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Cornel West on Charles Rangel, Bush & Kanye West, and Why Obama Admin “Seems to Have Very Little Concern for Poor People”

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Princeton University professor and author Cornel West join us to talk about Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) being censured for ethics violations, President George W. Bush saying the worst moment of his presidency was when Kanye West called him a racist, and President Obama’s policies toward the poor. “The Obama administration seems to have very little concern for poor people and their social misery,” West said. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 22, 2009Cornel 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.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Former President George W. Bush led the United States to war with Iraq, oversaw the government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina, and presided over one of the greatest financial disasters in U.S. history. But he says the worst moment of his presidency was when hip-hop star Kanye West called him a racist. Bush wrote about the incident in his memoir Decision Points, which hit bookstores last week. In the days after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and submerged 80 percent of New Orleans underwater, Kanye West went off prompter during a telethon for the victims of the storm and declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

AMY GOODMAN: In his memoir, Bush writes, quote, “I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.”

Last week, President Bush was interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer as part of a promotional campaign for his book. Lauer asked Bush about the incident.

MATT LAUER: About a week after the storm hit, NBC aired a telethon —


MATT LAUER: — asking for help for the victims of Katrina. We had celebrities coming in to ask for money, and I remember it vividly, because I hosted it. And at one part of the evening, I introduced Kanye West. Were you watching?


MATT LAUER: Do you remember what he said?

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I do.

KANYE WEST: George Bush doesn’t care about black people.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Called me a racist.

MATT LAUER: Well, what he said was, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s [inaudible] “he’s a racist.” I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, you know, “I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.” It’s another thing to say, “This man’s a racist.” I resent it. It’s not true. And it was one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.

MATT LAUER: This from the book: “I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.”

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, still feel that way as you read those words. Felt them when I heard them. Felt them when I wrote them. And I felt them when I’m listening to them.

MATT LAUER: You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your presidency.


MATT LAUER: I wonder if some people are going to read that, and they might give you some heat for that. And the reason is this.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I don’t care.

MATT LAUER: Well, here’s the reason. You’re not saying that the worst moment in your presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You’re saying it was when someone insulted you because of it.

GEORGE W. BUSH: No. And I also make it clear that the misery in Louisiana affected me deeply, as well. There’s a lot of tough moments in the book, and it is a disgusting moment, pure and simple.

AMY GOODMAN: Former President Bush being interviewed by Matt Lauer on NBC last week. For more, we’re joined by one of the country’s foremost scholars on issues of race, Cornel West, professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, author of numerous books on race. His memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud has just been published in paperback. He’s joining us from Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor West. What is your response to President Bush’s latest comments?

CORNEL WEST: Well, first, I just want to say hello to my dear sister Amy, and I hope you’re staying strong. I hope you’re staying strong.

No, I think Kanye West was actually right, but we have to make a distinction between being racist in motivation and intention versus racist in effect and consequence. And all you need do is look at the history of the Bush administration, and you’ll see policies that, in effect and consequence, generated levels of social misery among poor people, brown people, red people, but especially among working-class and poor people. So this is the important point. If Kanye West had said he doesn’t care about the black poor, the evidence is overwhelming. But I think what happened was that President Bush understood this in an individualistic way, which is the way most fellow Americans understand racism: “Do I actually hate black people individually?” No, I don’t think President Bush individually hates black people. His policies were racist in effect and consequence, and especially classist in terms of generating misery among poor and working people, disproportionately black and brown.


CORNEL WEST: And I would say that even about the Obama administration. The Obama administration seems to have very little concern about poor people and their social misery. Look at the policies vis-à-vis Wall Street downplaying Main Street. Look at the policies of black farmers, a settlement already in place, but they don’t want to execute it, because they don’t want to be associated with black folk too explicitly. Look at the policies of dilapidated housing. We can go right across the board. Look at the policies of the new Jim Crow system, the prison-industrial complex. So, we’re talking not just about individual presidents. We’re talking about a system that is tilted against poor people, against working people, disproportionately black and brown and red.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Cornel West, you’ve been especially critical in recent speeches about the first two years now of the Obama administration. What do you think are the influences on him and the decisions that he is making that have basically tried to relegate to the margins these issues of poverty, of the prison-industrial complex, and the state of Black America in general?

CORNEL WEST: Exactly. I mean, there’s simply no mention of poor people’s plight. Look, for example, at juvenile justice. We just had a wonderful meeting, Coalition of Juvenile Justice. The Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 needs to be reauthorized. It’s been two years now, no reauthorization either from the Obama administration or the public bureaucracy. Even our dear brother Eric Holder doesn’t seem to want to move on it. Meaning what? Low priority for those young people, disproportionately poor, black and brown and red, who are getting locked into a system that leads them toward the prison-industrial complex.

Why is that so? Why is it such a low priority? It’s very clear the people around President Obama, the economic team, pro-Wall Street, pro-oligarchy, pro-plutocracy in terms of preoccupation with investment bankers, very little concern about jobs for everyday people, very little concern about homes for everyday people, very little concern about transforming the conditions that deal with some of this crime out here, with all of this terrorism taking place between poor people and other poor people, young folk being killed every day in Chicago, Los Angeles and so forth. It is a national emergency. It’s a matter of national security as much as Afghanistan, but very little talk about it. So we’re talking not just about individuals, we’re talking about a particular arrangement of privilege, of plutocracy and oligarchy that downplay working people and poor people. And those of us who love poor people and working people will not put up with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Cornel West, can you talk about your reaction to the House Ethics Committee convicting Congressman Charles Rangel of nearly a dozen violations of congressional rules? A dramatic moment yesterday, Congressman Rangel, both angry, also wept. Congress member John Lewis came in as a character witness and said he marched with Rangel from Selma to Montgomery some, what, 45 years ago. Your response?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think that, you know, every congressman or woman deserve a fair procedure looking at the evidence. Charles Rangel is my brother. I pray for his well-being. At the same time, we know that Congress has become very much a kind of site of legalized bribery and normalized corruption. So any time you enter Congress, there are the seductions and the temptations of that corruption and that bribery, and many do fall prey to it. If the evidence says, in fact, you fell prey, you have to deal with the consequences. And it seems in this particular case that we have another example, unfortunately, because I do have a deep love for my dear brother Charles Rangel. He’s been there for, what, 40 years now. In some ways, one could argue he stayed even too long. But the level of bribery and corruption in Congress cuts across the board. It’s just not Charles Rangel. It’s just not primarily black congressmen and women. It’s white and red and others. And unfortunately, it’s a sign of the degree to which our political system is so broken, the degree to which the banks and corporations have got such a stranglehold on Congress. It’s no accident that so many fellow citizens have little confidence in the ability of Congress to do the people’s work. It’s a sad moment, though, Sister Amy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, along those lines, Cornel West, Salon.com columnist Joe Conason has an article titled “Why Mitch McConnell is Worse than Charles Rangel.” In it, he writes, quote, “On the same day [that] the House Ethics Committee convicted Rep. Charles Rangel of nearly a dozen violations of congressional rules, Sen. Mitch McConnell announced that under pressure from fellow Republicans, he will surrender his beloved earmarks. This is a notable coincidence because, like Rangel, McConnell has rewarded corporate donors to an academic center named after him — and used earmarks for that purpose. The top corporate recipient of earmarks from the Kentucky Republican in the 2010 budget not only happens to be a donor to the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville, but one of the largest and most corrupt defense contractors in the world.

“Topping the list of Rangel’s transgressions was the misuse of his congressional clout to raise money for a vanity academic 'center' named after him at the City University of New York from private donors. Yet somehow McConnell got away with the same kind of dubious dealings at the University of Louisville — and was allowed to reward BAE Systems, donor of $500,000 to the McConnell Center, with $17 million worth of defense earmarks,” Joe Conason writes. Cornel West, your response?

CORNEL WEST: No, I think it makes a lot of sense to me. This is precisely what I’m talking about in terms of the degree to which the legalized bribery and normalized corruption cuts across the board — both parties, all colors, all cultures, caught within a Congress circumscribed by big banks, big finance, big corporations, big business. And it’s a very sad affair, but of course we know this has become part and parcel of American life and one reason why so many fellow citizens are so disgusted with the system in which we find ourselves. What was it in the last election? Fifty-three percent of the voters had no confidence in the Democratic Party. Fifty-two percent of the voters had no confidence in the Republican Party. I think in some ways what we’re seeing, the slow demise of a two-party system. The Tea Party movement on the right is going to end up just as disappointed with the Republican establishment as progressives like myself are disappointed with the Obama administration. And you’re beginning to see possibilities of new kinds of motion, momentum and maybe movement against the two-party system, because the two parties themselves are so corrupt. Mean-spirited, cold-hearted Republicans and milquetoast, spineless Democrats. What about poor people? What about working people? They deserve better. We deserve better.

AMY GOODMAN: We said we were going to be interviewing you yesterday on Facebook, and we got lots of questions for you at facebook.com/democracynow. One was from Peter Appleton, who said, “Dr. West, you recently posted on your Twitter page that, quote, 'too many young folk have addictions to superficial things and not enough conviction for substantial things.'” Can you give some examples of what you mean?

CORNEL WEST: I think something broke back here.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you hear that, Professor West?

CORNEL WEST: No, I couldn’t hear. I can’t hear anything, my dear sister. I can’t hear anything. Something broke back here.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, well, we’ll talk to you again, and we thank you very much for being with us. Cornel West, speaking to us from Princeton University.

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