Cornell West Criticizes Barack Obama’s Convention Speech

3 09 2008

Drs. Julianne Malveaux and Cornell West apparently were not impressed by what many critics regarded as a great convention speech that meet and surpassed expectations.

While providing post-game analysis on the Tavis Smiley show on the night of the speech, Dr. Malveaux in particular took issue with Senator Obama near silence on the poverty numbers that were just released by the U.S. Census Bureau, and the third anniversary of Katrina, and most of all how he reduced Dr. King’s legacy to some preacher from Georgia “was just a disappointment.”

Dr. Cornell West said he saluted the Illinois Senator achievements, but found it curious how brotha Obama could deliver a speech in accepting the Democratic party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States and not mention or even invoke the tragic history of black folks in the America in a more forceful manner.  In failing to meet the challenge of the moment, West contends, Obama was “running from history.”

Dr. Malveaux added that Obama “dropped the historical baton” that has been passed to him from Rev. Jesse Jackson who had it passed to him from Dr. King.

Watch it.

A reader of this blog emailed me after seeing this segment to tell me he thought both West and Malveaux were too wedded to old school thinking to appreciate Obama’s unique circumstances in how much ground he had to cover in the speech. In certain ways that’s true, but their comments were inaccurate and somewhat misleading too. Perhaps, Obama could have been more explicit about the issues Malveaux and West enumerated, but its not as if he made no mention of them at all.

On economic mobility and poverty and Katrina he said, “I’ve seen it — I’ve seen it in the workers who would rather cut their hours back a day, even though they can’t afford it, than see their friends lose their jobs; in the soldiers who re-enlist after losing a limb; in the good neighbors who take a stranger in when a hurricane strikes and the floodwaters rise.”

I too found it a bit strange that Obama did not mention Dr. King by in his speech, especially since on the Senator is so found of quoting the reverend’s phrase regarding the “fierce urgency of now” on the stump.

But its not as if one did not know who he was referring to when he said, “And it is that promise that, 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.”

In short, Obama offered stirring poetic references to important issues in a speech that was largely devoted to outlining his policy agenda. References that were far from oblique or cryptic.

More importantly, Obama is a politician running for the highest elected office in the country. He is not aiming to be a public and social justice advocate working outside the system in the same way Dr. King did and Rev. Jackson does. Though an obvious point, its certainly worth mentioning given our propensity to want Obama to become the second coming of Dr. King.

So while in many ways Obama’s candidacy is the political culmination of the civil rights movement, he is also the a politician occupying in a certain difficult space that each of us needs to recognize.

In fact, when ask at a Democratic debate held on the eve of the South Carolina primary if Dr. King would endorse him Obama had the good sense to say:

Well, I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable, and this goes to the core differences, I think, in this campaign. I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that.

So true. Of course, that means whenever Obama seems to be out of step with the greater needs of the country and too mired down in the politics of DC, he might need to be reigned in by some agitators, like West and Malveaux.

By the same time, however, it also means that we cannot expect to Obama to be Dr. King reincarnated either. Black folk everywhere have got to give the brotha some latitude to bring people into the fold. Only then can Obama use his rhetorical and communication skills to illustrate how our issues are really the nation’s issues.

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3 responses

3 09 2008
sigmapromise

so strange…
…isn’t being able to see people as people–no matter the ethnicity–exactly what we need to progress beyond the racial tension and bitter blood of the past?

and I AM African-American.

3 01 2009
kermitt

I think we are being sold out again, because once again we don’t have a true black leader that will speak in behalf of black people. Obama always speaks about america never about black america. If he has i missed it.

3 01 2009
KUT

But Obama never aspired or advertised himself as a black leader, whether in civil rights vein or otherwise, and, more importantly, he never campaign as one. At the same time, however, he has always sought to be as inclusive as possible often while speaking to the experiences of different racial and ethnic groups to underscore the point, which is smart politics.

If you are really curious as to what Obama thinks about race in America, I highly recommend reading the Audacity of Hope, particularly the chapter entitled “Race.” In that chapter, he describes in detail the lingering effects of racial discrimination against African Americans in the workplace, the criminal justice system, the health care system, accessing a quality education, among other things. But in highlighting how the black experience has been shaped by discrimination he draws parallels between other people of color, especially Latinos, and poor whites. And again, I think that’s smart because that’s how a leader tries to bring people together by highlighting people’s common interests.

With regard to specific issues, Obama spoke out against nooses, hangings, the 07 spike in hate crimes, and the Jena 6 incident.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/29/AR2007112902576.html

He has always been and continues to be a proponent of affirmative action. In fact he reiterated his support for it back in April 2008 during the ABC Democratic primary debate in Philly. http://abcnews.go.com/politics/democraticdebate/Story?id=4670271&page=2

And in 2007, he co-authored a piece with John Kerry calling for more minority and women owned media outlets. http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=1B95A848-3048-5C12-007746FCC74704D5

So I think its grossly unfair to say Obama sold out because he isn’t the type of black leader you envisioned.

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