Commentary: Birthers, Obama and the irony of Cornel West

Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT)
Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT) MCT

Those birthers really had it wrong. Not only was President Obama not born in Kenya, he isn’t even black This startling truth was revealed last week by Cornel West, the renowned professor of African-American studies at Princeton, who told a reporter that Obama is "a white man with black skin."

“When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening,” West said. “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.”

Worse than being merely white, Obama has become a tool of the international Jewish conspiracy. “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,” West added.

“He’s got two homes. He has got his family and whatever challenges go on there, and this other home. [Former Obama economic advisor] 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. That is very sad for me.”

Upon reading West’s tirade, my first thought was, paradoxically enough, that he’s just significantly elevated the quality of American political debate. If Obama is really white, then the reflexive left-wing response to any criticism from the right — that it’s motivated not by the president’s policies but by the color of his skin — is now officially moot.

My second thought was that Cornel West is a pathetically petty little man. In his interview, he goes on to say that his disillusionment began when his calls to Obama weren’t returned and turned complete when he couldn’t get a ticket to Obama’s inaugural. Worst yet, West checked into a Washington hotel and discovered that “the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration.” A mere bellhop gets a ticket and a Princeton professor can’t! Where’s the democracy?

And my third thought was that, for connoisseurs of fine irony, West is a truly gift from God. That business about the bellhop, for instance: You can only truly appreciate it if you know that West’s own grandfather was a hotel bellhop. I know this because I read it in his autobiography, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir. For which the renowned Princeton professor had to employ a ghostwriter named David Ritz, who is (ahem) white. See what I mean?

Unfortunately, there’s more to West’s comments than hilariously rank hypocrisy. They represent an increasingly common and extraordinarily destructive tendency toward what might be called Racial Correctness, in which racial identity is assigned by skin color or genetic history but by a set of rigidly defined political and social conduct. That is, if you don’t think and behave the way mandated by the dictates of race commissars like West, you aren’t black.

The political criteria are, of course, left-wing. In his interview drumming Obama out of the black race, when West could tear himself away from the endlessly fascinating tale of his lack of inaugural tickets, he excoriated the president for not jailing everybody on Wall Street or pulling all the troops out of Aghanistan and Iraq. Because that’s what a truly black president would have done.

In America today, it’s impossible for a black person to be a conservative. Just ask Clarence Thomas.

The other component of Racial Correctness is even worse: self-definition of ethnicity as social dysfunction. West touched on this in his interview when he declared Michelle Obama racially suspect for devoting her attention to childhood obesity and the problems of military families. “Why doesn’t she visit a prison?” West demanded. “Why not spend some time in the hood?”

ESPN basketball analyst Jalen Rose, in a recent documentary about the University of Michigan team on which he starred in the early 1990s, said he despised the black players at rival Duke as “Uncle Toms” because they were “well-to-do black guys that come from well-accomplished families that they understand are going to represent their program a certain way.”

This is the sort of thinking that leads black kids to scorn studying as “acting white.” It’s a declaration that there’s only one way to be black, and that’s to fail, that black racial identity is defined by thuggery and welfare. And it’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cornel West gets a congratulatory note from a group that has long proclaimed the very same thing. Three guesses which one, professor. And start them all with the letter K.

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