Cornel West Worries About Barack Obama's "Kansas Influence"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 17 2011 10:25 AM

Cornel West Worries About Barack Obama's "Kansas Influence"

Jonathan Chait is right . Cornel West's interview with Chris Hedges gives us -- at last! -- a lefty analogue to the far right's worries about whether or not Kenyan DNA did a number on Barack Obama's patriotism.

I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that’s true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It’s a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.

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Now: Around 47 percent of that is (or was) unmistakably true, as anyone who's read Dreams from My Father can tell you. Obama will be the first person to admit that he never felt at home in white or in black culture. But here we go:

It is understandable. He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want. He’s got two homes. He has got his family and whatever challenges go on there, and this other home. Larry Summers blows his mind because he’s so smart. He’s got Establishment connections. He’s embracing me. It is this smartness, this truncated brilliance, that titillates and stimulates brother Barack and makes him feel at home.

This doesn't strike me as a good catch-all explanation for why Obama appointed a non-socialist economic team. If you want to be around smart Jewish men, and you want to staff an administration, you've got your pick of academic socialists. No; this strikes me as an over-reading of why Obama chose Summers, who was he key figure in a decade-old feud with West. (Summers criticized the seriousness of West's work after he released an album, and West hot-footed it to Princeton.) Obama's blunders on economic policy (I'd rank the re-appointment of Bernanke high up there) make less sense if viewed as the result of cultural conditioning, more sense if viewed as fealty to the people Obama needs to get re-elected. I guess it's nice to have West out there, though, demonstrating from another angle how useful the analyze-Obama-through-genetic code style of punditry is.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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