So the smear campaign against Cornel West continues apace, and still far too many people — including people I like and respect — are talking about envy, grudges and ambition, Michael Dyson’s motives etc. This is a minimizing, individualizing approach to what seems like a widespread, ruthless, possibly even coordinated, campaign to ostracize and silence West and reassert the usual limits on Black and left politics. Michael Dyson is a mere cipher. He’s a cudgel with which a mostly white, wealthy, liberal political establishment attempts to fend off the political threat — a class conscious anti-racism — posed primarily by Black Lives Matter and its most influential spokesperson.
I will likely write more about this, including, for much-needed laughs, the ridiculous lengths to which West is driving people like Joan Walsh, Jamil Smith and Ta-hanesi Coates. But first I want to express my gratitude to Michael Dyson and the liberal establishment that’s hired him as a bag man, for giving me the impetus to reconsider West, someone who, due to his Kool-Aid drinking in 2008, I had pretty much written off. As part of this reconsideration, I’ve watched some of West’s more recent, high-profile appearances and as a result, I’m somewhat surprised — shocked even — that the political establishment has let him get as far as he has.
For the moment, I just want to signal boost two of West’s more recent appearances because, one, they’re really great and two, they demonstrate very clearly why the political establishment, including professional Black Democrats, want to render him a ghost. Below are transcriptions of the bulk of two appearances: West’s March 22 appearance on David Letterman’s show, and an interview on CNN he did specifically about Ferguson the previous November. In these two interviews, West packs taboo opinions into relatively short segments with an eloquent efficiency the likes of which I’ve rarely, if ever, seen on programs of this kind. Videos are embedded and linked below the transcripts.
From David Letterman:
West: When you talk about about race relations in America, you’re really talking about a legacy of white supremacy, not just Black folks. Starts with indigenous people. Then you got brown, then you got yellow…and then you got Black folk and of course white brothers and sisters too, who are in many ways dehumanized by dehumanizing others. So they need to be liberated from this false sense of undeserved access to privilege and benefit in order for democracy to be what it oughta be.
Letterman: ….The culmination of [race relations] getting so much better was we have a Black president now. People thought that might never happen and yet, here it is.
West: Yes, that is a problem, brother, there’s no doubt about it. Because at the symbolic level it’s a magnificent achievement in terms of both having access to the most powerful office in the world and secondly the impact that it has on our precious young people of all colors so that you actually see a (unintelligible) and charismatic Black man who’s there wielding power. But there’s a difference between substance and symbol.
Every 28 hours there’s a black youth or brown youth who’s shot by the police. We’ve got a Black president and a Black attorney general, and not one Federal prosecution of a policeman for killing or murdering those folk. So the young people are asking, wait a minute, we got Black faces in high places but it doesn’t deliver when it comes to justice. What’s going on? That’s why it’s a question of what kind of persons do you have, not just the Black faces.
Letterman: Now that’s a stunning statistic…ok so we have a Black president, how does it then get down to where this violence is occurring? When will it come down?
West: The fundamental question is always, first, not being in denial and recognizing that if you have a love for anybody let alone poor people, working people, Black people or whatever, you have a hatred of them being treated unjustly and a loathing of them being treated unfairly and that has to do with courage, integrity, honesty and willingness to tell the truth. Right now we live in an age of the sellout. We live in an age of cupidity and a love of money, money, money…we got too many people who are simply in love with money and assets and power and it’s true when it comes to mainstream leadership, it’s true when it comes to our president.
I mean the president, you got 500 Palestinian babies killed in 50 days, did he say a bumblin’ word? Political calculation. Not moral conviction. Same is true of poor people. You got 40% of children of people of color living in poverty in the richest nation in the world. It’s a moral abomination. Where are the voices? President says, Fox news is gonna get me. Right wing is gonna get me. Neoliberal opportunists, they say it’s not a big issue because they’ve got political calculation. Who’s gonna tell the truth? The condition of truth is to allow the suffering to speak, regardless of your popularity, where’s your integrity? We don’t have enough folk with integrity, brother. And that’s true across the board, whatever the color.
Letterman: But is that an indictment of the man or of the political system?
West: Both. Both. Because we have to take personal responsibility. There’s not doubt about it. When you come into office and you bring in Wall Street people, and you got drones, and you’ve still got mass surveillance, you say wait a minute, these are choices you’ve got to make! You gotta be accountable for your choices, but you don’t demonize a brother, you criticize a brother. Gets you in trouble but that’s all right.
Letterman: Since I was born in 1947, many conditions in American [race relations] have improved…what is the evaluation now?
West: It has certainly improved, but you have to recognize that it was so bad to begin with.
Letter: Well you’re starting from slavery…
West: and Jim Crow, too. I mean Jim Crow senior. We got Jim Crow junior in our prison system, segregation in our residential system, and our school system which is decrepit still in so many ways. But socially, personally we have magnificent breakthroughs and that’s important, but the system itself, the structure…
Letterman (interrupting): Explain to me the amount of money spent on prisoners versus on kids in school.
West: Oh yes, we’ve got warped priorities, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve spent a trillion dollars expanding the prison-industrial complex since 1970 and quadrupled the population and the crime rate’s gone down since the 1990s but the prison system still expands! You say what’s goin on? Somebody’s making money! Back to cupidity, back to love of money. Love of money is the root of all evil. I’m not a Christian for nothing. It’s just wrong! It’s wrong! It’s wrong!
Letterman: It must please you but does it surprise you that finally the acceptance of people in the gay community has come to be an awareness for people in this country. The relationship with gays, is it ahead of the relationship between blacks and whites?
West: Oh, no, no, no. I think we’ve got a long way to go to fully appreciate humanity and my precious gay brothers and lesbian sisters as well as bisexual and trans but what they have to recognize is as they get positions in the system, the system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43% of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper middle class and above, but the Gay poor, the Lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell. It reminds me in some ways of my precious brothers and sisters in India, you got the Dalit community, great, great people and Ambedkar a great, towering figure, they’ve had a Dalit president, an Untouchable president, but the masses of Dalit brothers and sisters are still catching hell.
Same is true in America. We got all these Black people at the top, high faces, wonderful, like peacocks, look at me, look at me, you say, well, peacocks strut because they can’t fly. The question is, are you keeping track of those stuck in the basement, and it’s more and more all the time, it’s not just black, it’s white, it’s brown…it’s the structure of a system…that’s what Martin King was talking about…
Letterman: (interrupting) These people in the basement, is the light of attention brighter now than ever?
West: It’s worse. It’s worse. If you look at the souls of our precious young folk, and you see it in Ferguson with magnificent leaders there, Ashley Yates, Tef Poe, Tory Russell and others, Black folk there who are leading. They come from weaker families, feeble communities, a corporate media that’s obsessed with titillation, stimulation, to be human is to gain access to power, to become well-adjusted to injustice, to become well-adapted to indifference, so you end up with a spiritual blackout, even though you got big money because you haven’t cultivated the capacity of what John Coltrane taught us, Love Supreme: Do you know how to love?
West: Ferguson signifies the end of the age of Obama. It’s a very sad end. We began with tremendous hope and we end with great despair. Why? Because we have a Jim Crow criminal justice system that does not deliver justice for black and brown people and especially black and brown poor people. It’s sad that Wall Street executives can go free, and drone droppers can go free, torturers can go free. Police who kill our precious children walk free. And we weep and we do fight back, but there’s been a class war and a kind of racial war against black and brown youth. And when you get a case like Ferguson, only one out of 11,000…11,000 cases have Grand Juries that do not deliver an indictment. Here you have one out of 11,000.
But that’s just the peak of an iceberg. You’ve got Clinton Allen in Dallas. Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland. You’ve got Kenneth Chamberlain in White Plains. Eric Garner in New York. Oscar Grant. We can go on on and on. This has been going on and the sad thing is we have a Black president, we have a Black attorney general, we have a Black head of Homeland Security, but not one federal prosecution of a case against a policeman killing a Black youth under the five and a half years when we’ve had all-black folk in place…this is a major…
Hala Gorani: (interrupting) Dr. West, if I could jump in…I remember personally being outside the United States when President Obama was elected. People were crying in Europe. They saw this as the dawn of a new era that would also set an example for the rest of the world. You’ve had some very harsh words for President Obama. You actually tweeted, “Obama’s empty neutrality, moral bankruptcy and political cowardice is now undeniable to even his most loyal cheerleaders…” why are you so harsh on the President? He has spoken of his difficult past as a young Black man. He’s launched initiatives for young Black men as well to better their lives. Why are you so harsh on him?
West: I have a deep commitment to the truth and the condition of the truth is to always allow the suffering to speak and I have a profound love of those persons known as the wretched of the earth and you talk about persons who are suffering and I don’t care if they’re being bombed by Israeli Defense Forces in Palestine, I don’t care if they’re being subordinated in Russia, I don’t care if they’re being mistreated in Guatemala, and I don’t care if they’re black, white or red in the United States. Poor and working class people need to be at the center, and unfortunately President Obama chose a Wall Street presidency rather than Main Street, he chose a drone presidency rather than cutting back on the drones. He chose massive surveillance that Edward Snowden and others have revealed rather than protecting rights and liberties, and he chose not to even give one speech focusing on the Jim Crow criminal justice system that’s been targeting poor black and brown youth, saying the era of police impunity is over, the era of lack of accountability of police is over, I am going to insure as president that every American citizen, especially black and poor and brown is going to be treated well. We never got that. At all. This is almost six years. Not really harsh on my part. I’m just gonna tell the truth, bear witness, expose the lies. There’s a connection between the crimes on the one hand and the evading and avoiding the truth on the other.
Gorani: What does the world not necessarily understand. What does it need to know about race relations in the United States, do you think? What is it still not aware of that it should be.
West: Well, one, you have to understand the history. The United States began with the invasion and dispossession of the land of precious indigenous people, which began as a white supremacist enterprise, and then brought in Africans and enslaved Africans for 244 years. Now we have had great breakthroughs. Abe Lincoln, 1860s. 1960s Martin King. President Johnson following through on progressive legislation. But that progress, that breakthrough has affected primarily a Black upper middle class and above. But the Black working class is devastated. The Black poor is rendered more and more demonized as was brother Michael Brown by the policeman, he said he saw a demon…well there’s a long history of demonizing Black people, so that the issues of economic status and class are fundamental here.
A complete version of the CNN interview is not available for embedding. Here’s the link to it.