The provocative intellectual leader, author and professor talks about the Obama administration and structural inequalities in America.
Cornel West, often known for his swift intellectual critiques and rhythmic progressive analogies, has never been shy of calling President Barack Obama out for not addressing issues in the Black community and holding other political figures accountable.
At 59 years old, West is a 1973 graduate of Harvard University and currently a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University. As a young man, West marched in civil rights demonstrations, organized protests and built his legacy in fighting for justice.
The professor sat down with BET.com to discuss some of the challenges currently distressing African-Americans. Here is an edited excerpt of the conversation.
BET.com: How do you think President Obama is doing in his second term so far?
Cornel West: I think that he is mustering more will. His second inauguration address was much stronger, much more progressive then anything he’s ever said. He didn’t use the word poverty in four years. He used the word twice in his second inauguration address. That’s a beautiful thing; we have to see whether that kind of language can be reflected in his priorities. We have to look at his budget when it comes. Will there be more money for drones dropping bombs on innocent folk or will there be more money tied to jobs with a living wage? The more quality of your budget has to do with what kind of priorities that budget expresses and we’ll see. I’m not giving up on the brother. However, I will keep the pressure on not because I hate him … because you love the people and you love justice. That’s the criteria ultimately.
Do you believe President Obama will battle for the poor during this term?
It’s a question of choices, a question of will. If you are obsessed with the right-wing and what FOX News is going to do and reaching out to Republicans, then it’s going to be very difficult to talk about the new Jim Crow. It’s going to be difficult to talk about poverty, difficult to talk about quality public education as opposed to privatizing taking over public education. It’s a matter of will. That’s why we have to put a lot of pressure on our dear brother Barack Obama because he only has a few years left and he’s deeply concerned about his legacy.
What is structural injustice?
We live under a criminal justice system which is too often itself criminal. It doesn’t treat each citizen fairly and that is certainly the case when you get to the chocolate side of town, when you are talking about Black people. Thirteen percent of young Black people engage in everyday drug activity and on the white side of town its 13 percent engaging in drug activity also. However, 65 percent of the convictions are on the Black side of town. It shows the criminal justice system is not fair and capricious.
How do we change this?
We have to call it what it is. It’s connected to the new Jim Crow. It’s connected to the prison industry complex. It’s connected to the fact that we have two and a half million folk in that new Jim Crow and over 50 percent of them are Black and brown, and poor! Because when we talk about structural injustice, we are talking about poverty as well as racism.
What are your thoughts on America’s education system?
My dear white sister Diane Roberts says, “Rich kids get taught and poor kids get tested.” We are living in an educational system where more and more privatization is setting in, you’re moving away from public schools, you’re moving into money driven schools and money making schools. These schools are based on test and testing for kids and using how well kids do on the test as major criteria for teachers.
How has this change affected our youth?
Young poor children don’t get a chance to explore their minds and imaginations with the arts and music as well as science and technology. It’s only the next test, the next test, and the next test. Well, on the other side of town they have music, arts, science and technology at the center. That’s the difference as to getting taught in comparison to getting tested and being tied to how well you do on a particular test.
Among Black brothers and sisters, because this was certainly the case for me, I never got into test. I like to think creatively, I like to think against the grain, I like to think into a critical manner. Anytime you think creatively against the grain in a critical manner it doesn’t always translate into the test in that regards. It’s like trying squeeze jazz into a military band. You’re going to miss out on a lot of complexity of the notes because military is like that and jazz is just moving and grooving, you see.
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