Cornel West Talks Sanders, Trump and Black Lives Matter
Cornel West, one of America's most influential public intellectuals, has settled on his favorite candidate running for the White House: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In a Facebook post Monday, West shared his thoughts on the 2016 presidential race, singling out Sanders and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump as the most electrifying candidates in the field. But he said that only one of them was bucking the establishment for the right reasons.
"Brother Bernie and Brother Trump are authentic human beings in stark contrast to their donor-driven opponents," he wrote. "Yet only Bernie has authenticity and integrity, whereas Trump is for real but not for right."
West described Sanders' focus on inequality as "prophetic," and said that his endorsement was based on the senator's record as "a long-distance runner with integrity in the struggle for justice for over 50 years."
West's seal of approval is a significant development in light of Sanders' rocky relationship with racial justice advocates in recent months. His opinion holds a great deal of sway in the black community, and he's engaged in numerous high-profile acts of civil disobedience in response to police brutality. His backing should provide Sanders with credibility as he takes measures to shift his attention to issues of criminal justice reform.
Mic spoke with West on the phone to ask more about his thoughts on the state of politics in America. He shared his views on what's unique and compelling about Sanders, Hillary Clinton's much-talked about exchange with Black Lives Matter activists, and the irony of Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. Along the way, he explained why he wishes that Black Lives Matter disruptions had begun much earlier in the Obama administration, which he has not been hesitant to criticize.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. We used Genius to add annotations for context, which you can find by clicking on the words highlighted in yellow.
Mic: How did you decide to endorse Bernie Sanders? How do you think of him vis-à-vis Hillary Clinton or Martin O'Malley or the other candidates on the Democratic side?
Cornel West: In a way, it was not too hard because we've got so many mediocre candidates, both in the milquetoast Democratic Party and the decrepit Republican Party.
Source: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images
It's just so clear. Hillary Clinton, she's been an exemplary neoliberal opportunist for a long time. Martin O'Malley strikes me as a kind of dyed-in-the-wool liberal. What we really need is a progressive to hit issues of Wall Street domination of the government. So in a sense it was very easy to endorse Brother Bernie. But we've got to always let him know that we keep the pressure on him.
Keep in mind, we're talking about a two-party system that is just so decrepit in so many ways. Radically inadequate. I was trying to talk about the interplay between the social movements, which is where I spend so much of my energy, and how it relates to electoral and political strategies.
In your endorsement, you said that Bernie Sanders is a "long-distance runner with integrity in the struggle for justice for over 50 years." Yet a lot of Black Lives Matter activists have seen his emphasis on economic equality as either overlooking or downplaying issues of racial injustice. What do you say to those activists who have reservations about him?
CW: It's very important to put pressure on all progressive politicians, no matter what color. But we should always acknowledge that the issue of not just economic injustice, but class injustice, is so fundamental in terms of wrestling with the vicious legacy of white supremacy.
"I can't conceive of talking about struggling against white supremacy without talking about class."
Any time we have a politician who's bringing a serious critique to bear on Wall Street domination of the government, a serious critique to bear on the role that big banks and big corporations play in shaping the nation — that is an integral part of any struggle for black freedom.
Bernie Sanders speaks to fellow students at a 1962 sit-in.Source: Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library
There's no doubt Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians need to hit issues of police murder and police terror. They need to hit issues of white supremacy across the board. But it's very important never to downplay the critique of Wall Street domination or downplay the critique of capitalism as a whole. In that sense, indeed, Bernie Sanders is a prophetic politician in his critique of Wall Street, in his critique of class inequality and economic injustice.
There's been a lot of discussion about the tactics of Black Lives Matter, and how they're going about holding candidates responsible, by disrupting events by Sanders and others. I'm curious what you think about those kind of tactics in a broader, strategic sense.
CW: I have no problem with certain kinds of politics of disruption. I do think that you want to do it with integrity, which means that you want to do it in such a way that you're not either demonizing or trashing or dismissing. You're just bringing a challenge to bear. There's no problem about that.
Marissa Johnson, left, continues to speak while surrounded by media members as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., looks on at right before leaving the stage at a rally Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in downtown Seattle.Source: Elaine Thompson/AP
I should say this: I wish that we had had a politics of disruption during the Obama administration too. Because it's not as if he's been on the cutting edge of dealing with issues like the legacy of white supremacy. He wouldn't even talk about race with any substance for almost six and a half years. When you get it, of course, it's very symbolic gesture, he goes to a deodorized prison, and only talks to a small number of nonviolent offenders.
It was just three and a half years ago that black leaders emerged out of the White House and [he] said, There's no such thing as a black agenda. That it's all about America. I'm president of all America. I'm not president of black America. There's nothing specific about black people I need to address. Black people are Americans like everybody else.
You had wholesale agreements among the traditional civil rights organizations. Sharpton, the Urban League, the NAACP. Just a few of us were saying, "This is ridiculous. This is pathetic. That there is a racial specificity here." And of course that's exactly what the young brothers and sisters say in the Black Lives Matter: There is a racial specificity that has to do with white supremacy that needs to be addressed.
Obama himself had been pushing this kind of abstract universalism that overlooked the distinctiveness of white supremacist treatment and abuse and of course police murder and police brutality and police terror is one example we could talk about. The privatization of schools, the entire gentrification of black communities. We could talk about the various attacks on black gays and lesbians and trans folk. So that there's a racial dimension that needs to be acted on.
I'm glad to see young activists in the Black Lives Matter movement acknowledging the racial specificity that was completely called into question by almost six years of the Obama administration.
There's nothing wrong with politics of disruption. You just want to make sure you have a moral consistency when you do this kind of thing.
FERGUSON, MO - OCTOBER 13: Author and activist Cornel West protests outside the Ferguson police station on October 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images
In that vein, Hillary Clinton recently met with a few Black Lives Matter activists at an event in New Hampshire. She made the point that she doesn't really believe in "changing hearts" to bring about change, and she's more interested in changing policy and laws. What do you think of her view of how social change works?
CW: I think that Brother Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report hit the nail on the head when he said that in that particular exchange, you had the young black activists who were talking very much about a change of heart — her heart. How has your heart changed, since the very ugly 1994 crime bill that you and your husband supported so vehemently?
But when you're engaged in that dialogue with a politician, you've got to lay out your demands. You can't just talk about heart. So she then ends up lecturing them, and I'm thinking, "Oh my God, she's the last person. By what authority is she going to sit there and lecture these black activists when she supported elimination of welfare in '96, or the crime bill in '94?" That was a strategic move by the young people that backfired on them.
I appreciate the audacity of the young folk, because I think the marvelous new militancy in the Black Lives Matter movement is a beautiful thing. And, as you know, it's in no way confined just to chocolate brothers and sisters. You've got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters who are part of that movement. It's an awakening of the younger generation who are just tired of all of the lies and crimes overlooked by the powers that be.
In terms of specific policies they could have brought up, what do you think of the policies that you think are needed? Some Black Lives Matter activists recently released Campaign Zero, a list of demands...
CW: Yeah, [DeRay] McKesson and the others. I did, I did, and I welcome that kind of specific set of policy demands.
What really sits at the center of this has to do with poverty, labor, land. You've really got to talk about jobs with a living wage. That's what I like about Brother Bernie Sanders, when he talks about a Marshall Plan for cities — we have to have federal programs that generate jobs with a living wage. You've got to talk about full employment with jobs with a living wage.
Then you've got to talk about quality education. About the privatizing education that makes quality education available for a small few at the top. This notion of "rich kids get taught and poor kids get tested." We're talking about quality education across the board.
Then we're talking about land, having to do with gentrification. The dispersion of poor people and working people, especially poor working people of color. With this middle-class invasion into the cities. It's a land grab. It's a power grab that dissolves communities that too easily disperses people on just the market logic as opposed to democratic logic.
Cornel West and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, second from left, talk to students in a government class at John F. Kennedy High School Sacramento, Calif.,Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006. Source: RICH PEDRONCELLI/AP
So the basic kinds of issues here have to do with just jobs with a living wage, quality education, decent housing. Trying to hold off this market-driven transformation of communities called gentrification. I'm just glad to see Brother Bernie is very much aware and speaking to some of these things, and I think he'll continue to speak with real power to these issues.
One divide we've seen in the conversation about Sanders is between those liberals who emphasize racial aspects of inequality, and those on the more traditional, socialist left, who tend to emphasize issues of class. But talking about race and class aren't mutually exclusive. How do you bridge that gap?
CW: We've been wrestling with this question for many, many, many decades. For me, the issue of class is so fundamental — having to do with resources and asymmetric relations of power at the workplace, bosses versus workers. Therefore I can't conceive of talking about struggling against white supremacy without talking about class.
But the question is, how do we come up with a language that allows a coalescing to take place, so that we don't end up with narrow talk about diversity and inclusion within a neoliberal framework? That is basically what the Democratic Party is all about. It's about diversity and inclusion within a neoliberal framework.
That's got to be radically called into question. You can call it into question in the name of fighting against white supremacy. Wonderful. You can call it into question in the name of fighting against economic injustice and class inequality. That's wonderful.
But when it comes to movements, we've got to interweave the struggle against white supremacy with the struggle against economic injustice, with the struggle against homophobia, with the struggle against patriarchy, and any form of xenophobia. Anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Palestinian hatred, anti-Arab hatred, anti-Muslim hatred. How do we talk about all of those simultaneously?
Twenty-five years ago, people talked about it in terms of fighting for radical democracy. Once you have the empowerment of everyday people across the board, then you're able to wed what people traditionally call "identity politics" with what people call "class-centered politics" because the two are so inseparable that you can't talk about one without the other. I think there's something to be said for that position.
Speaking of xenophobia, one last question. What do you think is fueling Donald Trump's rise? Why do you think he's doing so well and seems not to be going anywhere anytime soon?
CW: I do think that Brother Bernie and Brother Trump share one thing in common: They speak to the anti-establishment impulse among those who are looking for some candidates who are for real, as opposed to the superficial, donor-driven politicians that usually are dominant in any election cycle.
Source: Charlie Neibergall/AP
I think the problem, as you can imagine, is, with Donald Trump, you've got somebody who is xenophobic shot through with a nativistic hostility toward immigrants. I mean, these attacks on our precious Mexican brothers and sister are just pathetic. Nobody really wants to talk about his blessed mother, Mary Anne with an "e" who was born in Scotland, or his grandfather Friedrich Drumpf — D-R-U-M-P-F. Trump is an Anglicized name from "Drumpf," but his grandfather arrived in 1885 from Germany, and if the nativistic voices had been in place when his grandfather or when his mother arrived, they never would've got here.
I come from a people who have been here for 400 years. Black people built America in so many ways, along with white immigrants. But especially the slaves' free labor built America. It's just amazing to me that somebody like Trump — who just got here — becomes, in his mind, the definitive definer of who ought to get here.
The same is true in terms of his complicity with plutocratic corruption. He says, I have been a donor, I have been a participant in this corrupt system for 30 years. But all of a sudden now he's going to make America great again?
No. Plutocratic corruption of government is unpatriotic. I don't know how you're going to be so much in love with America but you're participating in plutocratic corruption of the system and then you wake up now 30 years later and say, "Lo and behold, I'm going to be the savior of overcoming the corruption." No, that lacks integrity.
He has authenticity, but he doesn't have integrity. Bernie Sanders has authenticity, but he's also got integrity. Integrity, of course, doesn't mean that you agree with everything that a politician does. But it's just so rare that you get authenticity and integrity. With Trump, you get authenticity with no integrity.