AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Barack Obama giving his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago earlier this month.
My next guest is a celebrated scholar and public intellectual whose books include Race Matters and Democracy Matters, Princeton University professor of religion and African American studies, Cornel West. His latest book is Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom.
He writes: “Now here we are in 2008. America finds itself looking to its blues people again to provide vision to a nation with the blues. That is a source of hope. Yet hope is no guarantee. Real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle and it can be betrayed by naïve projections of a better future that ignore the necessity of doing the real work. So what we are talking about is hope on a tightrope.”
Professor Cornel West joins us from Princeton, New Jersey. Welcome to Democracy Now!
CORNEL WEST: My dear Amy, how are you doing there?
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.
CORNEL WEST: I want to salute your courage and your vision. You are a long-distance runner for justice, and I love it and love you, I tell you.
CORNEL WEST: I say there’s no such thing, no such thing, Amy. By “post-racial,” they really mean “less racist.” You’re talking about white brothers and sisters who are now willing to vote for a black man based on qualification as opposed to pigmentation. That’s a beautiful thing. But at the same time, it recognizes that there was a time in which pigmentation would trump qualification.
Black people have been voting for white candidates, as in Gary, Indiana. You had a white mayor, the Chocolate City. Black people voted for the white candidate vis-à-vis the black candidate, because the white candidate was better. That wasn’t post-racial; it was just black people were less racist.
And so, we have to be honest about this. There’s no such thing as “post-racial” in that regard. It’s a beautiful thing to be less racist. Same is true for “color blind.” We can’t say it’s color blind, on the one hand, and then be so happy when we cross the color line and vote for Brother Barack Obama, that there is a color line, we cross it, we’re trying to stay in contact with the humanity of each other. We need to be embracing of each other’s humanity, not trying to subtract our bodies and somehow be color blind and post-racial.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West, you were a big supporter of Barack Obama, but you also have been giving speeches about holding him to account. What are the issues you are most concerned about right now?
CORNEL WEST: Well, I think, as a deep Democrat, I recognize I have some significant differences with Brother Barack. He’s a liberal. It looked like he wants to govern as a liberal-centrist, given the choices of Emanuel—Rahm Emanuel and others. And one has to be honest and candid in terms of one’s criticism, because in the end, it’s not about Barack Obama, it’s about empowering working people and poor people. It’s about trying to accent the dignity of those Sly Stone called “everyday people.” And when he moves in that direction, it’s good. When he doesn’t move in that direction, we need to criticize him. Same is true in terms of foreign policy: Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. We have to be honest about it.
For me, my criticism of Barack has to do with trying to acknowledge the degree to which, one, thank God we’re at the end of the age of Ronald Reagan, we’re at the end of the era of conservatism, we’re coming to the end of the epoch of the Southern Strategy. For the first time now, we’ve got some democratic possibilities. This has been a political ice age, and the melting is just beginning. And Barack Obama is a symbol, but we’ve got to move from symbol to substance. We’ve got to move from what he represents in a broad sense—and it’s a beautiful thing to have a black man in the White House, we know that, and black slaves and laborers and other white immigrants built the White House. And to have a black family there, significant; black face for the American empire, fine. Can we revitalize democratic possibilities on the ground with Barack in the White House? I think we can. We can put some serious pressure on him, and we can actually continue the democratic awakening among working people and poor people and push Barack in a progressive direction.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about just this latest news that came out last night—of course, not the official announcement, but Eric Holder, the former deputy attorney general under President Clinton, being tapped as the next attorney general, if confirmed?
CORNEL WEST: Well, two things. First, on a personal level, I know Brother Eric Holder. I’ve spent good time with him in meetings and so on. He’s a brilliant lawyer. He’s a very decent human being. I know he was very upset about Clinton’s attitude toward crime. We know during the Clinton administration we got the tightening of the mandatory sentences that’s had devastating effects on poor communities, especially disproportionately black and brown poor communities. And Eric took a strong stand in that regard. I appreciate that, because there’s a sense that we kind of whitewash the Clinton administration—welfare bill, crime, deregulation and so forth. We’ve got to be honest about some of the flaws during the age of Reagan and the Clinton moments during the age of Reagan. And Eric did take a stand.
On the other hand, of course, I’m sure I have some disagreements with him. But I am a little suspicious, in fact, highly suspicious, of the degree to which my dear Brother Barack Obama seems to be recycling all of these Clintonites. I’m looking for an age of everyday people, not a Clintonite recycling in this new period. And so, I’m a little bit suspicious of this, though I think Eric Holder is much better than many of the other Clintonites that’s being recycled.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you about this comment of Mario Murillo, who’s a professor at Hofstra, talking about Eric Holder. You know, he worked as a partner at the D.C. law firm of Covington & Burling.
CORNEL WEST: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: His clients included Chiquita.
CORNEL WEST: Yes, I heard that.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, we reached Mario in Colombia, and he talked about Holder’s representation of Chiquita.
MARIO MURILLO: There’s been talk about a close ally and friend of Obama as a potential Attorney General for the United States, Eric Holder, who is currently defending Chiquita Brands International in its defense against dozens of plaintiffs here in Colombia, working families who were targeted by paramilitaries who were funded to the tune of $1.7 million over the last several years. It’s a major scandal. And if this guy becomes the Attorney General under an Obama administration, then it’s going to be really hard to find justice in this case coming from the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mario Murillo in Colombia. Professor Cornel West?
CORNEL WEST: Yeah, no, again, this is one of the reasons why we love the work that you do, Sister Amy. This is the first that I’ve heard of this. I would want to hear from my dear Brother Eric and see what he has to say. Now, we know, of course, so many of these corporate firms, they defend all kind of different elites in various parts of the world, and we want to know the degree to which Eric Holder personally and politically and ideologically supports the kind of things going on, as opposed to the kind of role that one plays within a legal firm. Oftentimes, these firms take stances that are not in agreement with the individual lawyers themselves. You know that lawyers take a variety of different cases. It could be criminals and a whole host of others. Lawyers tend to go where they are told. But I would want to hear what Brother Eric Holder has to say about this. This is very interesting, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about this wave of what seems to be increased number of hate crimes since the election of Barack Obama all over the country.
CORNEL WEST: Yeah. I mean, I expect a white backlash, and there’s no doubt about that. But the wonderful thing about this is that, one, we know that, you know, this white backlash in no way speaks for the vast majority of white brothers and sisters. This is very different than forty or fifty years ago, where it was closer to the mainstream, or more mainstream white brothers and sisters were silent in the face of that kind of xenophobic violence. But there’s going to be a white backlash.
These are the last gasps of the era of conservatism; these are the kind of death rattles of the age of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980; Ku Klux Klan endorsed him the same day. So he gave a permission to allow this kind of xenophobic bigotry to be a kind of subcurrent within the culture, just as he gave it a permission to be rich and be indifferent toward the poor and so forth. Thank God we are coming to the end of that era. So we’re going to get some death rattles and some last gasps.
We just hope that the white backlash in this regard does not spill over into a situation in which the mainstream somehow becomes complacent, because the wonderful thing about this is the vast majority of white brothers and sisters are against the white xenophobes. That’s a wonderful thing. That’s progress in America.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the crimes, Associated Press and a list of them, compiled over the last two weeks: crosses burned in the yards of Obama supporters in Hardwick, New Jersey and in Pennsylvania; in the Pittsburgh suburb of Forest Hills, a black man said he found a note with a racial slur on his car windshield, saying, “Now that you voted for Obama, just watch out for your house”; a black teenager in New York City said he was attacked with a bat on election night by four white men who shouted “Obama”; in Standish, Maine, a sign inside the Oak Hill General Store read, “Osama Obama Shotgun Pool”—customers could sign up to bet $1 on a date when Obama would be killed; at North Carolina State, four students admitted writing a sign on the campus that called for shooting Obama in the head; and in Idaho, second- and third-grade students on a school bus in Rexburg were heard chanting "assassinate Obama.” Do you think we’re just noticing this kind of thing more?
CORNEL WEST: No, I think this kind of thing has been around. We know all the different, you know, attacks, assaults and threats and so forth against dear Brother Barack. This is, you know, the undercurrent of the lower frequencies of the worst of America. We don’t want to lose sight of the best of America. But we’ve got to—I think we have to acknowledge any time you make a transition from one era to the next, you’re going to get this kind of bigotry manifest. Thank God it’s not as widespread, and thank God we have persons who are willing to bring critique to bear and to oppose it on all racial and cultural and political fronts.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to you, Professor Cornel West. We’re going to break for just a minute. His new book, just out this week, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Work to Do,” Kids in the Hall, and if you want hear Professor—or watch Professor dancing to that music—well, Cornel West, remember, this is TV as well as radio, so we showed a little of you rocking out there.
CORNEL WEST: That’s alright! A little Carole King, I’m telling you.
AMY GOODMAN: Just go to our website, if you’re listening on radio, democracynow.org. It’s a beautiful sight, Professor Cornel West.
CORNEL WEST: Is it.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University. His latest book is called Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom.
So, one of the people who have been named as—or the rumors that have been swirling about for Treasury Secretary have been one Larry Summers, someone you know very well. We’re talking to you at Princeton University right now. But before you were a Princeton, you were at Harvard. You ultimately left because of Larry Summers, when he was president of Harvard University. Can you talk about Larry Summers and his choice as a Treasury Secretary pick, your experience with him?
CORNEL WEST: Yes. Well, I mean, one, I had a major clash with Brother Larry Summers. It was ugly. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve forgiven him, but it’s very clear that he has tremendous difficulty treating many people with decency and empathy. That’s far removed, of course, from his brilliance. He does have are brilliant mind.
The problem is, he has been a deregulator. He’s part of the Robin Rubin circle of Jason Furman and the others under Clinton. They were very much responsible for stripping the powers of the Glass-Steagall Act that made that crucial separation between investment and commercial banks. They’re responsible in part for the larger Greenspan-like shadow cast that wedded us to the dogma of unregulated markets that has led toward the near catastrophe and what Mike Davis rightly calls the financial Katrina, two million fellow citizens being pushed into homelessness. So it’s the political and ideological orientation of my dear Brother Larry Summers that deeply upsets me in terms of his character, in terms of his inability to treat so many of us with decency and empathy.
OK, I acknowledge that, but sometimes brilliant folk have social challenges. I can understand that. But it’s the political concern that I have about Brother Larry Summers, and I would think that we’ve got William Greider, we’ve got Joseph Stiglitz, we’ve got Sylvia Ann Hewlett, we’ve got Ben Barber, we’ve got Robert Kuttner, we’ve got a whole host of progressive economists who are actually coming up with visions of empowering poor people, that I would hope that my dear Brother Barack Obama would take seriously. Why stay with centrists like Robin Rubin and company?
AMY GOODMAN: Who else would you like to see in President Obama’s cabinet?
CORNEL WEST: In terms of various other positions?
AMY GOODMAN: Sure.
CORNEL WEST: God, that’s a good question. I mean, I haven’t really thought about it. I just want to see some progressives. I just want to see some folk who are willing to take a stand for working people, take a stand for poor people, willing to talk about poverty. I mentioned some of economists themselves—
AMY GOODMAN: Right.
CORNEL WEST: —the Kuttners and the others, but I don’t have a—
AMY GOODMAN: How about your colleague at Princeton University, Paul Krugman?
CORNEL WEST: Oh, Paul Krugman. Oh, my god. Yes, indeed, indeed. Paul is probably even a little bit too progressive and prophetic. He probably needs to stay outside, like myself, and be Socratic and prophetic and just tell the truth to the people in power. But he’s my very dear brother and comrade, and of course I salute his Nobel Prize. It’s rare that you see a progressive economist receiving a Nobel Prize in that way.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why is it that the names you’ve just named of progressives are not being bandied about in any way as possible people in his cabinet?
CORNEL WEST: That’s a good question.
AMY GOODMAN: And the names that you named, like Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, these are the closest advisers to Barack Obama.
CORNEL WEST: You know, I fear that Brother Barack might be challenged by what Bill Clinton was. When you have been an outsider to the establishment, you want to make the establishment feel secure, and therefore, you want to recycle names that the establishment feels are legitimate names. And therefore, you’re reluctant to step out too far, because you’ll be unable to proceed and unable to govern with a smoothness that you think ought to be characteristic of your regime. And so, he ends up selecting people who the mainstream are going to herald as legitimate, rather than make that break and acknowledge this is a new day, and it ought to be the age of everyday people, the age of ordinary people. That’s what I think. And it’s ironic, because there’s a sense in which Brother Barack Obama might be reluctant to step into the new age of Obama and remains looking backward to the end of the Clinton moment. And I say, no, we need to break free. Now, it could be like FDR: he’s just reluctant, and we’ll have to push him. And that’s fine.
AMY GOODMAN: And how will that pushing take place, do you think, with such tremendous passion—
CORNEL WEST: We’ve got to organize—yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —supporters—passionate supporters of Barack Obama, who pushed him from the outside?
CORNEL WEST: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Now that he is the state, how do people organize?
CORNEL WEST: Well, we use, in many ways, his own words. He says that he wants the bottoms up. That’s fine. We organize, we mobilize. We don’t look simply for a top down. The Clintonites have often been top down. It’s the bottom up. We organize, we mobilize. We consolidate our organizations. And in the end, of course, we may have to take to the streets. That’s how people’s power is expressed, but it’s expressed in a critical and, for me, in a loving way.
I do still support Brother Barack Obama gaining access to the White House, because he was the best that America could do at this particular moment in the midst of imperial occupation in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, financial Katrina, legacy of Katrina in New Orleans, wealth inequality, dilapidated housing in chocolate cities, disgraceful school systems, unacceptable levels of unemployment and underemployment, not enough access to healthcare for fellow citizens across race and region, not enough access to childcare. At this moment, the best America could do was Brother Barack Obama, liberal, centrist.
Will he govern like a progressive Lincoln? Will he triangulate like Clinton? Will he be an experimentalist like FDR? Those are the challenges. I hope he’s a progressive Lincoln. I plan to be—aspire to be the Frederick Douglasses against, to put pressure on him.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about Frederick Douglass, the man who was enslaved, fought back, came north, became the leading abolitionist in this country—
CORNEL WEST: The most eloquent ex-slave in the history of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about descendants of slaves. Now, Barack Obama was not, but Michelle Obama is. And seeing the two of them walk into the White House, Michelle Obama from the very university you’re sitting in right now, where you teach—
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: —at Princeton University. Your thoughts of this—
CORNEL WEST: Distinguished graduate of Princeton.
AMY GOODMAN: Right.
CORNEL WEST: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And her famous thesis, that—it’s not as well-known exactly what she wrote about, but doing a survey of Princeton alum about—black Princeton alum, how their experience at Princeton separated them from—or asking the question, did it separate them from their own communities and how they felt. Your thoughts on that? And do you know Michelle Obama?
CORNEL WEST: Oh, my god, we had a wonderful fundraiser for Sister Michelle Obama. In fact, my dear Sister Mary Ann Rodriguez and I set up the whole thing. It was magnificent. She gave a powerful speech. We had Marvin Bressler here, who was one of her thesis advisers. We didn’t see Professor Wallace, also worked with her. She is brilliant. She’s charismatic, just like Brother Barack.
She’s a truth teller. She talked about the level of alienation of black students at Princeton. But she also talked about the tremendous strength and fortitude and determination of black students who become multi-contextual, to be able to move from white context to black context and retain their sanity, dignity and integrity.
I have tremendous respect and love for Sister Michelle Obama, and I think that she is a force for good. She’s a progressive voice within the Obama circle. And Barack was very, very wise and very lucky, full of grace, actually, to have such a wonderful wife, let alone the two precious, precious daughters that they have.
AMY GOODMAN: And seeing them walk into this house, the White House, a house that was actually built by slaves, as was the Capitol.
CORNEL WEST: Yeah, and some white immigrants, too. But you’re absolutely right. I’m deeply moved by that. I tend not to be sentimental, but I do have a romantic streak. And it’s a beautiful thing. Symbols do matter. I want substance, but symbols do matter. To think of the struggles and sacrifices of black people and progressive whites and browns and yellows and reds to break the back of these vicious white supremacists’ glass ceilings and to have that first family, a black family, in the White House, that says something. We need more, but that says something. That’s a moment to celebrate now. I did breakdance that Tuesday night, but I come back a strong critic, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West, there’s this discussion of the new generation of black leaders. A famous image on the night of the victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago when Barack Obama was giving his victory address was Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., weeping in the crowd. Now this discussion of a new generation of black leaders like Cory Booker, not like Al Sharpton, not like Jesse Jackson, Sr.—that’s what the media says, not like them. What do you make of those distinctions?
CORNEL WEST: Well, one is, I’m always suspicious of white mainstream characterization and selection of black leadership. That’s always a truncated affair.
I think Brother Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. is a towering figure. I think he’s been underappreciated. His contribution during the political ice age of Ronald Reagan is just world historical. He led significant powerful movements, not just black people, multiracial people, the Rainbow Coalition and so on. We all have our criticisms of Brother Jesse, but he’s a rhetorical genius, and he’s been a tremendous force for justice in his own way. Same with Al Sharpton, somebody I also have a deep love and respect for, keeping track of white supremacist abuse and trying also to create various coalitions.
But they come out of a tradition that focuses on black suffering and black resistance to suffering. They are black leaders. Barack Obama is not a black leader. He’s an American leader who is black. That’s a very different thing, and they’re in different lanes. And we need to acknowledge different lanes that people have. Cory Booker is not a black leader; he is a mayor of Newark, New Jersey who is black. He’s my dear brother. I’m going to have dinner with him tonight. That we have different lanes, we have a maturation of leadership, you have a differentiation of leadership. We need to respect the various lanes that we have.
And I try to be someone who mediates these different folk in the various lanes, and I’ve just got my Socratic prophetic lane, unsettling questions raised, being willing to live and die for justice. That means that I’m concerned about black leadership. I’m concerned with American leaders who are black, American leaders who are white, American leaders who are brown, and so forth.
But this is not a matter of just one type. And so, when you get the New York Times and the Washington Post writing these truncated, emaciated stories about one form of black leadership replacing another form of black leadership—no, these are simultaneous forms of leadership in different lanes that are accenting various kind of problems. We need the NAACP to keep track of the white supremacist abuse. That’s different than Eric Holder, who is a—will be an attorney general of the American democratic project who is black, who will relate to the NAACP, who will relate to ACLU, and so forth and so on.
You see the point I’m making, Sister Amy?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes. And I wanted to ask you—
CORNEL WEST: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the legacy of Jeremiah Wright. Just recently, Black Students Association at Northwestern held a big event for him. It was packed, and he spoke. He was disinvited from—an award was rescinded by Northwestern. They were going to give him the Honorary Doctorate of Sacred Theology. But where you think that has been left today, the whole attack on Jeremiah Wright and how Barack Obama dealt with it, from his speech on race to the ultimate speaking out against him after he spoke at the National Press Club?
CORNEL WEST: Well, one, I have a very deep love for Brother Jeremiah Wright. I spoke at his retirement. I think that he’s been completely misunderstood. When he said, “God damn America for killing innocent people,” those of us who are religious, like myself, or Christian, I don’t think there is a god worthy of worship who does not condemn injustice. So when any country kills innocent people, there is a divine condemnation, there’s a divine critique there. That’s true from Amos. That’s true from Jesus. That’s true for Buddha. That’s true for Mohammed.
So, what I mean by that is that there’s been lies told about the brother. It was more the style that he said it. We know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was going to preach a sermon called God May—“America May Go to Hell.” He didn’t say America ought to go to Hell, he didn’t say America will go to Hell; he said America may go to Hell, because he worshipped a god of justice. And in 1968, he saw too much injustice in America. He never lived to give that sermon. But the difference would have been, of course, that Martin would have said it with tears in his eyes, whereas Brother Jeremiah said it was a certain flippancy, and that’s what Fox News picked up. And they end up demonizing the brother, and I think that’s wrong. It was wrong to demonize Brother Jeremiah Wright.
And, of course, in the middle of a campaign, Barack had to distance himself from that. But I think there’s a sense in which Brother Jeremiah Wright will be vindicated, once much of the mendacity and lies are actually disclosed and you actually see what he is saying. There’s a crucial role for prophetic voices in Judaism—the legacy of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—in Buddhism, in Christianity, my own faith. Prophetic voices must be put forward. And there’s always a tension between the quest for truth and the quest for power. They can overlap. They can converge. But there’s always a tension. If you’re telling the truth, whoever is in power or attempting to gain power is going to have a little distance from you. That’s just the way things are.
AMY GOODMAN: We end, Professor Cornel West, with your explaining your title in this day and age, in 2008, in this day, this month of the election of Barack Obama: Hope on a Tightrope.
CORNEL WEST: Yes. America’s hanging in the balance, state of emergency, sense of urgency. I’m a blues man in the life of the mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas, and the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe, expressed lyrically and endured with grace and dignity. How do we deal with catastrophic circumstances of our children, catastrophic circumstances of our workers, catastrophic circumstances of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters? Let us not forget Proposition 8 in other states that denied the rights of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, even as we celebrate Brother Barack Obama. The catastrophic ought to be our focus. That’s what blues people are about. For Christians, it’s the cross as a catastrophic—what kind of sensitivity do we have for people wrestling with catastrophic circumstances? And how do they resist? How do they endure? How do they persevere? How do we democratize and embrace all of humanity so that the wretched of the earth are able to live lives of decency and dignity?
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West, thanks so much for being with us today.
CORNEL WEST: Thank you so very much, Sister Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor of religion and African American studies, speaking to us at Princeton University. His new book is Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom.