"As I said earlier I will also be weighing in again on the far larger implications and contexts of Dyson's attack and what it means far beyond the personal and often petty recriminations expressed by Dyson in his New Republic piece (and btw somebody should also come down hard on the New Republic's bullshit role in all of this; their editors are clearly out to stoke this stupid raging fire in the name no doubt of "supporting Obama" (I know, I know: that's how hopelessly myopic, petty, and corny these pompous GLIBERALS so often are these daze)... Stay tuned..."
--Kofi Natambu

The New Republic's Legacy on Race
A historical reflection
By Jeet Heer @heerjeet
January 29, 2015
The New Republic

Legacies are never simple; they create victims as well as beneficiaries. The more substantial the legacy, the more heated the disputes are over who has title of ownership, who gets to enjoy an inheritance, and who is left out in the cold.

One of the most dangerous ways to treat a legacy is to bask in past achievements and revel in riches earned by others without awareness that they came with costs. This shallow legacy-enjoyment is evident in the cheaper sort of nationalism, which glories in a country’s conquests without thought as to the suffering entailed.

The phrase “legacy of racism” encapsulates in a few words a large reality: Bigotries can have complex, ongoing ramifications. Few, if any, longstanding institutions have been historically free of racism. Given the pervasiveness of racism in the past, the struggle to understand this legacy and figure out how to overcome it remains a political and institutional imperative.

Over the last few months, following The New Republic’s centenary anniversary and a staff shake-up, a perceived legacy of racism in the magazine has been the topic of intense arguments, mostly carried out online. In the wake of the debate, vexing questions demand answers: How do we reconcile the magazine’s liberalism, the ideology that animated the Civil Rights revolution, with the fact that many black readers have long seen—and still see—the magazine as inimical and at times outright hostile to their concerns? How could a magazine that published so much excellent on-the-ground reporting on the unforgivable sins visited upon black America by white America—lynchings, legal frame-ups, political disenfranchisement, and more—also give credence to toxic and damaging racial theorizing? And why has The New Republic had only a handful of black editorial staff members in its 100 years?

The New Republic was born in 1914, a moment when African American politics was polarized between two giants, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, both of whom contributed to the magazine in its first few years. Washington, the most influential black leader of the early twentieth century, was an advocate of conciliation verging on capitulation. He pushed for a grand bargain with white America, whereby blacks would accept the status quo of the Jim Crow South—segregation in schools, restaurants, public places, public transportation and so forth—in exchange for economic development through industrial education, in schools such as the Tuskegee Institute, which Washington helped found. Du Bois, the first black person to get a doctorate from Harvard, was the insurgent. Through the NAACP, which he helped establish in 1909, Du Bois was an advocate of full civil rights, political participation, and a black educated class.

For at least the first six years of its existence, under founding editors Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and Walter Lippmann, The New Republic adopted Washington’s outlook on race as its own. One problem with Washington’s approach, especially as filtered through the magazine’s privileged white writers, was that it framed justice for black America in terms of what was good for white America. Calls for civil rights were often tempered by assurances that fundamental dividing lines such as intermarriage and residential segregation would not be touched. The magazine’s editors thought they were taking a progressive attitude toward race. However, articles calling for cooperation often ended up justifying racism, as in a 1915 piece by one Louis B. Wehle, a Kentucky lawyer and friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who argued, “The negro, as a mental survival from slavery, cheerfully accepts the idea of his social inferiority; his problems are born of his shiftlessness, slack morality, and propensity to crimes of violence.” Likewise, a 1920 review of Herbert J. Seligmann’s The Negro Faces America cautioned, “At a time like the present, when race prejudice is peculiarly active throughout the world, we expect a responsible writer to avoid aggressive insistence upon race equality and the right of intermarriage, to accept a considerable degree of race prejudice as irreducible.”

Washingtonian politics meant placing a naïve faith in the power of cooperation. A 1916 report in the magazine on African American education ended with this homily: “In suggesting his program for the further development of Negro education, Dr. Jones places justifiable confidence in a growing spirit of fair play and increasing broadmindedness on the part of the South. The Negro problem is a problem of the democracy and it cannot be solved without the cooperation of the South, the Negro and the North, inspired with ‘an abiding faith in one another.’”

By the mid-’20s, however, The New Republic's commitment to Washington’s strategy of compromise was running aground on the shoals of brute reality. The murderous race riots that followed World War I were a jolt, as was the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan. “Why in America, more than any other country, do we have race riots, mobs, lynchings, burnings, and manhunts generally?” the sociologist Robert E. Park asked in 1923. Throughout the ’20s, the magazine slowly adopted Du Bois’s call for full civil rights. The 1931 Scottsboro case, where nine black teenagers were falsely accused of rape and eight of them were initially sentenced to death by an all-white jury, became a cause célèbre with the magazine. “Whatever the decision of the Supreme Court in the present appeal may be, the innocence of the nine defendants has long since been established in the minds of all fair-minded people who have followed the trials and know the facts,” the magazine declared in a ringing 1934 editorial. “It is a record of brutality, chicanery, violence and injustice on one side … and of determined, unremitting and courageous struggle for justice on the other.”

Racial mythmaking ran amok in the ’90s: Rap was over, black intellectuals were fading, and African Americans were genetically inferior.

This shift in The New Republic toward a more rigorous accounting of racial injustice was coupled with a curiosity in black culture, spurred by the magazine’s location in New York and proximity to the Harlem Renaissance. Readers were served reviews of black theater, fiction, spirituals, and jazz—performances that rarely got such alert attention in other white venues. In 1926, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant provided a long portrait of Paul Robeson, locating his masterful revitalization of spirituals in his double consciousness as a black man in America. The following year, a searching essay by Wallace Thurman called out works that “treated the Negro as a sociological problem rather than as a human being,” anticipating future essays by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.

Still, The New Republic’s discussion of African American culture was punctuated by a jarring insouciance, particularly in the work of white writers. Throughout the first two decades, white writers would throw around the n-word with the casual aplomb of characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie. In 1916, travel writer Harrison Rhodes opined, “We should not be so pleasant a people nor so agreeable a land were the niggers not among us … both the devil and the black man should get their due.” Rhodes thought he was writing as a friend to blacks, whereas he ended up replicating the very racism he thought he was challenging.

“Niggers can be admired artists without any gift more singular than high spirits: so why drag in the intellect?” Clive Bell, the Bloomsbury critic (and brother-in-law to Virginia Woolf) argued in 1921. In 1928, assistant editor T.S. Matthews, who would go on to succeed Henry Luce as editor of Time and marry the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, shared an anecdote about “a big, young, shiny-black buck nigger” riding a train.

This type of language was partially a literary affect. The magazine was trying to be modern, vernacular, and street smart. But on a deeper level, the magazine’s writers seemed to be going out of their way to assure readers that while they took up the cause of political parity between the races, they weren’t so naïve to accept blacks as social equals.

The pathology of this dual-mindedness is evident in an impassioned 1933 report on the Scottsboro case, by the Louisiana-born novelist Hamilton Basso, in which he noted in an aside, “There is something comic about a Negro who looks like an ape.”

Another distinguished writer who played contradictory roles in the magazine’s legacy was the literary critic Edmund Wilson. Reviewing Wilson’s diaries from the 1930s in The New Yorker, John Updike wrote, “‘Nigger’ seems to be Wilson’s natural way of referring to black people (even ‘coon’ occurs), though as the decade wears on, and he has visited the shacks of Kentucky and the slums of Chicago, the more respectful term ‘Negro’ gradually takes over.”

Looking more closely at Wilson’s work in The New Republic, what we see is less an evolution than a split-mindedness. In a July 1931 article on the Southern Agrarians, Wilson offered a credulous acceptance of neo-Confederate mythology, arguing that “even the master who worked his slaves to death or flogged them to death had perhaps a certain moral advantage over the capitalist manufacturer or speculator. ... To this day, the relations in the South between the landowning gentry and the Negroes are more intimate and, in a sense, more human than the relations between the mill-owner and the workers in the factory.” Remarkably, one month after this whitewashing of slavery, Wilson wrote a masterful summary of the Scottsboro case, based on first-hand reporting, which not only made the miscarriage of justice clear, but also portrayed with great nuance the political and class divisions in the black community that led to a rift in legal tactics.

Wilson would return to neo-Confederate mythmaking in his 1962 book Patriotic Gore, so it’s not quite true to say he progressed on race. Rather he worked in two modes: abstractly as a race theorist (where he wrote nonsense) and concretely as a reporter during the Depression (where he wrote much of value). The discipline of factual journalism, applied to subjects often neglected by the mainstream press, made The New Republic an invaluable repository of black history. At the same time, when these same writers tried to be more speculative, they often fell victim to condescension if not outright, folklore-tinged fantasy.

Fortunately, the magazine also provided a forum where black writers, such as Hubert Harrison, Walter F. White, and Wallace Thurman, could tackle debates in their community. (Alas, black women were scarce, if not non-existent, as contributors to The New Republic, although books by black women were reviewed.) In 1923, while reviewing an inept play by a white writer who mangled African American dialect, Harrison, a black socialist, wrote, “If the fox may be forgiven a word of comment on the hunt, I might even say ‘Bosh!’” Whether it was Du Bois’s prophetic linkage in 1921 of civil rights with anti-imperialist struggles in Africa, or Eric Walrond’s 1922 account of looking for work in New York and getting cold dismissals, a small but vital group of black writers brought sensibilities and perspectives which couldn’t be found elsewhere.

One could argue that between the late ’30s and the mid-’70s, The New Republic was one of the best magazines outside the black press in its coverage of the rise of the civil rights movement. Thomas Sancton, Sr., managing editor from 1942–1943, was a particularly radical advocate, holding FDR’s feet to the fire for his compromises with the Jim Crow South, and doing brave reporting on the Detroit race riots of 1943. Some of the best work from this period is enshrined in the Library of America’s two-volume Reporting Civil Rights, including Lucille B. Milner’s “Jim Crow in the Army” (1944) and Andrew Kopkind’s “Selma” (1965).

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, the country’s conversation about race turned to more ambiguous debates over busing, affirmative action, and overcoming economic hurdles. The owner who would oversee that new era was Martin Peretz.

Peretz would be a neoliberal owner of a liberal magazine, one who took the title editor in chief for himself while nurturing the careers of a cadre of editors in his charge. The magazine became a bully pulpit for Peretz’s political beliefs, but staff members were given free rein to disagree with him in private and public. “I have a problem with some of the needlessly vicious things about Arabs that we publish,” said Michael Kinsley in an interview during his tenure as editor. Peretz’s passion for Israel could occasionally be matched with an unflattering view of Arabs. In a 1982 interview with Haaretz, he urged the Palestinians “be turned into just another crushed nation, like the Kurds or the Afghans.” In a March 1990 essay, he argued the Lebanese “fight simply because they live. And the culture from which they come scarcely thinks this is odd.”

Peretz didn’t reserve his vitriol for Arabs. In 2009, he described Mexico as “a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counterculture and increasingly violent modes of conflict.”

Meanwhile, Peretz’s magazine was attributing the problems of black America to Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry, and anonymous welfare mothers, while largely ignoring deindustrialization and mass incarceration. Affirmative action became a regular target; legacy admission of whites to colleges and universities was rarely discussed. Of course, the competing positions on affirmative action deserved an airing. But to attack affirmative action in a magazine with a staff that was almost entirely white and male was to defend not a principle but a troubling status quo.

Ruth Shalit’s inaccuracies, Stephen Glass’s fabrications and the editors’ penchant for melodramas of black pathology marred the magazine’s legacy.

When that point of view permeated a piece of reporting, the results were regrettable. A 1995 piece by Ruth Shalit argued that if The Washington Post hired strictly on merit, it would be an all-white newspaper: “The Post, of course, is in an agonizing position. If editors refuse to adjust their traditional hiring standards, they will end up with a nearly all-white staff. But if they do reach out aggressively to ensure proportionate representation for each relevant minority, they transform not just the complexion but the content of the paper.”

Shalit’s piece made no mention of the fact that the magazine she was writing for had an almost all-white editorial staff. After the piece appeared, roughly half of the 28 Post staffers Shalit interviewed wrote in to say that she had either lied about what they told her or misrepresented them; The New Republic printed only a fraction of these complaints. (The piece was later found to be riddled with inaccuracies, leading James Warren, the Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune to label Shalit a “journalistic Unabomber.”)

Likewise, before his fabrication of articles was revealed in 1998, Stephen Glass penned a 1996 piece about the Washington, D.C. taxi cab industry that seemed to cater to Peretz’s appetite for melodramas illustrating black cultural pathology. The article drew an invidious contrast between hard-working, uncomplaining immigrants who believed in the American dream versus entitled black Americans who spurned honest work (and chased after white women). The piece included imaginary details such as, “Four months ago, a 17-year-old held a gun to Eswan’s head while his girlfriend performed oral sex on the gunman.” Glass also claimed to be in a cab when a young African American man mugged the driver, and celebrated the exploits of a fictional Kae Bang, the “Korean cab-driver- turned-vigilante” who used martial arts to beat up black teenagers who tried to rob his cab. It’s fair to say that Glass’s fabrications in this piece and others did more damage to The New Republic than any event in its history. And it’s hard to accept a piece like the above would have been published in a magazine which wasn’t already inclined toward a pernicious view of African Americans.

One may also ask if a staff dominated by privileged white males might not have benefited from greater diversity, and not just along racial lines. “Marty [Peretz] doesn’t take women seriously for positions of responsibility,” staff writer Henry Fairlie told Esquire magazine in 1985. “He’s really most comfortable with a room full of Harvard males.” In a 1988 article for Vanity Fair, occasional contributor James Wolcott concurred, noting, “The New Republic has a history of shunting women to the sidelines and today injects itself with fresh blood drawn largely from male interns down from Harvard.” When Robert Wright succeeded Michael Kinsley in 1988, he joked he was hired as part of an “affirmative action program” since he went to Princeton, not Harvard.

The magazine’s close ties to Harvard go back to the fledgling days of Croly and Lippmann, both alumni of the Ivy League school. Yet, as Harvard diversified over the decades, The New Republic’s staff did not. Its masthead remained largely demographically unchanged, replicating itself generation after generation. Magazines are as susceptible as any institution to falling into a feedback loop: Just as some universities attract students from the same few families decade after decade, a publication can have a narrow demographic base, drawing its editors from the type of people who grew up reading the magazine. And considering the fact that The New Republic was the gateway for many distinguished careers at publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, the magazine can be seen as not just reflecting the media’s diversity problem, but actively contributing to it.

The magazine’s myopia on racial issues was never more apparent than in Peretz’s and editor Andrew Sullivan’s decision in 1994 to excerpt The Bell Curve, a foray into scientific racism in which the authors, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, asserted that differences in IQ among blacks and whites were largely genetic and almost impossible to significantly change. The book had not been peer-reviewed, nor were galleys sent to the relevant scientific journals. As The Wall Street Journal reported, The Bell Curve was “swept forward by a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters while withholding them from likely critics.”

Staff members at The New Republic vehemently opposed running the excerpt, but Sullivan and Peretz had the final word. A compromise was reached: The excerpt would run along with critiques written by The New Republic contributors, such as Mickey Kaus and John Judis. While the critiques made good points, only one was written by a scientist with the background needed to evaluate the book’s claims. “I’m not a scientist,” literary editor Leon Wieseltier wrote in his contribution. “I know nothing about psychometrics.”

Considering that The New Republic was the gateway for many distinguished careers at publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, the magazine can be seen as not just reflecting the media’s diversity problem, but actively contributing to it.

Because most of the critiques were political and philosophic in nature, many readers were left with the false impression that the book had some scientific validity. By the time devastating scientific reviews appeared in places like the Journal of Economic Literature and Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to The Bell Curve (edited by Bernie Devlin, et. al), the book already enjoyed unmerited prestige, thanks to the imprimatur of The New Republic. The Bell Curve was perhaps the most impactful, and unfortunate, example of the magazine’s embrace of racial mythmaking.

Sometimes, The New Republic’s cluelessness about race was almost comic. A 1991 piece by David Samuels—under the headline “The ‘Black Music’ That Isn’t Either”—assured the magazine’s readers that rap music was neither black nor music, and would be a passing fad. “Whatever its continuing significance in the realm of racial politics, rap’s hour as innovative popular music has come and gone,” Samuels wrote. The issue’s cover showed a white teenager as “The Real Face of Rap.”

Peretz’s New Republic did occasionally publish racially astute pieces, such as Caryl Phillips’s 1996 essay on Trinidadian radical Marxist historian C.L.R. James, and Peter Beinart’s 1997 piece on black-Latino tensions, but such contributions were the exception.

Whatever the problems had been with the early twentieth-century The New Republic, it published a spectrum of black voices, so readers (both black and white) had a sense of how black America thought about things. It published the conservative Washington, the centrist White, the militant Du Bois, and voices more radical than Du Bois himself, such as Du Bois’s Marxist critic Abram L. Harris.

Under Peretz, with very few exceptions, the magazine printed only the more conservative end of black political discourse: Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Juan Williams, Stanley Crouch, Randall Kennedy, and Glenn Loury.

Consider, for example, the black intellectuals who didn’t write for the magazine: Toni Morrison, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Nell Painter, Robin Kelly, Ishmael Reed, and Brent Staples, to name a few. This didn’t stop the magazine from trumpeting “The Decline of the Black Intellectual” on its cover in 1995; the accompanying 5,500-word essay by Wieseltier focused on exactly one intellectual, Cornel West. In fact, black intellectual life was vibrant at the time; it was just absent from The New Republic.

In recent years, under editors Peter Beinart, Richard Just, and Franklin Foer, there was a strong improvement in coverage of race. Dayo Olopade brought a much needed black perspective to her reporting on President Obama’s 2008 run, and in 2014, Alec MacGillis wrote a piece about Scott Walker and the toxic racial politics of Wisconsin. The same year Jason Zengerle wrote incisively about the rollback of civil rights. Rebecca Traister has had wise words about race and the Bill Cosby scandal.

Every magazine is aimed at imaginary readers, an idealized sense of the people leafing through the pages. Perhaps the core problem with Peretz’s New Republic was that the imaginary readers were unquestionably white. It was hard to imagine black readers picking up the magazine, let alone dreaming of writing for it, unless, like The New Republic contributor Walter Williams, they were readers who thought the Confederacy had some merit.

The last century of The New Republic has bestowed a rich legacy of lessons, both positive and negative, on race. At its best moments, the magazine has been a beacon of fact-based reporting and a forum for rich debate over racial issues. At its worst, the magazine has fallen under the sway of racial theorizing and crackpot racial lore. Moving forward, any reformation program should start by honestly acknowledging the past. The range of non-white voices in the magazine needs to expand, not just by having more nonwhite writers, but by having writers who aren’t just talking to an imaginary white audience but are addressing readers who look like the world. The magazine has to avoid the temptation to be an insular insider journal for the elite and recognize that its finest moments are when analytical intelligence is joined with grassroots reporting. The magazine’s well-stocked and complex legacy shouldn’t be jettisoned, but it can be reformed, built on, and made new.


Mike the strutting rhetorician is at it again but aside from the predictable rhetorical antics it’s very important and absolutely necessary that we all have this debate loud and clear in “the public square” as Dyson put it.  Because this fight between Dyson and West ain’t just about them and what they think or don’t think about each other.  O no folks. It’s WAY bigger than that.  EGOS—hurt or otherwise-- are always a very poor and infantile substitute for genuine political discourse and concerted, focused political ACTIVITY, and this conflict is no exception.  So I eagerly look forward in the coming weeks, months, and years in getting to the real heart and soul of what is really bugging Dyson about West and vice versa because THE STRUGGLE (remember that?) is much bigger and broader and more important than not only them separately or together, it’s also way bigger and more important ultimately than ALL the rest of us as well.  As long we don’t forget what we are collectively really fighting for and against—and are truly HONEST about it-- WE will be doing our jobs as human beings as citizens as activists and as equally flawed individuals who finally recognize what’s truly important and necessary beyond all the public and private posturing that any of us might indulge ourselves in (and that goes for not only Dyson and his bullshit crowing but West, Obama, Sharpton and any or everybody else in the public sphere that thinks they know "the way forward" and are intent on “taking us there.”…Stay tuned….and please don’t forget that criticism and self criticism are always PARAMOUNT in any struggle worth its name…




Wednesday, Apr 22, 2015

“Calling Obama a ‘global George Zimmerman’? No. No.”: Michael Eric Dyson sounds off on Cornel West, Obama & his critics
The Georgetown University scholar and author reflects on his very public break with his mentor turned tormentor

by Joan Walsh

"Calling Obama a 'global George Zimmerman'? No. No.":  Michael Eric Dyson sounds off on Cornel West, Obama & his critics.  Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West (Credit: AP/Evan Vucci/Richard Drew)

Author, activist, erstwhile rapper and former Barack Obama surrogate Cornel West became the president’s First Hater (at least from the left) shortly after inauguration, because of Obama’s betrayal – whether of progressive principles, or West personally, has never been clear. When West was criticized for his fierce Obama attacks by progressive colleagues and friends, he turned his enmity toward his critics, particularly African Americans he saw defending the president on MSNBC: most notably Rev. Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry and Michael Eric Dyson.

But while folks on the multiracial left have been puzzling over and lamenting West’s ad hominem haymakers at former friends for years now, when Dyson struck back this week in the New Republic, he came in for a lot of “how could yous?” — even from some of West’s critics.

West’s peculiarly personal and vicious denunciations of Obama – from the pages of Salon to the David Letterman Show — are legendary. He famously called the president “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” He claimed Obama is afraid of “free black men” and is more comfortable with “upper-middle-class white brothers and Jewish brothers.” Later he got worse, claiming Obama’s drone policies made him “a global George Zimmerman.”

When African-American friends defended the president, he went in on them. West called MSNBC’s Perry “a liar and a fraud,” claimed Sharpton was the “bona fide house negro of the Obama plantation,” and attacked “the Michael Dysons and others who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very, very ugly and vicious way.”

It’s true that as Dyson’s TNR piece bemoans the nasty ad hominem nature of West’s attacks on Obama, as well as on him and his colleagues, he gave almost as good as he got, first praising West as “the most exciting black scholar ever,” then charting his intellectual decline. “His greatest opponent isn’t Obama, Sharpton, Harris-Perry, or me,” the Georgetown scholar’s article concludes. “It is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.”

Dyson is now being attacked for doing to West what West did to Obama: acting at least partly out of a sense of betrayal and hurt. One difference is, Dyson owns it, laying it bare in the piece. He admits his decision to break with West is fueled by pain and confusion, and having had enough – in his case, enough personal insults, as well as insults to colleagues and friends and the president the author both admires, and pushes, in his own way, to be better. “Our lost friendship is the collateral damage of his war on Obama,” he writes. Dyson makes the case that the issue isn’t how West has treated him, but how he’s helped set back left-wing politics in the age of our first black president.

I sat down with Dyson at Salon’s offices in New York on Tuesday, in between his many other interviews, as text message alerts pinged from his phones and he tried to sort through the personal and political lessons of his relationship and unraveling with West, mentor turned tormentor. He seemed pained by the criticism he’s faced, but defiant, asking of his detractors, “Where were all those people when West was wilding out unchallenged saying horrendous things?” Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I think your piece illuminated a lot about progressive politics, and African American politics, in the age of Obama. And that’s mainly what I want to talk about. But you’ve generated a lot of heat, and a lot of the criticism has been intensely personal – as in, why did you write it? So let me start with that: Why did you decide to write about Cornel West, right now?

Well, look, I had been contemplating doing something in response to West’s vicious assaults not only on President Obama, but on Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Melissa Harris-Perry and on me, for a while. Finally, at the end of the day, enough is enough. He has a legitimate right to criticize all of us and to do it vigorously, even aggressively. But the kind of personal bitterness that crept into his language was doing a great disservice to the broader issue of leftist critiques of prevailing forces that are in power. The question is how do you carry out a criticism of those with whom you disagree without losing your humanity or questioning theirs in the process. And look, I have been vigorously critical of the Obama administration…

I know that, I see people calling that into question on Twitter, but I’ve read you, and we’ve had these conversations before…

But because I haven’t been nasty and bitter, because from the right wing I defend him – and then I give him a push, and sometimes a shove, from the inside, to say: this is wrong, what you’re doing, you gotta redirect. But because I don’t do it in such a viciously personal and assaultive manner, it doesn’t flag the same attention as West. So to me, it was time to settle the case and address him directly and forthrightly, the issues he was raising, the manner in which he was raising them. For him to say of Rev. Sharpton or Rev. Jackson, “Well, they’re not real prophets, they’re pathologically addicted to the camera.”  You are saying that? You seem to be magically attracted to that camera, too. You claim they’re not prophets, but you’re self-anointed? I had to deal with all of that.

I saw some people say, couldn’t you have handled it privately? Couldn’t you have talked to him personally?

I have talked to him about it over the years. Some of the older people in the black community will say, “Where you did it is where you get it.” In other words, if you act a fool in the streets, I will address you in the streets. Well, West didn’t do this privately, it was public. And doing it privately doesn’t address the public character of his assault or of his claims…

Or the meaning of what it does to public discourse on the left…

Right. He said things about people and issues and movements in public. He’s a public figure, so am I. So this is where we meet, the public square.

One of the things you did well in the piece is explain to a younger generation why West was so important to those of us who came up in the 80s and the 90s. You made me think about a lot of things differently, but one of them is: There are actually a lot of similarities between the Cornel West of the 90s, and Barack Obama a decade later. They both engaged the issues of racism, and they both engaged in the cultural analysis of the issues around what they used to call the underclass — I think we got rid of that word, we don’t hear it anymore.


Yes! And while neither of them subscribed to “culture of poverty” theories, both of them engaged in critiques of the behaviors associated with the so-called underclass. West attributed it to “nihilism,” Obama to maladaptive reactions to racism and poverty. You know, “put down the potato chips, turn off the TV, be a father.” Both tried, rightly, to talk about the interplay of class and race. I don’t subscribe to the idea that West is jealous of Obama, per se, but you helped me think about those similarities.

Those are very important points. The Oscar Lewis “culture of poverty” arguments; the Chicago school of sociology’s grappling with the fierce stubbornness of persistent poverty and the kind of cultural traits it breeds, had footprints on West’s own mental landscape as well as Obama’s. And West’s “nihilism,” as Stephen Steinberg points out, and I quote him in the piece, is hardly distinguishable from some of the “blame the victim” arguments that were being marshaled by Charles Murray and others.


…Now, we know Cornel West was not Charles Murray. But “nihilism” is a sexy term for a pathology that won’t go away, that won’t be dismissed by politics, or the reorganization of the criminal justice system. His notion of nihilism gave permission to millions who followed him to say, “Hey, it’s not politics we’re concerned about, it’s not the prison industrial complex, it’s not the social reorganization of access to capital – it’s what they’re doing to themselves…”

Well, I’m gonna push back on you there.  To be fair, I think it was certainly both sets of issues to West – “nihilism” and the political and economic factors – and the latter were probably more important. But there certainly was this taking in of the culture argument, this engaging with the prevailing debate of the 90s, which was heavily about behavior and less about racism or the economy.

In his book [Race Matters] he said, “the leftists are talking about the structures, and the conservatives are talking about the personal stuff, and I wanna come down in the middle.” But coming down in the middle, he ceded a lot of ground. And Obama, similarly, aspired to this kind of middle ground between conservatives and liberals. So there’s an eerie parallel between the West of the 90s and Barack Obama…

“Race Matters” and “Audacity of Hope,” both had a lot of “the left does this, the right does that, and I’m gonna be the conciliator.”

That’s exactly right. West wanted to be that guy and he accepted that role and talked about it. And Obama turned out to be the same kind of guy, really sharp and making some of those same arguments.

Also both of them worked hard to make clear that white people are welcome partners in the modern civil rights movement, that it is most definitely is a multiracial movement. One of the things that has been sad to me is that I appreciated the generosity and big heartedness of West’s earlier work, that tic of calling everyone “brother” and “sister” – you know, progressive white people really like that, or at least I did back at that time…

(Laughs) Of course…

But that’s part of what stung me when he turned on Obama in such ad hominem ways, as you wrote in your piece. First, he tears into Obama for appealing to white people and reaching out to white people – when that used to be a core of West’s politics, too – and then he harps on the fact that the president is half white, too close to his “white brothers” and “Jewish brothers,” allegedly afraid of “free black men.” The trademark generosity of spirit was gone entirely, and we were left with a kind of racial essentialism – and borderline anti-Semitism, with the “Jewish brothers” crack. Who’s the real Cornel West? What happened? It was shocking. And I didn’t feel like people addressed it enough at the time.

That’s part of the tragic decline of West, into the most vicious aspects of the politics of identity. Not the transcendent ones, where all of us have to acknowledge that any project of self-reimagination begins with who we are, how we identify ourselves, how the world identifies us. So we can’t deny that. That’s unavoidable. If you use it as a shoehorn into a broader world, to resonate with a collective tradition, that’s beautiful. But at the moment he began to use it as a cudgel, and to beat up on people not just outside your community but within, to say, “You’re the real black person – and you’re the fake black person…”

“You have a white mother, you’re light skinned, you’re from the Ivy League” – which West was then too…

Come on now, are you a rapper? Who’s trying to talk about keepin’ it real? The politics of authenticity with Obama, challenging him in terms of caste, in terms of color – now look, there are sophisticated arguments to be made about the inheritance of people who don’t understand what it means to be black in America. You can make that argument without precluding the possibility of others exercising their humanity and their participation in the movement toward transcending their culture. And West himself once argued against a narrow, particular version of blackness…

Yes, he did…

It was an explosive radical heterogeneity that said “There are many strains and strands of blackness, let’s embrace them. Let’s talk about LGBT people. Let’s talk about poor people.” Now you’ve retreated into a narrow cul de sac that keeps us in a dead end of thinking about the relationship between culture and politics. You hold on, arthritically almost, to a fetishized left wing politics that doesn’t have the durability of the 80s or 90s…the resonance of the larger tradition of black people…He used to be a guy who helped you see through that, and now he’s a speed bump on the road to reimagining black identity. And I’ll tell you what, it gets very personal with him, when he’s making these arguments against Melissa Harris-Perry: She’s a “fraud” and a “liar.” That is so deeply entrenched in sexist language and belief.

It was. It was disturbing. It felt very gendered and very personal.

The assaults on Obama in terms of race are personal and troubling. Assaulting me: “We invite you back to the prophetic tradition;” well, I don’t know who died and left you king…

He decides who’s in or out…

He’s a faint echo of what he provided in the 90s, when he provided us to an alternative to a narrow, viciously particular understanding of black life, and the resonant beauty of the diversity of black life, that he was on the cutting edge of. I mean, he wrote a famous essay on “the new politics of difference!” So here is the man who helped open the way, now closing it on others because he has a spat with them.

And as I wrote about at the time, it’s such a perversion of identity politics – everybody taking potshots at each other in very personal terms: You’re white, you’re not black enough, you’re the wrong kind of black, you’re too old, you’re too young, you’re not part of the prophetic tradition. None of us has the standing to say: “This is what I believe,” we are all suspect because of what we don’t bring to the table, in terms of identity. And that means we are all fractured, “tiny little caucuses of one.” The left has done that for so long — and he used to work against it.

Well yes, and the reason I say all this now: I saw his fall. It pained me. And I know a lot of people have criticized me: “Why would you write this in a white magazine?” Well guess what: That kind of black magazine of politics doesn’t exist. This could not be written for Ebony and Essence, and I love them and have written for both of them. It’s not the right forum. The New Republic has been remade over the last several months. They had a mass exodus of valiant and gifted writers, and an infusion of other valiant and gifted writers, and some great writers who stayed. This new New Republic is the magazine I chose because I want to challenge the white left to embrace others of different colors. And they’ve done so brilliantly. So why would we punish them, when we’ve asked them to open the doors, and they did? And now we’re gonna stigmatize them for dealing with issues of importance to African Americans?

Yes, it’s exactly what we’ve asked white magazines to do: deal with issues of importance and resonance to African Americans – and don’t always assign the pieces to people like me, but to actual African Americans. They did that.

I just got back from preaching in small black churches across black America, so I take second to nobody in terms of being on the front lines to make visible the claims of all people. My scholarship is reflective of that. By the way, I took on Bill Cosby 10 years ago, when it was unpopular in black America, defending the vulnerable, when Cornel West stood at Cosby’s side and defended him. And when I went to Princeton, West came and sat on the front row with Phylicia Rashad. So he symbolically and semiotically demonstrated his indivisible bond with Cosby while I was being charged with being a race traitor for challenging Cosby’s vicious assault upon the poor.

So his new-born identification with the poor is quite striking to me, not only because of his critique of “nihilism” but his defense of Cosby: “Cosby has the right to challenge poor black people to live up to what they need to do, and because he’s given so much to black America, as a philanthropist, he’s earned his right.”  So philanthocracy is not as bad as oligarchy?

Well, let’s rise above all that:  I think your piece was really about the challenge of progressive politics, and African American politics, in the age of President Obama. And I don’t say that to blame the president…

No, it is the age of Obama…

Yes. And we, on the left, sometimes have a hard time criticizing him. Sometimes. And then, when some of us do criticize him – I’ll talk about white progressives here, mostly, though maybe it applies to West too – we don’t fully take in his huge, personal, psychological, spiritual importance to the black community — including to many black progressives. There’s a protectiveness that you only understand if you think about what’s happened to our black heroes, and you think about the racism and obstruction he’s faced. There is so much in the backlash against criticism of him that I have learned from, though it has also hurt my feelings sometimes.

But in the piece you share what you told Dr. West about how to criticize him: You can respect his historic role and his singular history, you can condemn the obstruction and racism – and still criticize him, but keep it focused on policy, with respect. West rejected it because he doesn’t “respect the brother at all.” But you still struggle with it – you got criticism for your criticism about his response to Ferguson, and his frequent forays into respectability politics. Can you talk about your ongoing balancing act?

I think your characterization of it is very lucid.

Well, it’s really your characterization, from the piece!

(laughs) Look, Obama is a singular figure alongside the most important black man who ever lived, Martin Luther King Jr. With all of the patriarchal resonances that might evoke — what about the great Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth? And that is all true. But Martin Luther King Jr. occupies a certain space in black America, because of the blood he shed that went into the ground, and produced so many opportunities for black America. He expressed most eloquently what we want and what we desire. So Obama, for the first time, offered somebody in competition with that figure: The most powerful man in the world happens to be one of us. And from day one, the guy was getting all kinds of resistance.

Now there are legitimate criticisms to be made, and I’ve made them. And there are white folks who criticize him, and it’s not from racism. However, the structural features of his presidency, the fact that this man is assaulted in so many ways and methods that assassinate his character — he has not been physically, thank God, assassinated — but there have been such rhetorical assaults on him. It’s unprecedented that a president didn’t automatically get the debt ceiling raised. Unprecedented that 47 senators would write our “enemy” compromising national security; it’s an unconsciously racist motivation, that I feel safe in saying. People see it, black and white…

He can’t get his cabinet secretaries confirmed. Granted, judges’ confirmations have been contentious for a while, but…

Loretta Lynch has been lingering there. Other nominees. This man has been resisted, and in the midst of that, he’s been able to pass the Affordable Care Act, save the auto industry…

Prevent another depression…

Yes, the poor and the black are suffering. Unemployment is still too high. But we have to acknowledge that. Then we can say, but Mr. President, you have disserved many of those communities from which you emerged. For instance: the speech he gave at the March on Washington celebration 50 years later was horrendous.

And you said so…

Here is a man, a public intellectual, charged with interpreting the complexity of the black freedom struggle, and he did a horrible job. The reason we know he did a horrible job is because on other occasions he did a splendid job. He scorns and scolds black people. And look, if you go to a black church on any Sunday, you’re going to hear the same thing, and much worse. The difference is, you’re also hear analysis of structural problems that inhibit black people, and the willingness to call a spade a spade and a racist a racist.

I was with Obama in 2007 or 8 when Oprah had the famous fundraiser at her home in Santa Barbara. And I was there when Chris Rock cornered Obama and told him a story: He said: “You know what? My father said, you can’t beat white people — I mean out-point them — you gotta knock them the hell out!” And Obama laughs, and Chris Rock says, “No, look, really.” He talked about how Gerry Cooney [who is white] was fighting Larry Holmes [who is black], Gerry Cooney was getting his behind beat, blood everywhere. And about the 11th round, Larry Holmes knocks him out. And they go to the [judges’] scorecards, and Gerry Cooney was ahead – even though he’s being pummeled! And Chris Rock’s father said: “You gotta knock. Them. Out!”

And so Obama loves to quote Chris Rock when Chris Rock says “Black people always wanna be celebrated for something they oughta be doing like, “I take care of my kids. Blank-blank idiot: You should be taking care of your kids!” He never quotes the other side of Chris Rock: that there’s persistent white supremacy, there’s the lingering belief that black folks are to be treated with suspicion, and guess what: Obama  knows this because he’s treated the same way.

Now, I can assure Professor West and others who think I’ve been too light on the president that I have had bitter personal interactions, public excoriations from high ranking officials in the Obama administration because of the op-eds I’ve written and the stances I’ve taken. But: this is the critical difference: After I appeared on “Face the Nation” and was critical of the president…

About his response to Ferguson…

And after I wrote a Washington Post op-ed…

Which was harsh, and influential…

There was no love lost between the administration and me. But I could exercise my leverage in a way that was targeted, and not personal.

Well, this is one element of the president’s personality, not to blame him for his troubles, but I think of the famous story, I think it’s true, not apocryphal, where FDR is telling A. Philip Randolph: “Don’t tell me what you want me to do about racism and segregation: Make me do it.”

Make me do it!

Pressure me, agitate, organize! From what I’ve heard, directly from some people, the president doesn’t always have that attitude. He can be thin skinned about criticism from advocates and activists on the left. He gets in people’s faces when they criticize.

It’s withering. Yes, they say they want criticism, but they don’t really want it. The problem with “Make me do it,” the tricky thing there: FDR was not beloved in the same way by black people. We’ve had 43 white presidents, now we have a black president. So black people say: “Let us be proud of him.” Black people have tremendous pride. And so, the problem is that because black investment in Obama’s success is so high and so deep, he has symbolically taken on the future of black people in this nation – that many black people are unable to hear the importance of critique.

And I have defended West, and Tavis Smiley. Tavis Smiley was disinvited from a King celebration, and I was invited instead. The first thing out of my mouth was to say, “I’m a friend of Tavis Smiley’s. Tavis Smiley would be in good standing with Martin Luther King Jr., who incurred a great deal of wrath because of his ability to speak up. I’m here to tell you, I love what Tavis Smiley does. I happen to disagree with some of the stances he’s taken, but I agree with the need to criticize the president.” The people understood what I was trying to get at.

It’s interesting: We have this impulse to compare President Obama to Dr. King. But the real comparison, going back to the civil rights movement, isn’t Dr. King – it’s LBJ. And I think a lot about the rifts in the civil rights movement over the Vietnam War. Dr. King faced a lot of pressure – externally, but also within the movement – to stay on civil rights, leave the war alone. Bayard Rustin, who was so important to social justice, was somebody who said for a time, hey, this is the best president we’ve ever had on civil rights, can’t you handle that mess later?

Oh yeah, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins said nasty things about King and the war…

Yeah, but Dr. King said no, he came out against the war.  Yet he refused to join the “Dump Johnson” movement, or personalize it in any way. Johnson still got furious, but…that was King’s approach.

But you’re absolutely right here. This is Pharoah, not Moses. Obama is Pharoah, not Moses. That’s not a knock on him; that’s a job description! His job is to run the country. Pharoah has to be called into question by Moses. Now, Cornel West sees himself as Moses. But Moses wasn’t hurling epithets, Moses was bringing down the Ten Commandments. I’m not denying that West feels a heavenly call, but when you compare yourself to King, or Jeremiah, that’s a bit much, that’s a bit hubristic. None of them ever called their enemies the names he calls us. Martin Luther King not only didn’t call other black leaders those names; he didn’t call white supremacists those names. In all those FBI tapes, speaking in private, he never uttered a vicious word.

To go back to Vietnam, and Dr. King, and LBJ though: Do you ever worry that some of us, progressives, pull our punches or aren’t as active on issues particularly of national security, state secrecy, spying, drones, etc. because of our respect for what the president has accomplished personally, what he means symbolically, what he’s done on civil rights, health care, the economy?

West has been brilliant on that in terms of his analysis. But calling Obama “a global George Zimmerman?” No. No. You obscure the point you’re making. So the NSA, the drones, the security state, all of this should bother anybody who’s committed to the fundamental processes of democracy, to anybody who believes we have a right to question our government, and to challenge our government. Even when the president is black. Even when the head of the American empire is an African American, and the major Moses, the law giver, is Eric Holder, a fine and remarkable public servant, who also has come under serious critique for his view points about Wall Street and the like.

That’s the American way – to be able to appreciate the contribution and challenge the flaws. Eric Holder has done incredibly important things on civil rights, on voting rights. The point is, how do we leverage the authority of our own leftist positions to hold to account the people that we elect? That’s legitimate. But it is sullied and obliterated by the approach of West, his hostility to someone who says, “I’m critical of the president, but let’s be gentler with him personally. Aggressive. Powerful. On point. But at the same time, not as viciously personal.”

And this has been concerning to a whole lot of black people for some time. A whole bunch of people have come to me privately and said, “What’s wrong with him? What’s going on?”

Oh yeah, people have been concerned, and even angry, for some time – some of the people that I even see attacking you now on Twitter. But is there anything in the criticism you’ve received, that you think had merit?

Well, look, my good friend Dave Zirin from the Nation, he says, with all due respect, even though West has come at you in this horrible way –he’s not Mike Tyson. I compared him to Mike Tyson in the piece – once great, lethal, ferocious…

Then gnawing on ears…

That’s right – instead of bending our minds, he’s biting our ears. But Dave said that’s wrong, he’s not Tyson, he’s Ali, and he compares me to George Foreman. But I think the analogy is troubled in this sense: He’s got the right story, but the wrong characters. West has been pummeling me, and others, for six years. He’s the George Foreman, punching away. I finally wait, and send a punch back. So in that sense, I might say to my brother Dave Zirin: “You’ve got the right story, but the wrong guy.”

I’ll end by saying this: Where were all the people who are now concerned about the toughness of my critique – though I began with tremendous love and paid my debt to West, personally, as well as that of my generation to him  – where were all those people when West was wilding out unchallenged saying horrendous things? Here’s the ultimate irony: The same love many people have for Cornel West, he begrudges the masses of black people having love for Barack Obama. You can’t have it both ways.

I think black people who’ve criticized me, who allowed West to behave this way, to act as a spoiled child, hiding under the skirts of invulnerability because he claims to love the left and love the poor, really when you pull those skirts aside – you will see the problem is not only his alone, but the complicity of black people in it.

I’d say check yourselves, too. Because if you didn’t call West out, to say, “Cornel, you’re going too hard and being too personal”….if you didn’t do that, you’ve helped create the situation where an article like mine was wholly necessary, and from my perspective, completely justified.

Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."