Cornel West: ‘They say I’m un-American’
Hugh Muir, Diary Editor
The American academic and firebrand campaigner talks about Britain’s deep trouble, fighting white supremacy and where Obama is going wrong
Cornel West, the firebrand of American academia for almost 30 years, is causing his hosts some problems. They are on a schedule but such things barely move him, for as he saunters down the high street there are people to talk to, and no one can leave shortchanged. Everyone, “brother” or “sister”, is indeed treated like a long lost family member. And then there is the hug; a bear-like pincer movement. There’s no escape. It happens in New York, where the professor/philosopher usually holds court. And now it’s the same in Cambridge.
The best students accord their visitors a healthy respect, but West’s week laying bare the conflicts and fissures of race and culture and activism and literature in the US and Britain yielded more than that during his short residency at King’s College. There are academics who draw a crowd, but the West phenomenon at King’s had rock star quality: the buzz, the poster beaming his image from doors and noticeboards; the back story – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, his seminal work Race Matters, his falling-in and falling-out with Barack Obama.
Others can teach, and at Cambridge the teaching is some of the best in the world, but standing-room-only crowds came to see West perform. He performed. Approaching 60 now, he is slow of gait. But he always performs.
“Britain is in trouble,” he tells me. “Britain is in deep trouble. The privatising is out of the control, the militarising is out of control and the financialising is out of control. And what I mean from that is you have a cold-hearted, mean-spirited budget that the Queen just read; you have working and poor people under panic, you have this obsession with immigration that tends to scapegoat the most vulnerable rather than confront the most powerful. And it is not just black immigrants, but also our brothers and sisters from Poland and Bulgaria, Romania; right across the board.” He isn’t ranting. He doesn’t rant. He smiles, he growls gently, he leans in and whispers conspiratorily. There is an upside, he says. “Britain has a rich history of bouncing back too.”…
…Race matters, West famously wrote. Does race still matter? “I think race matters deeply but it is in many ways denied,” he says. “The form of institutional racism and informal racism is very much there. White supremacy is very much alive in Britain. If you scratch below the surface you can still see how race matters. It is not as raw and coarse as it is in the US. You have 10,000 professors in Britain and 50 professors of colour. Ten women. This is pathetic; this is ridiculous. The ‘meritocratic’ brothers and sisters say: ‘It’s just a matter of merit and if they were doing the work you would have a higher percentage.’ And you say: ‘Please, get off the crack pipe.’ There are brilliant black and brown people who could gain access to these professorships. Something is happening.”…
…But he acknowledges green shoots too. “There are the magnificent relationships between black and white and brown and Asian, and the different marriages and relationships that flower. Those are beautiful. But that doesn’t mean institutional racism is not strong.”
What of America? “We elected a black president and that means we are less racist now than we used to be. That’s beautiful. But when you look at the prison industrial complex and the new Jim Crow: levels of massive unemployment and the decrepit unemployment system, indecent housing: white supremacy is still operating in the US, even with a brilliant black face in a high place called the White House. He is a brilliant, charismatic black brother. He’s just too tied to Wall Street. And at this point he is a war criminal. You can’t meet every Tuesday with a killer list and continually have drones drop bombs. You can do that once or twice and say: ‘I shouldn’t have done that, I’ve got to stop.’ But when you do it month in, month out, year in, year out – that’s a pattern of behaviour. I think there is a chance of a snowball in hell that he will ever be tried, but I think he should be tried and I said the same about George Bush. These are war crimes. We suffer in this age from an indifference toward criminality and a callousness to catastrophe when it comes to poor and working people.”…
…He and Obama, the first-time candidate, talked. And then West attended 65 events drumming up support. “He talked about Martin Luther King over and over again as he ran. King died fighting not just against poverty but against carpet-bombing in Vietnam; the war crimes under Nixon and Kissinger. You can’t just invoke Martin Luther King like that and not follow through on his priorities in some way. I knew he would have rightwing opposition, but he hasn’t tried. When he came in, he brought in Wall Street-friendly people – Tim Geithner, Larry Summers – and made it clear he had no intention of bailing out homeowners, supporting trade unions. And he hasn’t said a mumbling word about the institutions that have destroyed two generations of young black and brown youth, the new Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex. It’s not about race. It is about commitment to justice. He should be able to say that in the last few years, with the shift from 300,000 inmates to 2.5 million today, there have been unjust polices and I intend to do all I can. Maybe he couldn’t do that much. But at least tell the truth. I would rather have a white president fundamentally dedicated to eradicating poverty and enhancing the plight of working people than a black president tied to Wall Street and drones.”
Unsurprisingly, he and team Obama no longer speak. “They say I’m un-American.”…
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