Academic Smackdown on Twitter: Black Scholars Spar Over Cornel West's Remarks

Cornel West's appearance on "The Ed Show" sparks debate.(
Cornel West's appearance on "The Ed Show" sparks debate.(

Tempers are flaring as members of the black intelligentsia are getting in on the melee surrounding Dr. Cornel West's controversial comments about President Barack Obama.


You know the slam heard around the world in Chris Hedges' posting on Truthdig earlier this week: "I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men," West said. "It's understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he's always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that's true for a white brother." Ouch.

Writer Adam Serwer threw down the gauntlet, lighting into West about his comments, calling them "petty" in a piece written for the American Prospect. Tuesday night, Ed Shultz invited West onto his The Ed Show on MSNBC, enumerating the digs (disguised as quotes, some would argue) that West has made about President Obama, including calling him a "black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats." West also said that the president "now has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it." Ouch again.

Schultz asked point blank if the Princeton professor's critique of President Obama was personal in nature. West denied that it was, offering these words: "I am relentlessly criticizing him in the name of the plight and predicament of poor children, mistreated workers, those unfairly incarcerated; and where is the Democrats' accountability on the Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats?" West's segment was followed by a rebuttal by his former colleague at Princeton's Center for African American Studies (CAAS), Melissa Harris-Perry (who recently left Princeton to teach at Tulane University).

And then the video went viral and the drama swelled. Farai Chideya (@faraichideya) Tweeted out the link to the MSNBC video.  Questlove of the Roots (@questlove) announced, "Blivyleague battle: princeton's @MHarrisPerry on princeton's @CornelWest on harvard's @barackobama," also with the video link. Meanwhile, in a piece for The Root, David Swerdlick stated that President Obama is a politician and not a revolutionary, and the sooner the black elite could wrap its mind around it, the better.

Then Harris-Perry wrote a piece for the Nation yesterday, taking West to task for lodging a personal attack against Barack Obama because Obama did not attend his "comrade" Tavis Smiley's 2008 State of the Union Address. Harris-Perry wrote, "Professor Cornel West is President Obama's silenced, disregarded, disrespected moral conscience, according to Chris Hedges's recent Truthdig column, 'The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic.' In a self-aggrandizing, victimology sermon deceptively wrapped in the discourse of prophetic witness, Professor West offers thin criticism of President Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class that has been largely supplanted in recent years.” Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. (@esglaude), a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton who is also on the CAAS faculty, got in on the debate via a Twitter exchange with Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisi), saying he thinks that West's "political critique stems from disappointment in Obama's failure to pursue a progressive agenda." Glaude added, "The personal criticism stems from his feeling of being used and manipulated, which is the source of the tone of the interview." He went on to say that he "understands (Coates') worry about bad racial reasoning. But West's political critique is much more substantive."


If you think it stops here, it doesn't. Glaude and Harris-Perry then went at it. Glaude slammed Harris-Perry, saying, "It is becoming increasingly difficult to take @mharrisperry seriously." Harris-Perry hit back, accusing Glaude of trying to engage in a pissing contest. "I assume that public critique is a sign of serious engagement. Cornel v. POTUS because it is serious @esglaude," she tweeted.

Glaude tweeted back, "Bombast and bellicosity does not make an argument. You seem to be making a living with both." Ouch again.


Meanwhile, in an unrelated thread, Princeton CAAS professor Imani Perry tweeted, "So … It saddens me that many ppl who attack [West] (or silently cosign) are the explicit beneficiaries of his advocacy and kindness."

Well, one thing is for sure: Something personal is definitely going on between members of the black academic elite, and what has been private is now being played out for the public. The War of the Roses has nothing on this beef.


Interestingly enough, most of the focus of West's comments has been on his racial critique of the president, with little attention paid to his policy critique. Now the focus has shifted from the personal attacks on President Obama to the personal attacks among colleagues.

Once the dust settles, hopefully folks will get beyond what Serwer calls pettiness and get to the heart of the matter: What does the president plan to do to address the issues facing impoverished and increasingly disenfranchised Americans?


That's something that can and needs to be addressed sans personal attacks.

Read more at the Washington Post.

In other news: The New Osama bin Laden: An Egyptian Man?

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