FLINT, Mich—Political surrogates for presidential candidates have a tough job.
They have to pitch their preferred candidates’ strengths while avoiding tough questions about their weaknesses and shortcomings in a way that doesn’t excuse them. It’s an impossible mission because all politicians will fail you. They have too many people to please and someone always ends up getting shafted in favor of another. It’s just the way it is. At the presidential level, the highs and lows of surrogates are magnified and only the strong and thick-skinned among them survive.
Few people are more proficient in the surrogacy game than Cornel West.
Since 2016, West has provided the intellectual messaging for Bernie Sanders’ political outlook in ways few surrogates have—or, quite frankly, have the capacity to execute. He is particularly keen at framing the intersection of neoliberalism and the black political elite’s perpetuation of that system, which harms the communities they claim to represent. But even West has his off days.
His most recent one was Saturday, in Flint, Michigan.
Speaking before a rally of mostly white people in a mostly black city that didn’t show up to hear Sanders speak, West responded to Sanders’ question of why black people are supporting Joe Biden. Citing a headline in the Detroit News that highlighted Biden’s support among African Americans, Sanders delved into quality-of-life indicators in which black people are at the bottom when compared to whites: white-black wealth gap, poverty, unemployment, housing, etc.
I was standing in the back with the mostly white press corps as the mostly white crowd booed as Sanders talked about the black support Biden enjoys. I was looking at the two black reporters I saw hoping to share a “What the fuck?” moment, but our eyes never met.
Then Sanders looked at West and asked the question: “Dr. West, do you think, given the conditions of the African American community right now, that supporting a status quo, ol’ same, ol’ type politician is going to address these issues?”
It was really uncomfortable hearing Sanders ask that question in a gym full of white people in a city whose black community he failed to turn out. That is a theme of the Bernie Sanders campaign: turning out huge crowds of white people in black-ass towns. It wasn’t the question that was offensive so much as it was the gall of his audacity not to self-reflect on why he, a two-time candidate for president, can’t get black people, in large numbers, to feel his Bern. His question read more as condemnation:
How dare you not see that I am the best thing for you!
What is wrong with you?
You are just too damn dumb for your own good.
Surely Cornel West, ever the precise poet of racial framing, would blunt the offense of the question, I thought. He made it worse. Looking around at the mostly white crowd, he talked about the human beings who made him who he is. His mother, father, other black women in his life. He named a few white people as well. “You also see some Michael Moore in me because it’s not just a skin pigmentation matter,” he said, speaking of the Oscar-winning film director who is born and raised in Flint.
He then said we have three options, starting with Trump, the “neo-facist gangsta in the White House.” Indeed, no one would disagree that Trump is racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ+, etc. But what West did not say to the mostly white crowd was that it was white people who elected him to office. Not black people. In his answer, West did not condemn white people for electing the neo-facist and being the creators of the neoliberalism black people are doing our best to endure and fight.
Instead, he chastised black people for supporting neoliberal candidates like Biden. Saying he has a love for “my black people,” West deployed a bevy of critiques at black leadership and the black middle class:
What has happened that first, black leadership itself has become so open to just money and status rather than bearing witness to a justice that makes them over and against the status quo,. Black people historically have always been the most progressive community in the history of this nation. Two hundred forty years years of white supremacist slavery, 100 years of neo-slavery of Jim and Jane Crow. We’ve been on the cutting edge.
Since the 1940s, since 40 years ago, we got a wave of black middle-class folks who think that, somehow, their access to opportunity is a measure of black progress rather than precious Shaniqua and Jamal on the corner. So they really did not zero in on the mass incarceration regime. They don’t talk about the decrepit school systems in the hood and inadequate housing. They don’t talk about not enough jobs with a minimum wage. They don’t talk about Medicare for everybody that’s gon’ disproportionately help black people and brown people and red people. What has happened to our black leadership? Some of them just sold out. Others have just given up. And the rest of them, they so scared, they are so addicted to the familiar they don’t wanna step out on the best, they wanna settle on the mediocre. I am going with the best of America. I’m going with Bernie Sanders.
There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s get started with some truths of what he said.
Indeed, many in black political leadership across this nation have failed black people. There is no question about that. Plenty of black people bemoan Barack Obama for a range of reasons and they are pretty justified. But what is troubling is that West’s critique was intellectually dishonest. Sanders can’t get enough black people to support him, so he does what most white folks do when they feel they know what is best for black people, but can’t seem to get those black people to see the errors in their ways: defer to the black friend to talk with said black people.
In corporate America, it is usually the middle manager that the white VP of sales deploys to explain to Tyrone that he needs to adjust his behavior, lest he be downsized for not “fitting the culture of the company.”
I interviewed West in 2017 and it was one of my all-time favorite interviews. Cornel West is my intellectual hero. I’ll never forget him breaking down what neoliberalism was and how all people fall victim to it. He talked, in a very tender way, about Big Mama, that matriarch all black families have, and her reluctance to take a bold step away from the familiar. We talked about why people like Big Mama didn’t support people like Sanders. And he said that while we love Big Mama and her wisdom, “Big Mama gotta grow, too.”
I use those words to this very day.
I wish he would have used that same tenderness in Flint in that gym filled with thousands of white people. Instead, he shamed middle-class black people who mitigate harm by dealing with the neoliberal they know instead of the Democratic Socialist who has to defer his questions about race to his black friend.
That West could not see, in that very moment, why the Big Mamas of Flint did not show up in large numbers to see Sanders reveals how out of touch West was as he stood on that stage.
The black middle class didn’t elect the neo-facist to the White House, Dr. West. White people of all economic backgrounds did. Where is your energy for those white people? Or were you too afraid to offend the white working-class voters that Bernie Sanders is very comfortable talking to and has repeatedly sympathized with for supporting Trump?
Where is Bernie Sanders’ tenderness and sensitivity for black people who elect neoliberals? Sanders doesn’t ask his white friends why poor white people voted for a racist rich man who doesn’t care about them, does he? Neoliberals mean us no good, either. I know this. We know this. But what is consistent with Sanders’ campaign is this ability to talk with care and love with white Trump supporters while shaming black people, essentially, as neoliberal shills for backing Biden in the same light.
Big Mama may not know what a neoliberal is. She does know when a Democratic Socialist can’t speak to her humanity as he can the white woman who doesn’t care if the man she supported in Trump appoints an attorney general who instructs his Justice Department to stop investigating police departments who harrass, rape and kill her children.
Big Mama knows that the Democratic Socialist can’t speak to her, so he picks you, Dr. West.
Big Mama knows that, in that moment in Flint, you really can’t speak to her either.
Big Mama knows both of you shame black people, but say nothing about white people and their racism to their faces.
My godmother is part of the middle class of people Dr. West says eschews the Shaniquas and the Jamals on the corner.
I am the Jamal that West is referring to.
I grew up in Detroit, an hour-and-15-minute drive south of Flint. Both of my uncles sold drugs in our house, and I was primed to follow in their footsteps. I grew up in 1980s Detroit. I know the death neoliberalism creates. I lived it. I saw it. My grandmother, that Big Mama that West talks about, did the best she could with her conservative values that were wrapped in the neoliberalism she did not create. When our house wasn’t raided by rival drug dealers, my grandmother and I suffered through one of my uncle’s crack addiction and his vile verbal abuse. I almost shot and killed him three times before I was 14-years-old.
When I was in high school, you know who exposed me to a better life? My black conservative, neoliberal-leaning, middle-class high school teacher who ended up becoming my godmother because my conservative grandmother said my teacher invested love in her ghetto grandson. That middle-class godmother came to visit my house at the height of my uncle’s drug addiction, risking her own safety at times.
That middle-class godmother raised me to be the writer who rails against the same neoliberalism West chided on that stage in Flint this weekend. She helped raise me to be the progressive writer who wrote how her choice for president was full of shit.
I need to have a conversation with my godmother about why she supported Michael Bloomberg. What she did tell me was that she was mitigating harm. “I wanted someone who can beat Trump,” she told me. I agree. Trump needs to go. But Bloomberg ain’t it.
My godmother isn’t backing Biden because she is in love with neoliberalism. She is doing so because the Democratic Socialist isn’t doing enough to prove he cares about her as much as he does the white working-class man in Iowa that he, interestingly enough, doesn’t have to ask his white friend to speak to about race.
Black people are always asked to level up on our consciousness and radicalism.
White people are always allowed to stand by in their moderate politics and do nothing but cheer on the black man in Cornel West who shames black people for not supporting his preferred candidate.
That is what Corner West did in Flint on Saturday.
It was disappointing. It was painful. It hurt.
Black people did not create white supremacy. White people did.
Black people did not create neoliberalism. White people did.
Black people did not elect a neofascist to the white house. White people did.
Yet, West placed the burden of the 2020 election at the feet of the very vulnerable black people he claims are most affected by neoliberalism. West betrayed black radical tradition by engaging the same black respectability he claims to abhor.
Joe Biden is not a friend to black people, either. He was godfathered in by a black man whose shoes he will never fill but can easily place his feet in because white men can do that.
Sanders is not that much different from Joe Biden in that respect. He can’t speak to black people on his own, so he uses black proxies like West to speak to us. Both white men ride the backs of black people for votes; Biden is just more successful at it—which isn’t a marker of his cultural competence at all.
Joe Biden just has to stay alive until November. That’s all he needs to do. That is all he has been doing. Biden’s best sell to black people is that he isn’t dead yet.
If you can’t convince black folks not to support the walking dead in favor of you, I’d be looking in the mirror.
Most of the people who are supporting Biden aren’t black elites. They are poor and working-class people impacted by neoliberalism that West correctly takes to task. They’re not backing Sanders because he doesn’t speak to them like he speaks to those white middle-class folks in Iowa. To be honest, Biden doesn’t either. He is just Barack Obama’s apprentice and that is good enough for them.
Black people don’t need any more neoliberalism. It’s literally killing us. But Bernie can’t convince them they could benefit from his Democratic Socialism, either.
That’s not black people’s fault. That’s Bernie Sanders’ fault.
And if he really loves black people like we know he does, West would look Bernie in the eye with the same black radical vigor as he does the black elites and place the senator’s failures with black communities at his white friend’s feet instead of placing the heavy load of white failure on our backs.