Recently, Princeton University Professor and uber-intellectual, Cornell West has taken to the airwaves to criticize President Obama for lacking a “Black Agenda”. According to Dr. West, President Obama has squandered a precious opportunity to advocate effectively for working class and poor Blacks. Professor West’s central claim, which is not new, is simply that politicians ultimately exist to serve the interests of the elite, which contributes to the poor conditions observed in the Black community. While I agree with Professor West’s sentiments at the margins, he appears to be engaging in a type of rhetorical pandering, in an attempt at appealing to a specific segment of the Black community seeking a radical voice. But it misses the mark. If Dr. West really wants to get to the heart of the matter, he will have to aim his rhetorical sights beyond the White House, US Congress, and even Wall Street for that matter to examine a larger issue facing the Black community.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson, in the seminal text The Mis-Education of the Negro, argues that Blacks are culturally inculcated to assume a position of inferiority in American society. Woodson stated that this process starts with formal education. He posited that through the conspicuous absence of positive Black narratives in schools’ curriculum, and the lack of any discussion regarding the collective contributions of Blacks to American society, beyond a footnote on slavery, Blacks were led to feel less worthy and less valuable –inferior. He saw it as a type of psychological conditioning. “If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his action,” he writes. This ugly legacy continues today, however, our schools no longer stand as the primary medium by which this inculcation occurs, but rather it is the culture of commercial rap, and, oddly, it is openly sanctioned by the very community it seeks to socially exploit and economically oppress. Dr. West needs to speak to this.
The culture created by commercial hip hop is anathema to age-old community tenets such as perseverance, faith, family and self-responsibility. Moreover, this toxic culture has created a social Armageddon within the Black community, leading to a rather unique public problem that will not be easily solved, even with the backing of a trillion-dollar stimulus check. However, commercial hip hop’s emissaries are largely unchallenged by prominent Black intellectuals, such as Professor West.
Now, this in no way negates the rather powerful influence economics has on social conditions in the Black community, nor is it intended to provide cover for the pervasiveness of covert racism or the institutional prejudices, which still persist. However, this specific challenge must be attacked internally, at a grass roots level, and no type of government-sanctioned “Black Agenda” can make this happen.
I want an open letter, from Dr. West, to the hip hop community, imploring them to support a national campaign to keep Black boys in school and out of the morgue? In cities like Philadelphia, only 28% of Black boys are graduating high school, which means far too many are winding up in the morgue. After all, the message from commercial rap today is that education is not necessary to earn riches and b*tches. In fact, education is treated as though it were some simple annoyance rather than a true path to stability and prosperity for the Black community – think College Dropout. This, specifically, is somewhat ironic given that back in the day the message was that self-determination and liberation started with education (I didn’t mean to make those words rhyme. I’ll leave that to Jesse Jackson). Yes, it was the prolific rap artist, Krs One who stated emphatically– “You must learn!”And while Jay-Z’s blueprint for success has earned him a lunch meeting with billionaire Warren Buffet, it has left millions of black youth without fathers, while facing a reality which includes senseless violence, high HIV/Aids rates, foster homes, and poverty. Where’s Jigga’s campaign for stronger Black families?
Speaking of poverty, let’s examine Russell Simmons, another hip hop emissary, and his RushCard. Mr. Simmons, like most opportunistic capitalists, is leveraging his pop cultural gravitas, undoubtedly earned from years of producing music hits and fashion flops, to exploit poor Blacks. His RushCard costs $20 to purchase, and then you are charged 1$ for every transaction. To add insult to injury, there’s a $2 fee for every ATM transaction, which is added on to whatever the ATM owner charges. It’s economic exploitation in black face. At least with a $5 bootleg copy of the Hangover 2, you expect something to be awry. If a dude gets up and walks in front of the screen while talking on his Boost Mobile, it comes as no surprise — buyers beware. However, Russell Simmons is explicitly touting his card as a path to financial freedom. He’s wrong for this, but who’s holding him accountable — paging Dr. West.
You see, it’s easy for Cornell West to challenge the proverbial boogeymen – politicians and Wall Street. However, I, for one, would be much more impressed if Dr. West would save his on-air tirades about accountability for someone like Jay-Z and Russell Simmons, for they, too, have tremendous influence over the quality of life of Black folks. Sadly, I’m not sure that Professor West is prepared to do this because it would force him to challenge the very cultural icons with whom he routinely curries favor. There’s only one word for that –hypocrisy.