The Crisis of the African-American Intellectual: What's to Be Learned From the Cornel West v. Melissa Harris-Perry Debate

In 1967, Harold Cruse wrote the fabled book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. In the book, Cruse mapped the unsettled space between intellectuals and an increasingly fragmented set of social movements. I argue here we are at such a place, as we have on one hand a pragmatic Obama administration under siege from right wing forces and on the other hand black intellectuals trying to articulate the voices of what are absent mass social movements. This creates a crisis that plays itself out in peculiar ways. The conflict between Professors Melissa Harris-Perry and Cornel West is one such area.

As academics and scholars, our job is to teach and develop scholarship that aids human kind. For African-American scholars we carry the additional burden of trying to provide a deeper understanding of the issues that confront the black community in the United States and sometimes beyond. Our task is to illuminate, to provide analysis and critique that elevates the discussion and provides the public of all races with a better understanding of issues and ideas for a way forward.

But we are ciphers. Unlike W.E.B. DuBois and even some of the intellectuals in the period that Cruse wrote about, black intellectuals are not leaders in the way we once might have claimed. With the access to the ballot, African Americans have elected city councilmen, mayors, senators and even a president. We have supported politicians of all races for ideological and strategic reason. And the African-American community no longer must rely on unelected artists, academics, athletes and entertainers to speak for us. This situation is at once liberating and scary. While we are rightfully angry to decry those who suggest American is post-racial or celebrities who avoid speaking out on issues, it is also liberating for non-elected black folk to not speak for us.

That is why the recent comments published in Diverse Issues in Higher Education about Professor Melissa Harris-Perry by Professor Cornel West so saddened me. West's reference to Melissa Harris-Perry as a "fraud" is bad but the use of the adjective "treacherous" invokes a gender dog whistle that harkens back to the concept sexually available black woman cozying up to the master. Boyce Watkins, in his attack on Harris-Perry, on his website doubles down on the Jezebel stereotype by accusing Harris-Perry of "whoring herself out." What could have been an interesting discussion about black politics in the Obama era, has degenerated into a series of ad hominem attacks. We might have had a debate a la the high minded engagement with Michael Dawson's essay on Black Politics published in a recent issue of the Boston Review. Instead, we have been treated to ever deepening ad hominem attacks. Academic versions of street level put downs.

However, within the back and forth between Harris-Perry, West and others is a deep structure in terms of assessing the Obama administration that must be understood. But first we need to understand how we got here.

In response to Cornel West's Truth Dig attack on Obama, Harris-Perry crafted her own scathing critique. That critique pointed out that much of what was discussed in the Truth Dig article involved perceived personal sleights by Obama and also included some fairly ridiculous questioning of the President's racial authenticity. Harris-Perry focused her analysis on these points, which went right up to and perhaps over the line of assailing West's character. To be fair, Harris-Perry only responded to West's statements, and West didn't offer a terribly coherent critique of POTUS, but for what it's worth it is clear that West took Harris-Perry's response personally. It is also the case that Harris-Perry focused on the weaker parts of Cornel West's argument rather than the areas of more legitimate concern. A better tact would have been to address the strongest aspects of West's argument and offered a critique of his best positions rather than his worst positions. What was obscured in all of this is a real substantive disagreement on how we should assess and engage the Obama administration. West and Harris-Perry are using very different metrics to address the Obama administration and we need to understand those metrics and what they mean.

But we can learn from the row. I posit there are essentially two sides to this debate and I think it is easy to caricature either side.

To characterize Melissa Harris-Perry and Obama supporters more generally they often assess the administration contextually. That is their analysis of the success or failure of the Obama administration is based on an analysis of the limits of American political institutions, our current economic situation and the political climate. Further, the metric used to measure the President's accomplishments is what other Presidents were able to accomplish in similar or other circumstances.

For analysts like Harris-Perry the unprecedented use of the filibuster, and a Republican party who are less loyal opposition and more like a drunk driver playing chicken on a two-lane highway, make for formidable obstacles for the President. They not only cite Republicans but the conservatism of the democratic coalition in the Senate. A coalition still recovering from Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council that spent over 25 years attempting to move the party and especially Senate Democrats rightward. These analysts see the compromises and deals as sausage making of an effective legislative agenda. This group is not without criticisms of the President. Some disagree with aspects of foreign policy etc. or have criticized framing failures, but generally see the President as attempting to bend the momentum of trends toward inequality that are almost 40 years in the making.

For critics like West, the context is not significant. They desire messianic leadership that is transformative in its articulation of progressive values. For them the President's compromises undermine progressive arguments and more progressive stances on a range of issues. Some just want to see results. The fact of black unemployment regardless of how long the trend has existed is a critique of President Obama in and of itself. These critics tend to ignore context a la West's appearance on the Ed Schulz show discussing health care. When West was confronted with the fact that there were not fifty votes in the Senate for a public option, West simply changed the subject. Or on the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), critics tend to ignore the fact the bill passed with a veto proof majority. Ostensibly the President was supposed to hand his political opponents the weapon of having vetoed funding for the troops, in order to take a purely symbolic stand on an issue average Americans don't understand. In doing so the Bill would have gone into law without the signing statement that limits the scope of what are clearly unconstitutional provisions.

While I am not generally sympathetic to this view, it is important to understand its origins and its importance. Often these critics of the President cite the idea that the President should use the bully pulpit to advocate for progressive causes. They want the President to be a leader of progressive social movements, and to be fair, in his campaign the President rhetorically flirted with the idea that he would assume that role. These types are happiest when the President is talking tough but getting nothing done a la his proposed jobs bill. But how do we square the circle?

Folks like Melissa Harris-Perry tend to underplay the need for the President to sometimes better frame and articulate a progressive agenda and the West's and Smiley's of the world overestimate the degree to which the President can through persuasion enact a more progressive agenda. However, while both positions are important to understand they are not equivalent. A President's primary job given the nature of the crises we face is to get things done. The President is also not a dictator he can't pass immigration reform on his own, end black unemployment by fiat, or create a single payer system. Nor does the bully pulpit mean the same thing in the era of 24 hour cable news and blogs. Even the cacophony of this debate demonstrates how easy it is for sideshows to muddy the stage. Frequently when I hear left critics of the President say "the President should say," he often has said just that and often on the biggest stage. We should criticize him when he says or does things that undermine movement in those areas but we can't demand he do things that political institutions don't allow.

At the same time, we need voices focusing on issues like poverty, inequality, immigration reform, women's rights, human rights, mass incarceration and a host of other issues that get scant attention in the day to day of our current politics. The success of Occupy Wall Street in putting inequality on the national agenda helped push the President to articulate a more progressive populist position on taxes and spending. What that means is we need West's voice and we need it to speak out loudly about this issues. West is trying to speak for what should be an active vibrant and articulate set of black and multi-racial social movements. However, conflating concern for these issues with support or non support of the President is just wrong. The biggest offender of this has been Dr. Boyce Watkins. Watkins not withstanding his sexist claim Harris-Perry is "whoring herself out", in his video rant and blog posting he suggests that Harris-Perry and Obama supporters simply don't care about poor black people, mass incarceration and a host of other issues. He's just wrong. You cannot conflate pragmatism and realistic expectations with an ideological difference.

My broader point is we need movement voices to call attention to these issues and we also need realistic cogent and pragmatic analysis of the work the President and all of our leaders are actually doing. While at times these two spheres can come together, it is also important that both institutionally and analytically they remain separate. Social movement actors need to avoid capture by political parties and elected officials in order to have the freedom to articulate issues and make demands. But we also can't criticize a President of the United States for not being a social movement leader. We need Melissa Harris-Perry and we need Cornel West, what we don't need is ad hominem attacks that obscure the inevitable friction between vision and pragmatism, social movement and institutional politics. But most important is we need active Black grassroots social movements to show us as scholars the way. Until we have such movements we will continue to have a Crisis of the African American Intellectual.