not sure why West has his issues with President Obama, whether they are personal or political. The truth is that I don't really care. Even if someone's criticism is personal, that doesn't invalidate the critique. There is little difference between West's recent rhetoric and the things he's been saying for his entire career. So, at least he's being consistent.
What I find most interesting is that there are those who seem to believe that killing the voice of Cornel West is better than actually confronting the issues that he is addressing. In fact, those who disagree with West should probably be asked a few questions: Is there evidence to show that West is wrong about the Obama administration's perceived neglect of the black unemployment problem? Has the Obama administration taken a significant stance against mass incarceration? What have they done to deal with workplace discrimination against African-Americans?
Of course, President Obama has more on his plate than racial inequality. But to argue that racial inequality is not important enough to get any space on the presidential plate would also seem to argue that it doesn't matter if black people show up to vote for him. If I ask for a paycheck from my employer, he's going to expect me to work for him. I can't take the money and then tell him that I don't have time to do the job. If black voters are expected to make time to show up to the polls, then the White House has an obligation to make time for African-American issues.
Rather than loving or hating politicians unconditionally, perhaps black Americans should be a bit more objective. We can ask ourselves a few questions: Do I have a relative or associate who's been a victim of the mass incarceration epidemic in America? If so, what has the Obama administration or the Congressional Black Caucus done to alleviate the suffering of those I love?
Another question might relate to unemployment and the wealth gap. If you have lost a job during the most recent recession or found yourself without a home, has the administration engaged in an adequate response to the struggles of your family? These are fair and objective questions that we should not be afraid to ask. The political conversation should not be about Barack Obama, Cornel West or anyone else; the conversation should be about you and your family.
What's interesting about the unattractive political choices of black America are that they remind people of color that there are almost no political figures in Washington willing to engage in the courage necessary to confront racial inequality. Washington is as racially broken as most institutions in our society, and our political energy might be better spent elsewhere. I am not here to say that African-Americans shouldn't participate in the next election, but I am willing to admit that it's difficult to explain how our participation is going to change our individual outcomes.
Simply arguing that "the Republicans are going to be much worse" presumes that negative reinforcement is going to be enough to get a clearly disenfranchised citizen to head to the polls. The threat of a negative outcome is not the same as giving people hope for meaningful change, or making them believe that voting is going to make their lives better. In fact, we can compare it to the pimp who tells a young woman that he should date her because he won't beat her as much as the last pimp. The reality is that the young woman might need to seek out other options, rather than enthusiastically choosing the best pimp she possibly can. In America, our choices consist of picking which Harvard or Yale graduate we like the best, and hoping that he doesn't abuse us as badly as the last one.
Black America needs new options. Destroying the career of Cornel West does nothing to solve the real problem. I encourage any person of color who engages in political observation to shut down any and all temptations to join lynch mobs against those who are not in the Barack Obama fan club. I also encourage them to critique those who feel that President Obama is not "black enough." When someone tries to demonize those who use free speech to critique the Obama administration, we should simply confront them with the issues and ask for evidence of positive and meaningful progress. Killing the voice of the messenger only makes us less democratic and more committed to maintaining our own oppression; I'm not going to do it.
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