Obama and the Blues

Princeton scholar Cornel West on the myth of 'post-racial' politics — and Obama's place in history

Cornell West and Barack Obama on November 29th, 2007 in New York City. Credit: Jemal Countess/WireImage/Getty

How important is Obama's race in the grand •scheme of things?
First of all, we have to call into question all this talk about how Obama's popularity is evidence that we have become a colorblind country. It makes no sense for white brothers and sisters to say they are colorblind when they vote for Obama if after casting their vote they feel good that they voted for a black candidate. Nothing wrong with it, but that isn't colorblind.

A colorblind country is a false hope. Martin Luther King Jr. did not want us to be colorblind in the sense the concept is usually used today — he wanted us to be love-struck by one another. Being love-struck by your fellow citizen means embracing their humanity— —which includes their color, culture and history.

I feel the same way about the so-called "post-racial" politics of Obama. Come on! Black people have been voting for white candidates for decades, and those candidates were never used as evidence of "post-racial" politics. Does the fact that my white fellow citizens —— thank God! —— are voting for my dear brother Obama make his campaign "post-racial"? No, it simply means that a brilliant, charismatic, visionary and courageous black man is now supported by large numbers of white brothers and sisters. That's enough to celebrate without bringing in all sorts of specious concepts.

Is there a line that goes from Jesse Jackson to Barack Obama, or are they two separate traditions?
They are part of the same tradition, but Obama is a qualitative leap for­ward — a leap that has to do primarily with the white electorate's openness to his political genius.

The crucial figure in understanding what's going on now is Jesse Jackson. There is no Obama without Jackson. People sometimes forget the enormous support Jesse received from white America. In 1988, he won eleven primaries and nearly 7 million votes. Obama's win in Iowa was simiar to the shock of what Jesse did. I saw the power of it when I campaigned for Obama during the South Carolina primary. At the Monumental Baptist Church, I was introduced by the minister, who told me he cried when he saw Iowans voting for Obama. He had grown up in the Jim Crow South. He simply couldn't believe it.

What do you think of those who say Obama is not "black enough"?
What black people were talk­ing about when they questioned his blackness were the ways that, for instance, Thurgood Marshall was black and that Clarence Thomas isn't. For black people, Jesse Jackson is black enough and Alan Keyes is not. That is, they wondered whether Obama was bold enough to talk about justice, to put truth to power, to side with the weak against the strong. That's what "blackness" means to most black people. It doesn't have anything to do with family lineage. It has everything to do with whom they side with.

When Obama first appeared on the scene, he was the darling of the white press, and that made black people suspicious. But when they had time to examine his record, his history, his relationship with Michelle Obama and his deep love for his precious children, the issue of "black enough" disappeared. That's why polls show him carrying eighty-five percent of the African-American vote.

Have the Clintons been trying to play the race card on him?
I think they were deeply upset that they were losing the black vote —— a vote they assumed they would have, owing to their special relationship with black people. They became desperate, and that desperation led them to say things that were certainly beyond the pale in terms of the kind of good people we know them to be.

As a self-declared Blues Man — someone who is distrustful of super­ficial optimism — what do you think, of Obama's message about "hope"?
I do worry at times that our cul­ture confuses mature hope with naive audacity. It is important to remember that the blues conception of hope is in no way identical with the optimism of the American Dream. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream was not the American Dream. It was rooted in the American Dream —— it incorporated the need to work hard, defer gratification and aspire to be the best. But it was also a rejection of crass materialism, hedonism and narcissism. At times, Obama's talk about "the audacity of hope" oscil­lates between the deep blues con­ception of hope and the thin hope of American optimism. It concerns me, but it doesn't trouble me.

Should we be worried about hand­ing the reins of power to someone who is relatively inexperienced? Or is that just the kind of coded lan­guage that's always used to dismiss candidates of color?
I don't think it has as much to do with Obama's race as with his youth. People had the same misgivings about Kennedy. There is a certain freshness and newness that people confuse with inexperience. I don't think Obama is actually inexperienced when it comes to governing as president. He's going to choose a high-quality team, and he has shown that he is capable of excel­lent political judgment. Will he make the mistakes that all presidents do at the beginning of his term? Of course he will.

I told Obama that when he wins —— which I think he will —— I will celebrate for one day. I'll break-dance in the morning and party in the afternoon. But the next day, I'll become one of his major critics. His calling is one of progressive governance, and my call­ing is Socratic and prophetic. But all the criticism will emanate from my deep love for him.