Much of black America held its collective breath upon witnessing a battle royale between Rev. Al Sharpton and Dr. Cornel West. The argument took place on an MSNBC special entitled “A Stronger America: The Black Agenda,” hosted by Ed Schultz. This heated debate was a natural culmination of the growing frustration that many African-Americans are feeling toward the Obama presidency. For some, the election of a black president didn’t provide the second coming of Juneteenth that many of us expected. On the flip side, there are many who feel that serving the black community directly is too much of a burden to put on our first black president.
One of my greatest concerns about the heated debate between Professor West and Rev. Sharpton is that the argument may be misinterpreted by those who were watching. Some might see the back-and-forth as a reflection of serious animosity, which is not the case. West and Sharpton have been friends for a very long time and will continue to be friends after this is over. But even family members can disagree, and with both men being strong-willed, neither was willing to limp away from the conversation.
WATCH THE HEATED SHARPTON AND WEST EXCHANGE HERE
Cornel’s concerns are legitimate and accurate. He pointed out correctly that the Obama administration appears to be living off of the unconditional love that black America has for “the chosen one.” The president’s cabinet has not, to date, shown a willingness to reciprocate the unprecedented support Obama received from the African-American community. A group that provided roughly one-fifth of your votes deserves no less than one-fifth of your attention. That’s a simple, undeniable and logical fact.
West is also correct to assert that the Obama-Sharpton relationship is risky for both parties. Rev. Al must ensure that the relationship leads to meaningful opportunities for all of black America, and not just the National Action Network. As with all politicians, there will be efforts to skew the partnership to maximize benefits to the Obama administration, and only legitimate pressure is going to keep Washington honest. I think Sharpton understands this.
On the other hand, Cornel West is not beyond criticism either. By maintaining such a close relationship with the ultimate Obama-hater (Tavis Smiley), Professor West is at risk of undermining the validity of his arguments against President Obama. There is almost nothing President Obama could do that would satisfy Tavis Smiley, and Cornel West is smart enough to know that. Additionally, the MSNBC show was about the black agenda, not a venting session on Obama. A couple of sentences about the administration would have been adequate, with the rest of the discussion centered on the critical issues being faced by black and brown people across America.
Professor West made an accurate point about Obama’s unwillingness to stand up for the poor, but being quick to protect the elite. This critique was on point, given that Obama has defended Harvard cronies such as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who didn’t hire a single African-American, Native American or Hispanic tenure track faculty member during six years as dean of the Harvard Law School. The problem for West, however, is that he didn’t bring forth the same critique when Obama sabotoged an important press conference on health care by speaking out on behalf of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, who endured the “gross inconvenience” of being arrested on his front porch.
While Obama readily spoke up on behalf of Gates, he has remained silent when other less-educated black men have been gunned down, beaten or harassed by police. West also refused to question Gates’ motives during the debacle, and I was left as the lone black scholar willing to address the disgusting elitism of it all.
Rev. Sharpton realizes that the best defense is a good offense, but he should be careful. While he is correct in his critique of Cornel West’s position, this does not rid him of the perception some have that the Obama administration is trying to use him. The best way for both Obama and Sharpton to deal with the criticism is to come forth with evidence that Obama is as committed to black America as he has been to the gay community, women’s groups and Hispanics. If Sharpton is indeed being persuaded to sell Obama to the black American public, the president would be best-served to give Sharpton a product that is easy to sell.
Whether we know this or not, Cornel West and Al Sharpton are actually helping one another. Similar to the “good cop, bad cop,” game, Sharpton can utilize the critiques of West and millions of others as leverage to achieve meaningful gains within the administration. The relationship between Sharpton and Obama is likely not going to go away, and Obama will certainly win most of the black vote. So, the most that we can hope for is that this relationship will bear fruit for the African-American community, and that we can get a black president who knows that a community stands behind him with the expectation of full accountability.
There is a message being sent by the fact that Obama even deals with Rev. Al, because this relationship is not without its critics. Obama could have easily chosen a milder and more digestible black public figure, or avoided all civil rights leaders completely. By leaving D.C. during critical budget negotiations to keep a commitment to Sharpton, the president is signaling that the relationship has some kind of value to his administration. The problem is that this value is not easily interpreted, and it must be translated to something meaningful. Cornel West is correct to challenge Sharpton on this important issue and the discussion must certainly continue.