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Cornel West and Carl Dix on Race and Politics in the Age of Obama

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One week after the NAACP’s 100th anniversary celebrations, we speak to Princeton University professor Cornel West and Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party about the current state of Black America. West is a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University and the author of numerous books on race. Dix is a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and was one of six GIs in 1970 who refused orders to go to Vietnam and served two years in prison for his stance. [includes rush transcript]

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Web ExclusiveJul 22, 2009Part II: Cornel West and Carl Dix on Race and Politics in the Age of Obama
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Massachusetts, Cambridge police say they’re dropping the disorderly conduct charge against the leading African American scholar, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Professor Gates was arrested in his home Thursday after he had to force his way in to overcome a jammed front door with the help of his driver. A passerby called the police, thinking Gates was trying to break in. When police asked Gates for identification, he reportedly responded, “Why? Because I’m a black man in America?” He handed them both his Harvard ID and his Massachusetts driver’s license, which listed his address. He was handcuffed, taken to the police station, and charged. Cambridge police have called the incident, quote, “regrettable and unfortunate,” but Professor Gates is demanding a full apology. He says he plans to use the incident to bring attention to racial profiling in the United States.

The arrest of so prominent a figure as the head of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies has reignited debates about racism in the so-called “post-racial” era of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Well, last week, while the NAACP’s hundredth anniversary celebrations were taking place here in New York, I spoke to Princeton University professor Cornel West and Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party about the current state of Black America. They had just spoken the night before at a public forum at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem that was sponsored by Revolution Books.

Cornel West is professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, author of many books on race, his forthcoming memoir called Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Carl Dix, founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and he was one of six GIs in 1970 who refused orders to go to Vietnam and served two years in prison for his stand. In 1996, Dix co-founded the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality.

I began by asking Cornel West and Carl Dix to comment on the significance of President Obama becoming the first African American president. This is Carl Dix.

    CARL DIX: I’m a sixty-year-old black man, which means I have decades of experience with white supremacy. I remember when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregation in education, Baltimore, Maryland, closed down the public swimming pools, because they saw the writing on the wall, and they’d have to integrate them, and they could not — they were not going to subject white kids to the indignity of swimming in water that had touched the bodies of black kids. That’s how thick this racism has been, and it’s continued on the way down. But that’s just something I remember from my childhood.

    So I understand why people got into it, but I did see where this could go. And see, a lot of people say, “Well, look, a lot of black youth are going to get inspiration and hope from Obama being in the White House.” But then, the question I pose to them is, what will happen to that inspiration and hope when it collides with the continuing reality of white supremacy, male supremacy, imperialist, you know, overseas adventures, that remain the defining reality of America?

    And see, what is coming around on this is that black youth are more and more being blamed for the situation that the system puts them in. And you look at Obama’s last two Father’s Day speeches, he gets into this thing of, you know, the youth got to pull up their pants. The absent dads got to be involved in their lives. You’ve got — the parents got to turn off the TV and make sure the kids do their homework. In other words, the onus for the youth not achieving is being put on the youth themselves and their parents. And what’s disappearing in that are the continuing obstacles that this system puts in the way of black, Latino and poor youth who want to achieve. So, in other words, the people are being blamed, and who better than Barack Obama, the first black president, to blame black youth for their plight? If George Bush does it, people would say it’s racist. But when the first black president does it, it actually draws people into it.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you share that criticism, Professor West?

    CORNEL WEST: Yes, I think Brother Carl Dix is hitting the nail on the head. I think, at the same time, there’s ways in which, at the symbolic level, to break the glass ceiling at the very top of the American empire, the White House. Powerful, symbolically. Brother Carl and I are saying there’s too many brothers and sisters — red brothers and sisters on the reservations, white brothers and sisters poor working class, brown brothers and sisters in barrios, black brothers and sisters in chocolate cities — who are stuck in the basement. You’re stuck in the basement, you break the glass ceiling at the top.

    The obsession is keeping track of Obama in the White House, a white house primarily built by black slaves. What about those who are still locked at the bottom, when you have policy team — neo-imperialist policy in foreign policy, neoliberal in economic policy — that’s reproducing the conditions of those stuck at the bottom across race? And at this point, you see, you can’t allow race and him being the first black president to hide and conceal the very ugly class realities of poor and working people. And that’s precisely, I think, why we’re trying to generate some motion, some momentum and some movement.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you share Carl Dix’s criticism of President Obama’s Father’s Day speeches?

    CORNEL WEST: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I think that it’s quite telling that he would give personal responsibility speeches to black people, but not a lot of personal responsibility speeches to Wall Street in terms of execution. And when you actually look at the degree to which issues of accountability for poor people — but where’s the accountability when you’re bailing out these Wall Street elites, $700 billion? That’s socialism for the rich. That’s your policy. Don’t then go to these folk who are locked into dilapidated housing, decrepit school systems, many on their way to a prison-industrial complex, and talk about their fathers didn’t come through. And we know the fathers got problems. We understand that. But there are structural institutional challenges that he’s not hitting, hitting head on.

    And I should say this, too, I think, in terms of style, that the Obama administration is obsessed with the wrong Lincoln. They are obsessed with the Lincoln who they think moved to the right and was trying to create bipartisan consensus with conservatives, whereas we know there’s no Lincoln without Frederick Douglass. There’s no Lincoln without Harriet Beecher Stowe. There’s no Lincoln without Wendell Phillips or Charles Sumner. That was a social movement.

    Lincoln supported the slave trade when he was in the House. He supported the Fugitive Slave Act. In the first inaugural lecture he gave, he supported the first proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which said there would be slavery forever in America, the unamendable amendment. That was Lincoln. If it were not for the abolitionist movement, the courageous black and white freedom fighters, from John Brown to Douglass, who put pressure on Lincoln, we would have been dealing with a white supremacist Lincoln.

    Lincoln became great, because a social movement pushed him against slavery in that regard. And Obama is looking to the wrong Lincoln. And if he doesn’t understand the greatness of Lincoln was responding to the social movements of working people and poor people, he’s going to end up with a failed presidency, with a lot of symbolic gestures, but, on the ground, everyday people, those Sly Stone called “everyday people,” suffering still.

    AMY GOODMAN: Where do you disagree with Carl Dix?

    CORNEL WEST: I think probably I am a free Jesus-loving black man, and he’s my dear secular, atheistic, revolutionary communist comrade. So we disagree on the God question. We disagree probably on what it means to engage in revolutionary transformation of a capitalist society. I am a democratic socialist; he’s a revolutionary communist. I’m pink; he’s red. So we’ve got some difference in that regard.

    But most importantly, at this moment, we come together and say, put poor and working people at the center of the way you look at the world, not just in the terms of the United States, but in terms of the American empire’s impact on those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.”

    AMY GOODMAN: Carl Dix, what does it mean to be a revolutionary communist?

    CARL DIX: Well, what it means, first and foremost, is to understand and to act on the understanding that this capitalist imperialist system cannot — will not, but can’t even meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of humanity, that it thrives and exists on the chase after profit for a handful of super-rich capitalist imperialist exploiters, and that what that means for humanity is exploitation, disease, misery, starvation — you know, because Obama talked about, well, if those African countries would just get good governance, end corruption, more democracy, they could work their way out of it. Well, that will not happen, because as long as they’re enmeshed in the imperialist global entanglement of economic and political relations, the wealth that collects in the metropols of Europe and the United States is the other side of the misery that’s going to continue spreading.

    And then, acting on that means that what is necessary is to stop cold the system of capitalism and imperialism, dismantle its institutions through revolution, and put power in the hands of the people, build up new institutions that are based upon the initiative and involvement of people and will back up people to make the transformations that are made. And then the core of revolutionary communists who are at the core of that authority have to foster an atmosphere not only of involvement on the end of doing work, but also on the end of figuring out what needs to be done, how it should be done, taking up all the questions facing society. We have to put that before the people and create an atmosphere where even the people who disagree with the revolutionary authority feel free to raise their concerns and disagreements, because that’s the only way we’re going to know enough about reality in order to transform it in the desired direction — you know, because Cornel talks about speaking truth to power, and I love him for that, but the one thing about it is this power doesn’t care what truth you bring to it. They’re still going to go ahead with what’s in their interests. Well, a revolutionary power would have to not only care what people have to say, but listen to it and learn from it, even when it’s coming from somebody who’s saying, “Y’all is messing up.”

    AMY GOODMAN: At the Aaron Davis Hall at City College in Harlem, Professor West, you talked about being Frederick Douglass to President Obama’s Abraham Lincoln. This issue of movements, Carl Dix, and what you think needs to happen now, how most effectively to organize?

    CARL DIX: Well, what really needs to happen now is that people need to have their sights lifted, because for far too many people, including people who have real problems with a lot that’s going on now, they don’t see an alternative, so they think the best they can do is work within this setup. And that is a deadly trap. You actually have to see that it’s possible to get beyond it. And that means we have to address questions like, how could you get beyond it?

    AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece after President Obama was elected called “Don’t Be a Buffalo Soldier.” Explain what you mean.

    CARL DIX: Oh, yeah.

    CORNEL WEST: That was a powerful piece. That was a powerful piece.

    CARL DIX: Well, what that comes down to, the Buffalo Soldiers were the black, mostly former slaves who joined the Union army during the Civil War and played a key role in defeating the Confederate army and ensuring the abolishment of slavery through their military victory in the Civil War. Then, for a while they were stationed in the South, actually militarily enforcing the ending of slavery and the beginning of legal rights for black people. But then the United States government took the Buffalo Soldiers and sent them out west and had them fight in what is called the Indian Wars, which was actually carrying out genocide and the theft of the land from the native inhabitants, while black people were being re-subjugated in conditions of near slavery as sharecroppers. So here you have people oppressed by this system put into the military and then sent off by this system to oppress other people for the system. So, that’s what a Buffalo Soldier is.

    And what I was saying to people is — remember I had said earlier, the youth were beginning to rethink America’s wars, because Obama is now presiding over them? Well, that was my message. Don’t be a modern-day Buffalo Soldier. Don’t let this system, which continues to oppress and exploit you, along with oppressing, exploiting many other people, turn you into a mindless killing machine and send you off to help them tighten their oppression on somebody else, while they keep oppressing you and others like you. So, that was what I was trying to get at with that. And some people were delighted by it; others found it to be too harsh. But I mean, my thing is like, if the truth hurts, it’s still the truth.

    AMY GOODMAN: Professor West, you traverse many different worlds, from the Ivy League institutions that you work in to the hip-hop community, speaking in Harlem with the Revolutionary Communist Party leader Carl Dix one night, the next night speaking at the NAACP, being the keynote speaker in its hundredth anniversary. I want to talk about the NAACP for a minute —-

    CORNEL WEST: Sure.

    AMY GOODMAN: —- and its significance. And then, what are the different messages you bring to different communities?

    CORNEL WEST: Well, I try to say the same thing. You know, I try to say that — speaking the truth as I understand it. The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak, to always make sure that the plight and predicaments of those persons who are subjugated is at the center of how we think about the world, so it constitutes a kind of challenge. Without the organizing and mobilizing, it’s still just language, but it’s still a kind of challenge. I’ll do the same thing tonight at the NAACP.

    You know, this week’s been quite a week. We, Brother Tavis Smiley and I, went to see Bob Dylan, Mellencamp and Prince last night. So we also have the artists to keep us honest. The artists are very important, in terms of what appears to be moving from one context to the next with no coherence really is a matter of just bearing witness wherever you are, to speaking the truth, trying to exemplify that truth by being courageous enough to cut against the grain.

    And so, people would say, “Well, good God almighty, you’re working with the Revolutionary Communist Party, when they support poor people and working people, when they tell the truth, when they bring critique to bear on oligarchs and plutocrats and imperial elites?” Absolutely. “How could you also be working with the NAACP, bourgeois, mainstream, legalistic in its conception of equality?” Why? Because rights are also very precious. In each and every human being, it’s precious. Those liberties need to be defended. So, when they do that, I’m with them. When they are supportive of imperialism, when the NAACP is supportive of class domination, they must be criticized like any other set of elites.

    And that was one of the reasons, of course, why I supported Barack Obama. We needed to bring the age of Reagan to a close. We needed to bring the era of conservatism to a close. We needed to initiate a new age. And we have now inaugurated the age of Obama, and it ought to be the age of empowering those Sly Stone called “everyday people.” The problem is, Brother Barack Obama, President Obama, is reluctant to step into his own age. He needs a social movement to help him push for the empowerment of [inaudible].

    AMY GOODMAN: So, how are you going to be the Frederick Douglass?

    CORNEL WEST: Well, by working with a variety of others — revolutionary communists to socialists, to progressive liberals, to prophetic Judaic, prophetic Christian, prophetic Hindus and others — to constitute some motion, raising voices, lifting the voices, which is the anthem of black people, and then to create ways of organizing and mobilizing so that the Obama administration does not remain mesmerized by the Wall Street elites and seduced by neoliberal policy.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you been talking to President Obama?

    CORNEL WEST: No, not at all. No, no.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you met him?

    CORNEL WEST: Oh, I met him initially, in order to join the campaign. Oh, absolutely, indeed. We met for four hours.

    AMY GOODMAN: And now, since he’s become president?

    CORNEL WEST: Oh, no, no. I think he holds me at arm’s length. And for good reason, and for good reason. Because he knows that there’s a sense in which I would rather be in a crack house than a White House that promotes neo-imperial policies abroad and neoliberal policies at home.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why a crack house?

    CORNEL WEST: Because a crack house, at least I’m in solidarity with folk who are sensitive to a pain. It’s just that they have the wrong response to their pain. Instead of being in a crack house, they ought to be organizing. But they’re dealing with their suffering. They’re just dealing with it in the wrong way. The White House, escaping from the suffering, and that’s why I keep my distance. I’m not against people who work inside of the White House; it’s just not my calling. That’s not what I’m here for.

AMY GOODMAN: Cornel West is professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, author of numerous books on race. His forthcoming memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Carl Dix, founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, was one of six GIs in 1970 who refused orders to go to Vietnam and served two years in prison for his stand. They spoke together at Aaron Davis Hall at City College in Harlem, the evening before we spoke. Professor Cornel West is a close friend and a professional colleague of Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested last week at his house. He said it’s for being a black man in America.

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Part II: Cornel West and Carl Dix on Race and Politics in the Age of Obama

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