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.