"Calling Obama a 'global George Zimmerman'? No. No.": Michael Eric Dyson sounds off on Cornel West, Obama & his critics

The Georgetown University scholar and author reflects on his very public break with his mentor turned tormentor

Published April 22, 2015 8:45PM (EDT)

Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West      (AP/Evan Vucci/Richard Drew)
Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West (AP/Evan Vucci/Richard Drew)

Author, activist, erstwhile rapper and former Barack Obama surrogate Cornel West became the president’s First Hater (at least from the left) shortly after inauguration, because of Obama’s betrayal – whether of progressive principles, or West personally, has never been clear. When West was criticized for his fierce Obama attacks by progressive colleagues and friends, he turned his enmity toward his critics, particularly African Americans he saw defending the president on MSNBC: most notably Rev. Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry and Michael Eric Dyson.

But while folks on the multiracial left have been puzzling over and lamenting West’s ad hominem haymakers at former friends for years now, when Dyson struck back this week in the New Republic, he came in for a lot of “how could yous?” -- even from some of West’s critics.

West’s peculiarly personal and vicious denunciations of Obama – from the pages of Salon to the David Letterman Show -- are legendary. He famously called the president “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” He claimed Obama is afraid of “free black men” and is more comfortable with “upper-middle-class white brothers and Jewish brothers.” Later he got worse, claiming Obama’s drone policies made him “a global George Zimmerman.”

When African-American friends defended the president, he went in on them. West called MSNBC’s Perry “a liar and a fraud,” claimed Sharpton was the “bona fide house negro of the Obama plantation,” and attacked “the Michael Dysons and others who’ve really prostituted themselves intellectually in a very, very ugly and vicious way.”

It’s true that as Dyson’s TNR piece bemoans the nasty ad hominem nature of West’s attacks on Obama, as well as on him and his colleagues, he gave almost as good as he got, first praising West as “the most exciting black scholar ever,” then charting his intellectual decline. “His greatest opponent isn’t Obama, Sharpton, Harris-Perry, or me,” the Georgetown scholar’s article concludes. “It is the ghost of a self that spits at him from his own mirror.”

Dyson is now being attacked for doing to West what West did to Obama: acting at least partly out of a sense of betrayal and hurt. One difference is, Dyson owns it, laying it bare in the piece. He admits his decision to break with West is fueled by pain and confusion, and having had enough – in his case, enough personal insults, as well as insults to colleagues and friends and the president the author both admires, and pushes, in his own way, to be better. “Our lost friendship is the collateral damage of his war on Obama,” he writes. Dyson makes the case that the issue isn’t how West has treated him, but how he’s helped set back left-wing politics in the age of our first black president.

I sat down with Dyson at Salon’s offices in New York on Tuesday, in between his many other interviews, as text message alerts pinged from his phones and he tried to sort through the personal and political lessons of his relationship and unraveling with West, mentor turned tormentor. He seemed pained by the criticism he’s faced, but defiant, asking of his detractors, “Where were all those people when West was wilding out unchallenged saying horrendous things?” Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

I think your piece illuminated a lot about progressive politics, and African American politics, in the age of Obama. And that’s mainly what I want to talk about. But you’ve generated a lot of heat, and a lot of the criticism has been intensely personal – as in, why did you write it? So let me start with that: Why did you decide to write about Cornel West, right now?

Well, look, I had been contemplating doing something in response to West’s vicious assaults not only on President Obama, but on Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Melissa Harris-Perry and on me, for a while. Finally, at the end of the day, enough is enough. He has a legitimate right to criticize all of us and to do it vigorously, even aggressively. But the kind of personal bitterness that crept into his language was doing a great disservice to the broader issue of leftist critiques of prevailing forces that are in power. The question is how do you carry out a criticism of those with whom you disagree without losing your humanity or questioning theirs in the process. And look, I have been vigorously critical of the Obama administration…

I know that, I see people calling that into question on Twitter, but I’ve read you, and we’ve had these conversations before…

But because I haven’t been nasty and bitter, because from the right wing I defend him – and then I give him a push, and sometimes a shove, from the inside, to say: this is wrong, what you’re doing, you gotta redirect. But because I don’t do it in such a viciously personal and assaultive manner, it doesn’t flag the same attention as West. So to me, it was time to settle the case and address him directly and forthrightly, the issues he was raising, the manner in which he was raising them. For him to say of Rev. Sharpton or Rev. Jackson, “Well, they’re not real prophets, they’re pathologically addicted to the camera.”  You are saying that? You seem to be magically attracted to that camera, too. You claim they’re not prophets, but you’re self-anointed? I had to deal with all of that.

I saw some people say, couldn’t you have handled it privately? Couldn’t you have talked to him personally?

I have talked to him about it over the years. Some of the older people in the black community will say, “Where you did it is where you get it.” In other words, if you act a fool in the streets, I will address you in the streets. Well, West didn’t do this privately, it was public. And doing it privately doesn’t address the public character of his assault or of his claims…

Or the meaning of what it does to public discourse on the left…

Right. He said things about people and issues and movements in public. He’s a public figure, so am I. So this is where we meet, the public square.

One of the things you did well in the piece is explain to a younger generation why West was so important to those of us who came up in the 80s and the 90s. You made me think about a lot of things differently, but one of them is: There are actually a lot of similarities between the Cornel West of the 90s, and Barack Obama a decade later. They both engaged the issues of racism, and they both engaged in the cultural analysis of the issues around what they used to call the underclass -- I think we got rid of that word, we don’t hear it anymore.


Yes! And while neither of them subscribed to “culture of poverty” theories, both of them engaged in critiques of the behaviors associated with the so-called underclass. West attributed it to “nihilism,” Obama to maladaptive reactions to racism and poverty. You know, “put down the potato chips, turn off the TV, be a father.” Both tried, rightly, to talk about the interplay of class and race. I don’t subscribe to the idea that West is jealous of Obama, per se, but you helped me think about those similarities.

Those are very important points. The Oscar Lewis “culture of poverty” arguments; the Chicago school of sociology’s grappling with the fierce stubbornness of persistent poverty and the kind of cultural traits it breeds, had footprints on West’s own mental landscape as well as Obama’s. And West’s “nihilism,” as Stephen Steinberg points out, and I quote him in the piece, is hardly distinguishable from some of the “blame the victim” arguments that were being marshaled by Charles Murray and others.


…Now, we know Cornel West was not Charles Murray. But “nihilism” is a sexy term for a pathology that won’t go away, that won’t be dismissed by politics, or the reorganization of the criminal justice system. His notion of nihilism gave permission to millions who followed him to say, “Hey, it’s not politics we’re concerned about, it’s not the prison industrial complex, it’s not the social reorganization of access to capital – it’s what they’re doing to themselves…”

Well, I’m gonna push back on you there.  To be fair, I think it was certainly both sets of issues to West – “nihilism” and the political and economic factors – and the latter were probably more important. But there certainly was this taking in of the culture argument, this engaging with the prevailing debate of the 90s, which was heavily about behavior and less about racism or the economy.

In his book [Race Matters] he said, “the leftists are talking about the structures, and the conservatives are talking about the personal stuff, and I wanna come down in the middle.” But coming down in the middle, he ceded a lot of ground. And Obama, similarly, aspired to this kind of middle ground between conservatives and liberals. So there’s an eerie parallel between the West of the 90s and Barack Obama…

“Race Matters” and “Audacity of Hope,” both had a lot of “the left does this, the right does that, and I’m gonna be the conciliator.”

That’s exactly right. West wanted to be that guy and he accepted that role and talked about it. And Obama turned out to be the same kind of guy, really sharp and making some of those same arguments.

Also both of them worked hard to make clear that white people are welcome partners in the modern civil rights movement, that it is most definitely is a multiracial movement. One of the things that has been sad to me is that I appreciated the generosity and big heartedness of West’s earlier work, that tic of calling everyone “brother” and “sister” – you know, progressive white people really like that, or at least I did back at that time…

(Laughs) Of course…

But that’s part of what stung me when he turned on Obama in such ad hominem ways, as you wrote in your piece. First, he tears into Obama for appealing to white people and reaching out to white people – when that used to be a core of West’s politics, too – and then he harps on the fact that the president is half white, too close to his “white brothers” and “Jewish brothers,” allegedly afraid of “free black men.” The trademark generosity of spirit was gone entirely, and we were left with a kind of racial essentialism – and borderline anti-Semitism, with the “Jewish brothers” crack. Who’s the real Cornel West? What happened? It was shocking. And I didn’t feel like people addressed it enough at the time.

That’s part of the tragic decline of West, into the most vicious aspects of the politics of identity. Not the transcendent ones, where all of us have to acknowledge that any project of self-reimagination begins with who we are, how we identify ourselves, how the world identifies us. So we can’t deny that. That’s unavoidable. If you use it as a shoehorn into a broader world, to resonate with a collective tradition, that’s beautiful. But at the moment he began to use it as a cudgel, and to beat up on people not just outside your community but within, to say, “You’re the real black person – and you’re the fake black person…”

“You have a white mother, you’re light skinned, you’re from the Ivy League” – which West was then too…

Come on now, are you a rapper? Who’s trying to talk about keepin’ it real? The politics of authenticity with Obama, challenging him in terms of caste, in terms of color – now look, there are sophisticated arguments to be made about the inheritance of people who don’t understand what it means to be black in America. You can make that argument without precluding the possibility of others exercising their humanity and their participation in the movement toward transcending their culture. And West himself once argued against a narrow, particular version of blackness…

Yes, he did…

It was an explosive radical heterogeneity that said “There are many strains and strands of blackness, let’s embrace them. Let’s talk about LGBT people. Let’s talk about poor people.” Now you’ve retreated into a narrow cul de sac that keeps us in a dead end of thinking about the relationship between culture and politics. You hold on, arthritically almost, to a fetishized left wing politics that doesn’t have the durability of the 80s or 90s…the resonance of the larger tradition of black people…He used to be a guy who helped you see through that, and now he’s a speed bump on the road to reimagining black identity. And I’ll tell you what, it gets very personal with him, when he’s making these arguments against Melissa Harris-Perry: She’s a “fraud” and a “liar.” That is so deeply entrenched in sexist language and belief.

It was. It was disturbing. It felt very gendered and very personal.

The assaults on Obama in terms of race are personal and troubling. Assaulting me: “We invite you back to the prophetic tradition;” well, I don’t know who died and left you king…

He decides who’s in or out…

He’s a faint echo of what he provided in the 90s, when he provided us to an alternative to a narrow, viciously particular understanding of black life, and the resonant beauty of the diversity of black life, that he was on the cutting edge of. I mean, he wrote a famous essay on “the new politics of difference!” So here is the man who helped open the way, now closing it on others because he has a spat with them.

And as I wrote about at the time, it’s such a perversion of identity politics – everybody taking potshots at each other in very personal terms: You’re white, you’re not black enough, you’re the wrong kind of black, you’re too old, you’re too young, you’re not part of the prophetic tradition. None of us has the standing to say: “This is what I believe,” we are all suspect because of what we don’t bring to the table, in terms of identity. And that means we are all fractured, “tiny little caucuses of one.” The left has done that for so long -- and he used to work against it.

Well yes, and the reason I say all this now: I saw his fall. It pained me. And I know a lot of people have criticized me: “Why would you write this in a white magazine?” Well guess what: That kind of black magazine of politics doesn’t exist. This could not be written for Ebony and Essence, and I love them and have written for both of them. It’s not the right forum. The New Republic has been remade over the last several months. They had a mass exodus of valiant and gifted writers, and an infusion of other valiant and gifted writers, and some great writers who stayed. This new New Republic is the magazine I chose because I want to challenge the white left to embrace others of different colors. And they’ve done so brilliantly. So why would we punish them, when we’ve asked them to open the doors, and they did? And now we’re gonna stigmatize them for dealing with issues of importance to African Americans?

Yes, it’s exactly what we’ve asked white magazines to do: deal with issues of importance and resonance to African Americans – and don’t always assign the pieces to people like me, but to actual African Americans. They did that.

I just got back from preaching in small black churches across black America, so I take second to nobody in terms of being on the front lines to make visible the claims of all people. My scholarship is reflective of that. By the way, I took on Bill Cosby 10 years ago, when it was unpopular in black America, defending the vulnerable, when Cornel West stood at Cosby’s side and defended him. And when I went to Princeton, West came and sat on the front row with Phylicia Rashad. So he symbolically and semiotically demonstrated his indivisible bond with Cosby while I was being charged with being a race traitor for challenging Cosby’s vicious assault upon the poor.

So his new-born identification with the poor is quite striking to me, not only because of his critique of “nihilism” but his defense of Cosby: “Cosby has the right to challenge poor black people to live up to what they need to do, and because he’s given so much to black America, as a philanthropist, he’s earned his right.”  So philanthocracy is not as bad as oligarchy?

Well, let’s rise above all that:  I think your piece was really about the challenge of progressive politics, and African American politics, in the age of President Obama. And I don’t say that to blame the president…

No, it is the age of Obama…

Yes. And we, on the left, sometimes have a hard time criticizing him. Sometimes. And then, when some of us do criticize him – I’ll talk about white progressives here, mostly, though maybe it applies to West too – we don’t fully take in his huge, personal, psychological, spiritual importance to the black community -- including to many black progressives. There’s a protectiveness that you only understand if you think about what’s happened to our black heroes, and you think about the racism and obstruction he’s faced. There is so much in the backlash against criticism of him that I have learned from, though it has also hurt my feelings sometimes.

But in the piece you share what you told Dr. West about how to criticize him: You can respect his historic role and his singular history, you can condemn the obstruction and racism – and still criticize him, but keep it focused on policy, with respect. West rejected it because he doesn’t “respect the brother at all.” But you still struggle with it – you got criticism for your criticism about his response to Ferguson, and his frequent forays into respectability politics. Can you talk about your ongoing balancing act?

I think your characterization of it is very lucid.

Well, it’s really your characterization, from the piece!

(laughs) Look, Obama is a singular figure alongside the most important black man who ever lived, Martin Luther King Jr. With all of the patriarchal resonances that might evoke -- what about the great Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth? And that is all true. But Martin Luther King Jr. occupies a certain space in black America, because of the blood he shed that went into the ground, and produced so many opportunities for black America. He expressed most eloquently what we want and what we desire. So Obama, for the first time, offered somebody in competition with that figure: The most powerful man in the world happens to be one of us. And from day one, the guy was getting all kinds of resistance.

Now there are legitimate criticisms to be made, and I’ve made them. And there are white folks who criticize him, and it’s not from racism. However, the structural features of his presidency, the fact that this man is assaulted in so many ways and methods that assassinate his character -- he has not been physically, thank God, assassinated -- but there have been such rhetorical assaults on him. It’s unprecedented that a president didn’t automatically get the debt ceiling raised. Unprecedented that 47 senators would write our “enemy” compromising national security; it’s an unconsciously racist motivation, that I feel safe in saying. People see it, black and white…

He can’t get his cabinet secretaries confirmed. Granted, judges’ confirmations have been contentious for a while, but…

Loretta Lynch has been lingering there. Other nominees. This man has been resisted, and in the midst of that, he’s been able to pass the Affordable Care Act, save the auto industry…

Prevent another depression…

Yes, the poor and the black are suffering. Unemployment is still too high. But we have to acknowledge that. Then we can say, but Mr. President, you have disserved many of those communities from which you emerged. For instance: the speech he gave at the March on Washington celebration 50 years later was horrendous.

And you said so…

Here is a man, a public intellectual, charged with interpreting the complexity of the black freedom struggle, and he did a horrible job. The reason we know he did a horrible job is because on other occasions he did a splendid job. He scorns and scolds black people. And look, if you go to a black church on any Sunday, you’re going to hear the same thing, and much worse. The difference is, you’re also hear analysis of structural problems that inhibit black people, and the willingness to call a spade a spade and a racist a racist.

I was with Obama in 2007 or 8 when Oprah had the famous fundraiser at her home in Santa Barbara. And I was there when Chris Rock cornered Obama and told him a story: He said: “You know what? My father said, you can’t beat white people -- I mean out-point them -- you gotta knock them the hell out!” And Obama laughs, and Chris Rock says, “No, look, really.” He talked about how Gerry Cooney [who is white] was fighting Larry Holmes [who is black], Gerry Cooney was getting his behind beat, blood everywhere. And about the 11th round, Larry Holmes knocks him out. And they go to the [judges’] scorecards, and Gerry Cooney was ahead – even though he’s being pummeled! And Chris Rock’s father said: “You gotta knock. Them. Out!”

And so Obama loves to quote Chris Rock when Chris Rock says “Black people always wanna be celebrated for something they oughta be doing like, “I take care of my kids. Blank-blank idiot: You should be taking care of your kids!” He never quotes the other side of Chris Rock: that there’s persistent white supremacy, there’s the lingering belief that black folks are to be treated with suspicion, and guess what: Obama knows this because he’s treated the same way.

Now, I can assure Professor West and others who think I’ve been too light on the president that I have had bitter personal interactions, public excoriations from high ranking officials in the Obama administration because of the op-eds I’ve written and the stances I’ve taken. But: this is the critical difference: After I appeared on “Face the Nation” and was critical of the president…

About his response to Ferguson…

And after I wrote a Washington Post op-ed

Which was harsh, and influential…

There was no love lost between the administration and me. But I could exercise my leverage in a way that was targeted, and not personal.

Well, this is one element of the president’s personality, not to blame him for his troubles, but I think of the famous story, I think it’s true, not apocryphal, where FDR is telling A. Philip Randolph: “Don’t tell me what you want me to do about racism and segregation: Make me do it.”

Make me do it!

Pressure me, agitate, organize! From what I’ve heard, directly from some people, the president doesn’t always have that attitude. He can be thin skinned about criticism from advocates and activists on the left. He gets in people’s faces when they criticize.

It’s withering. Yes, they say they want criticism, but they don’t really want it. The problem with “Make me do it,” the tricky thing there: FDR was not beloved in the same way by black people. We’ve had 43 white presidents, now we have a black president. So black people say: “Let us be proud of him.” Black people have tremendous pride. And so, the problem is that because black investment in Obama’s success is so high and so deep, he has symbolically taken on the future of black people in this nation – that many black people are unable to hear the importance of critique.

And I have defended West, and Tavis Smiley. Tavis Smiley was disinvited from a King celebration, and I was invited instead. The first thing out of my mouth was to say, “I’m a friend of Tavis Smiley’s. Tavis Smiley would be in good standing with Martin Luther King Jr., who incurred a great deal of wrath because of his ability to speak up. I’m here to tell you, I love what Tavis Smiley does. I happen to disagree with some of the stances he’s taken, but I agree with the need to criticize the president.” The people understood what I was trying to get at.

It’s interesting: We have this impulse to compare President Obama to Dr. King. But the real comparison, going back to the civil rights movement, isn’t Dr. King – it’s LBJ. And I think a lot about the rifts in the civil rights movement over the Vietnam War. Dr. King faced a lot of pressure – externally, but also within the movement – to stay on civil rights, leave the war alone. Bayard Rustin, who was so important to social justice, was somebody who said for a time, hey, this is the best president we’ve ever had on civil rights, can’t you handle that mess later?

Oh yeah, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins said nasty things about King and the war…

Yeah, but Dr. King said no, he came out against the war.  Yet he refused to join the “Dump Johnson” movement, or personalize it in any way. Johnson still got furious, but…that was King’s approach.

But you’re absolutely right here. This is Pharoah, not Moses. Obama is Pharoah, not Moses. That’s not a knock on him; that’s a job description! His job is to run the country. Pharoah has to be called into question by Moses. Now, Cornel West sees himself as Moses. But Moses wasn’t hurling epithets, Moses was bringing down the Ten Commandments. I’m not denying that West feels a heavenly call, but when you compare yourself to King, or Jeremiah, that’s a bit much, that’s a bit hubristic. None of them ever called their enemies the names he calls us. Martin Luther King not only didn’t call other black leaders those names; he didn’t call white supremacists those names. In all those FBI tapes, speaking in private, he never uttered a vicious word.

To go back to Vietnam, and Dr. King, and LBJ though: Do you ever worry that some of us, progressives, pull our punches or aren’t as active on issues particularly of national security, state secrecy, spying, drones, etc. because of our respect for what the president has accomplished personally, what he means symbolically, what he’s done on civil rights, health care, the economy?

West has been brilliant on that in terms of his analysis. But calling Obama “a global George Zimmerman?” No. No. You obscure the point you’re making. So the NSA, the drones, the security state, all of this should bother anybody who’s committed to the fundamental processes of democracy, to anybody who believes we have a right to question our government, and to challenge our government. Even when the president is black. Even when the head of the American empire is an African American, and the major Moses, the law giver, is Eric Holder, a fine and remarkable public servant, who also has come under serious critique for his view points about Wall Street and the like.

That’s the American way – to be able to appreciate the contribution and challenge the flaws. Eric Holder has done incredibly important things on civil rights, on voting rights. The point is, how do we leverage the authority of our own leftist positions to hold to account the people that we elect? That’s legitimate. But it is sullied and obliterated by the approach of West, his hostility to someone who says, “I’m critical of the president, but let’s be gentler with him personally. Aggressive. Powerful. On point. But at the same time, not as viciously personal.”

And this has been concerning to a whole lot of black people for some time. A whole bunch of people have come to me privately and said, “What’s wrong with him? What’s going on?”

Oh yeah, people have been concerned, and even angry, for some time – some of the people that I even see attacking you now on Twitter. But is there anything in the criticism you’ve received, that you think had merit?

Well, look, my good friend Dave Zirin from the Nation, he says, with all due respect, even though West has come at you in this horrible way –he’s not Mike Tyson. I compared him to Mike Tyson in the piece – once great, lethal, ferocious…

Then gnawing on ears… 

That’s right – instead of bending our minds, he’s biting our ears. But Dave said that’s wrong, he’s not Tyson, he’s Ali, and he compares me to George Foreman. But I think the analogy is troubled in this sense: He’s got the right story, but the wrong characters. West has been pummeling me, and others, for six years. He’s the George Foreman, punching away. I finally wait, and send a punch back. So in that sense, I might say to my brother Dave Zirin: “You’ve got the right story, but the wrong guy.”

I’ll end by saying this: Where were all the people who are now concerned about the toughness of my critique – though I began with tremendous love and paid my debt to West, personally, as well as that of my generation to him  – where were all those people when West was wilding out unchallenged saying horrendous things? Here’s the ultimate irony: The same love many people have for Cornel West, he begrudges the masses of black people having love for Barack Obama. You can’t have it both ways.

I think black people who’ve criticized me, who allowed West to behave this way, to act as a spoiled child, hiding under the skirts of invulnerability because he claims to love the left and love the poor, really when you pull those skirts aside – you will see the problem is not only his alone, but the complicity of black people in it.

I’d say check yourselves, too. Because if you didn’t call West out, to say, “Cornel, you’re going too hard and being too personal”....if you didn’t do that, you’ve helped create the situation where an article like mine was wholly necessary, and from my perspective, completely justified.

By Joan Walsh