The Black War over Obama

By Samuels, Allison | Newsweek, August 29, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Black War over Obama


Samuels, Allison, Newsweek


Byline: Allison Samuels

African-American leaders fear academic rebel Cornel West's fierce attacks on the president could spell trouble in 2012.

How did Cornel West become the administration's No. 1 gadfly? The noted African-American scholar and radio host may have helped Barack Obama into the White House, but he has spent the better part of the president's term taking shots at him, calling him a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs," among other names. "These last few weeks have only proven my point about Brother Obama," West says in his signature "one love" voice as he talks about the debt--reduction debacle on Capitol Hill. "He simply caved in again."

Never mind the slings and arrows of Tea Partiers. The most politically problematic criticism of Obama these days is coming from his base. And there's no question that there is a deep reservoir of frustration, confusion, and even rage among many in the African-American community for West to tap into. With unemployment hovering near 17 percent for -African-Americans (the national average rate is 9 percent) and 11 percent of black homeowners facing imminent foreclosure, African-Americans have ample reason for anxiety about the coming budget cuts that Obama reluctantly signed into law this month. The Congressional Black Caucus chairman called the recent debt deal "a sugar-coated satan sandwich" that will do little to help communities already struggling.

West and his longtime friend, radio host Tavis Smiley, have taken their criticism of Obama to the streets, launching a two-week, 15-city "poverty tour," aimed at forcing the powers that be to once again focus on the "least among us" and getting the president to "wake up." Their efforts are increasingly stoking fears among some African-American leaders that West and Smiley could discourage black voters from turning out when the nation's first African-American president stands for reelection in 2012.

"The negative discussion Dr. West is having can only put more apathy in the hearts of African-Americans and could ultimately cause them to lose more faith in the entire political process," says the Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Obama's former church in Chicago. "Where will that leave us?"

Lately, Obama's supporters in the black community are fighting back. As West and Smiley pulled up aboard their "Call to Conscience" bus in Detroit in early August, a crowd of hecklers awaited them outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. "We will not stand silent as Smiley and West criticize the man who brought us health-care reform, one of the greatest accomplishments for the poor in this country's history," says a spokesperson for Detroiters for Better Government.

The pushback is not just coming from community organizers. "The poor did horribly under every president before Obama, and yet there wasn't this level of outcry toward them by these men," says Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown. "That makes folks skeptical about the intent."

West insists he does not intend to suppress support for Obama's reelection. "If African-Americans choose to stay home this time and not go to the booth, it would be most regrettable -given the options," he says. "But that can't stop my message."

It's hard to say how much electoral impact the Princeton professor and the media personality might have.

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