THE BLOG
08/02/2010 12:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cornel West: The Black Conscience or A Brooding Crank?

In this video clip, Princeton Professor Dr. Cornel West states his concerns about the Obama Administration's direction one year into its existence. West's emphasis on the need for President Obama to show courage and back bone is quite telling coming from one sensitive to the negative connotation of Black male fecklessness and how its been used as a trope throughout strategic points in American history. Is Cornel West's critique over the top? Is there a subtle attempt to take jabs at Barack Obama's manhood evidenced in such statements?

Personally, I think West is above such pettiness. However, the extent of his dissatisfaction with Obama is palpable. The larger question is whether West's unhappiness is a reflection of the Black Community's sentiments generally, or the indulgences of an academic with the trappings of the Ivy League providing a parlor room for his political musings.

Cornel West has taken his fair share of criticism from fellow Black Academics such as John McWhorter, whom I find troublesome for a whole other set of reasons as in this piece :

"[W]hat troubles me is Prof. West's reflexive insistence that it's an attack on his integrity to even question why he, as one of only 14 "university professors" at Harvard, has stopped producing academic work. Or to be more specific, that it's racist. He's been circumspect on that charge with most interviewers, but letting his hair down in a NPR interview with a fawning Tavis Smiley, he conveyed that Mr. Summers' suggestion reflected a fear among Harvard's leadership that "the Negroes are taking over."

Even those Black Academics from the ideological left such as Melissa Harris Lacewell who when speaking of the 2009 special, "Stand", the televised bus trip with Tavis Smiley in which Dr. West participated stated:

Ostensibly, this bus trip would provide Smiley, professors Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, Dick Gregory and others an opportunity to reflect on the meaningful upheavals in American society and politics in the summer of 2008. "Stand" was an enormous disappointment.

Its low production value, wandering narrative, flat history and self-important egoism did little to reveal the shortcomings of the Obama phenomenon. Instead, the piece exposed and embodied the contemporary crisis of the black public intellectual in the age of Obama..

However, have recent occurrences vindicated Dr. Cornel West of some of the charges laid bear in the piece by Professor Lacewell? Within the last month the Shirley Sherrod incident has brought to light the extent to which the Obama administration is crippled by even the slightest threat of right wing recrimination against any suggestion of pro-black racial allegiance.

The Obama administration now seems to have an ongoing quota of Black folk, or entities sympathetic to Black interests, it has to throw under the bus in order to placate right wing media pit-bulls.

From Van Jones, to Acorn, and now Shirley Sherrod, the Obama administration has been illustrating such a tin ear on the issue of race that Maureen Dowd had to chide them in her recent New York Times column :

But unlike Bill Clinton, who never needed help fathoming Southern black culture, Obama lacks advisers who are descended from the central African-American experience, ones who understand "the slave thing," as a top black Democrat dryly puts it.

The first black president should expand beyond his campaign security blanket, the smug cordon of overprotective white guys surrounding him -- a long political tradition underscored by Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 when she complained about the "smart-ass white boys" from Walter Mondale's campaign who tried to boss her around.

Otherwise, this administration will keep tripping over race rather than inspiring on race.

That the actions of the Obama administration would push even Maureen Dowd to the point of making such bold pronouncements demonstrates that some truth may resonate with Dr. Cornel West's critique. Perhaps Dr. West is acting as the Black conscience instead of simply a brooding crank as some of the more ardent Obama supporters may suppose.

Either way, the role of the Black intellectual in the age of Obama is an interesting question that merits extensive analysis because it will speak volumes to where the most talented segments of Black America lie in relation to the Black community politically, and overall. Furthermore, it may enlighten us as to whether the identification with Obama's academic pedigree has blinded Black intellectuals to any objective critique of his presidency out of a sense of racial/class kinship because finally "one of theirs" has gotten the recognition he deserves.

We only hope that today's Black scholars do not fulfill the dire warning of Harold Cruse in his seminal work "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual," where he states in talking about creative intellectuals, but more aptly Black intellectuals in general:

"Having given up their strict claim to an ethnic identity in politics, economics and culture, they haven't a leg to stand on. They can make no legitimate claims for their group integrity....What lurks behind the disabilities and inhibitions of the Negro creative intellectuals is the handicap of the Black bourgeoisie."

I doubt those class inclinations motivate Dr. Cornel West. His most consistent nature has been as one who speaks out for the poor and disenfranchised, though perhaps sometimes in vehicles not appreciated by his colleagues. However that such class inclinations may motivate his colleagues is something all who are interested in the condition of the Black community may need to pay close attention to in times to come.