Why Cornel West is wrong to question Obama's blackness

OPINION - For those of us who respect and appreciate West's scholar-activist contributions, the past few days have been both revealing and woefully disappointing...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

If you haven’t been following cable news, Facebook posts or Twitter feeds over the past few days, then you likely missed the uproar over Princeton University Professor and renowned scholar-activist Dr. Cornel West’s interview with Chris Hedges of Truthdig.

In the interview West escalates what has been an ongoing criticism of President Obama from both he and Tavis Smiley. West not only criticizes Obama for lacking progressive backbone, he levies several personal attacks that have produced a much deserved backlash.

West assailed Obama as being the “black mascot” of Wall Street and as disconnected from the urgent needs of black Americans and the poor. He claimed that Obama fears “free black men” (presumably including West) because of Obama’s insecurities over being raised in a white household. In doing so West deployed the rhetoric of black authenticity — the longstanding intra-racial tension over what actions/ideas/associations mark one’s commitment to black people and black struggle.

Several years ago I published a book chapter entitled “Leader Authenticity Markers: Findings From a Study of Perceptions of African American Political Leaders” in Authentic Leadership Theory and Practice: Origins, Effects and Development. In the chapter I explored how racial authenticity markers continue to resonate with blacks born in the immediate post-segregation era (black Gen-X’ers), although in very nuanced ways.

On Twitter and Facebook, black Gen-X’ers excoriated West (and his defenders) in ways that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. For those of us who respect and appreciate West’s scholar-activist contributions, the past few days have been both revealing and woefully disappointing.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for West. Having spent his career in elite, predominately white institutions, I’m certain at times he has had to defend his own connection to black communities. That he could so carelessly invoke tropes of racial authenticity and essentialist notions of culture to deride Obama reflect how embedded racial authenticity politics are in the black public sphere.

Alleging that someone is not “black enough” has long been regarded as a grave insult. Racial authenticity attacks continue to operate in black political discourse, though, and it’s understandable given the political realities of black freedom struggles.
There have always been diverse strands of ideology within the black community — monolithic identity is a myth. But in times where solidarity was essential for fighting racial discrimination, “closing ranks” was necessary for the potency of black political aims. Branding someone inauthentic not only diminished their stature within the community, but also signaled to those outside that the community’s leaders could enforce conformance with a unified front.

Amidst the shifting and ambiguous race politics of the post-segregation era, racial authenticity is arguably more a factor than before. The lines between black communities and the mainstream are blurry and fraught with contradiction. In many ways that has heightened the awareness of the considerable intra-racial diversity within the black community. Many are of two minds on the issue — desiring to embrace and promote intra-racial diversity while maintaining a sense of linked fate.Notions of black collective identity remain strong, but increasingly there is a rejection of racial authenticity politics. West’s most vocal critic, fellow Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Perry, very eloquently expressed such sentiments in her response to the West article. While her response was on point, subsequent statements require clarification. Specifically, on a May 17, 2011 broadcast of MSNBC’s The Ed Show, Harris-Perry made a provocative comparison of West and the birther movement, labeling West’s attacks on Obama as “birtherism.”

Equating West to birthers risks confusing two distinctly separate phenomena. The birther movement’s claims seek to fundamentally undermine Obama’s citizenship and humanity. Their debunked conspiracy theories have no rational grounding and are pretext for deeply held racist and xenophobic beliefs.

West’s invocation of racial authenticity, on the other hand, does have an experiential and rhetorical lineage. It stems from often legitimate (and sometimes purely opportunistic) suspicions that there may be an inherently inverse relationship between one’s mainstream acceptance and one’s desire or ability to meaningfully identify with the black experience.

Arguing that Obama is worthy of such suspicion, however, is utterly baseless. In addition to undermining legitimate policy criticisms, it requires a highly selective reading of the last three years and an inexcusably naïve assessment of contemporary political realities.

This explains why so many quickly rejected West’s assertions. Many who grew up in the immediate post-segregation era have learned that racial authenticity is simply an inadequate frame for contemporary challenges. We embrace the unprecedented complexities at the core of this historic presidency and the courage required to confront their uncertain and evolving meanings.

We appreciate that Obama is the president of all Americans and can never favor one constituency or group. We recognize that his presidency and his policies offer considerably more for black communities than those of his political opponents.

Finally, we acknowledge that progressive policies will only advance when everyday people are organized to fight for them. Leading a movement to bring that about is much more authentic than the cheap insults of the racial authenticity game.