did a recent interview with Dr. Cornel West
, a Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University. Dr. West is one of the most passionate, respected and progressive minds in the African-American community. He doesn't carry his ego on his shoulders, and he genuinely advocates for those who are most in need of a voice.
Dr. West has remained vocal in his concern over the Obama Administration's lack of willingness to honestly and aggressively confront issues facing the African-American community. West also makes no secret of his support for Tavis Smiley
, another strong critic of Obama. In his interview with Wells, West honestly and poignantly lays out his concerns about the struggles of black America and what President Obama is and is not doing in this regard.
When it comes to Obama, West gives him a mixed grade on his performance: "I think on a symbolic level I would give him an A in terms of uplifting the spirits and providing a sense of hope and possibility going into the inauguration and sustaining it up to a certain point, said Dr. West. "On a substantial level I would give him a C- when it comes to policy, when it comes to priority, when it comes to focusing on poor people and working people - which has to do with the vast majority of black people - that he has really not come through in any substantial and significant way."
Professor West goes on to give the president poor grades on issues such as jobs, homes, education, and health care. He also argues that the president cannot take his base for granted.
One very interesting part of the interview is when Dr. West goes in to the fact that President Obama has chosen an economic team (Lawrence Summers
, Tim Geithner
, Ben Bernanke
and others) who have put Wall Street at the center of their agenda and made job creation an afterthought. He also discusses the concept of a "black agenda
," which has been the subject of controversy this week: "Frederick Douglass' agenda was an agenda, not for black people to get out of slavery. It was for America to become a better democracy. And it's split over for women's rights; it spilled over for worker's rights and so forth," claims Dr. West. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s agenda was not to help Negroes overcome American apartheid in the South. It was to make America democracy a better place, where everyday people, from poor people who were white and red and yellow and black and brown, would be able to live lives in decency and dignity."
Whether black America agrees with him or not, Professor West makes incredibly valid points. Many of his concerns are laced with the fact that Obama spent the first year of his presidency ignoring the issues that mattered most to the American people. His miscalculation on unemployment rates led to his poor economic team being surprised when unemployment went higher than the 8 percent cap the president promised a year ago. Black unemployment has fared even worse, reaching a staggering 17.3 percent nationwide.
What must be understood as well about the perspective of Dr. West, whose critiques should be considered by President Obama, is that West is in the difficult position of advocating for poor people in a capitalist society. To some extent, that is a losing battle, like keeping a bottomless bucket filled with water. But the truth is that without individuals like Cornel West, America would become an incredibly ugly nation, one that has allowed the drug of capitalism to eat away at its soul. So while Dr. West certainly has a thankless job, it is an important one. His challenge to the American power structure is both anti-war and anti-poverty -- two very difficult battles to fight in a financially-driven society, where war and poverty serve as fuel for unjust and corrupt economic engines.
One additional point that must be considered when analyzing the words of Dr. West is that his strong affiliation with Tavis Smiley may serve to undermine the validity of his remarks toward President Obama. While one can argue that Dr. West comes with a relatively pure agenda, like a priest at a boxing match, Tavis has positioned himself as one of the boxers in the match, with his fist aimed squarely at Obama's head. I encourage Dr. West, Smiley and other Obama critics to supplement their critiques with tangible, relevant policy solutions that can be presented to the president. This takes hard work, primarily because it is easy to attack the shortcomings of the presidency, but incredibly difficult to understand the complications and limitations of the office.
I plan to attend Al Sharpton
's National Action Network National Convention
in New York City in April. During this event, scholars and leaders will convene to discuss proposals for a black agenda. It is during these conversations that I hope real policy will be presented that is also grounded in necessary pragmatism. Finally, the gathering should produce tangible action to follow the aggressive advocacy and implementation of recommended policy. President Obama, as well as all men and women on the Beltway, should be expected to acknowledge and respect a black agenda. The question at this point is what that agenda should be.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.