Cornel West Talks Poverty, The President Princeton Professor Cornel West is one of President Obama's most vocal critics from the African-American community. West will soon embark on a 15-city bus tour with media personality Tavis Smiley to highlight a class they say Obama is ignoring: the poor. Host Michel Martin speaks with West about his "Poverty Tour" and thoughts on Obama.
NPR logo

Cornel West Talks Poverty, The President

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Cornel West Talks Poverty, The President

Cornel West Talks Poverty, The President

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, ready for some football? The NFL lockout is over as team owners and player representatives have reached an agreement. We'll speak with DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association, about how it all came together and highlights of the deal from the players' perspective. That's coming up a little later in the program. But first, as President Obama and congressional leaders continue to try to come to agreement over federal spending and raising the debt ceiling to avoid default next week, a duo of prominent African-American commentators is saying do not forget to watch out for the least of us.

That of course is a biblical term and that is the message that Princeton University Professor Cornel West and radio host Tavis Smiley say they hope to send during their upcoming poverty tour. Beginning next Friday, the two plan to visit sixteen cities to shine a spotlight on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable Americans. Both Smiley and Cornell West have been outspoken critics of President Obama, saying his economic policies have failed poor people in general and black people in particular.

That's earned them a lot of attention in the media but has also cost them support from some other African-Americans, and Professor Cornel West joins us now to offer his perspective on all this. He is an author and of course activist and professor of African-American studies and religion at Princeton University and he's joining us now from the studios on that campus. Professor West, thank you so much for joining us.

CORNEL WEST: Oh, what a blessing for you to have me, and I just congratulate you on TELL ME MORE. Tell me more, tell me more.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. I just wanted to start out by talking about the tour that you and your friend and colleague Tavis Smiley are participating in. What do you plan to do exactly and what do you hope to accomplish?

WEST: Well, actually, it's an idea that Tavis Smiley, his Smiley group executed. What we're trying to do is cast a limelight on a spotlight on the plight of poor people, working people, accenting their humanity, their dignity, and their sense of resiliency. There's been a top-down one-sided class war against poor and working people and we want to accent the fight back. We want to accent the resistance, and look, for example, what's going on in Washington right now (unintelligible) Michel.

Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats have checkmated both the White House and Congress. They're all debating about cuts, cuts, cuts. Who will get the biggest cuts? We have a choice between the Reid, which is one of milquetoast spinelessness, and we've got the Boehner plan, which is catastrophic meanspiritedness. And that's the choice. Let's be honest, let's tell the truth and acknowledge that we are in a profound crisis.

MARTIN: Well, but to that, and you just pointed out the fact that we are in a period of divided government here. Is this in fact President Obama's fault that he cannot achieve headway on some of the things that you care most about?

WEST: Well, I think the fault goes across the board. There's no doubt that the very shortsighted and aggressive, in some ways vicious right wing Republican Party has been so intransigent. But you see, part of the problem goes back two and a half years ago, though, Michel. You see that when President Obama had a chance to accent the plight of working people, of homeowners and poor people, if he had accented homeowners, if he had accented jobs, if he had accented working people's plight rather than Wall Street and rather than the corporate class, once he made that choice, he opened the gate for populous rage.

That populous rage went right wing, translated into the Tea Party movement. Tea Party movement sends what is about 80 some folk to Congress. They are the ones who have been standing in the way of any kind of compromise.

MARTIN: Well, to that, and I do want to point out that you have criticized the president in rather personal terms, calling him the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs, for example. But you don't seem to criticize Republicans in similarly personal terms and some people wonder why that is.

WEST: Well, I think one is that when you talk about a president, you're talking about an individual. You're talking about Tea Party members, you're talking about a whole collectivity. Secondly, I've had a relationship, very brief, with the president. I've had no relationship with the Tea Party movement so...

MARTIN: You feel personally betrayed?

WEST: Oh, sure. Oh, absolutely. How could one not if one sacrificed for a president who said he was going to build on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

MARTIN: But to your point, your argument is that his failure, that the president and his administration's failure to make advances on economic concerns of the poor and the people who used to be middle class are the cause of the political backlash.

WEST: Exactly.

MARTIN: Many people would say it's in fact the opposite, that the reason that there is a political backlash is precisely progressive moves like the healthcare bill, so what do you say to that? You just disagree with that?

WEST: No, that's a plausible claim. It's just to make a priority on job - job creations, quality employment, would have taken a lot of the real wind out of the sail of the Tea Party movement because they began critical of Wall Street and of course they for the most part are anti-government and at the same time they do have elements that tend to demonize our brother Obama, President Obama.

MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Professor Cornel West. We're talking about his upcoming poverty tour, which he plans to take starting next week along with talk show host Tavis Smiley to highlight the needs of America's poor. We're also talking about some rather pointed criticisms that he has made of President Obama. Just as you've criticized President Obama, some prominent voices from within the African-American community have also been critical of you, as I'm sure you know.

For example, radio host Tom Joyner in a blog post wrote saying that you, and along with your colleague Tavis Smiley, who's also a colleague, of course, and a friend of mine, that your language has been disrespectful and that has given justification to those and enabled those who are disrespecting the president and denying him the legitimacy that he is owed in his office, in part because of his race, and in fact that you're enabling a kind of a racist dialogue, and I'd like to ask how you respond to that?

WEST: No, I think that brother Tom's remarks are ridiculous, they're ludicrous, that the right wing doesn't need me to authorize their venom toward the president. They've been at it for a long time. When I talk about oligarchy, I mean, for example, you ask the president - I appreciated the question that you asked the president quite directly - what does it mean to be a black mascot of oligarchs?

Now, he didn't get a chance to answer your question because you remember you threw in the other question about do you have a special responsibility to black people.

MARTIN: Um-hum.

WEST: He hit the second part, not the first. To talk about oligarchy is not to talk about race for the most part, it's to talk about power in America. It's to talk about structural inequality in America, it's to talk about the role of corporations and the role of the investment bankers and the shaping of the U.S. domestic policy. That's the kind of discussion that we're talking about. Tom Joyner, in saying that one ought to be silent and not critical of the president, is just part of a backward looking view that says that somehow all black folk ought to close ranks and no way engage in criticism of a black president when we got our precious our black babies.

And I'm concerned with all babies of all colors, but black babies, what, 38 percent of our black babies living in poverty, 20 percent of all American babies living in poverty? The highest poverty rates we've had in decades and we're not going to say a word? The legacy of Martin King was: I'm critical of black mayors, I'm critical of black governors, and now in this period we're going to be critical of our black president.

If Barack Obama put forward an anti-poverty program that highlighted the plight of black folk, of poor people and working people, I'd be with him 100 percent. It's a matter of principle.

MARTIN: And just to clarify for those who may not be aware of what you're talking about - in my interview with President Obama last week, I asked him about your criticism of him specifically and I did ask him whether he felt he had a special responsibility to African-Americans, and he said that, well, we can actually play his answer so people can hear what he had to say for themselves. Here it is.


President BARACK OBAMA: I have a special responsibility to look out for the interests of every American. That's my job as president of the United States, and I wake up every morning trying to promote the kinds of policies which are going to make the biggest difference for the most number of people so that they can live out their American dream.

MARTIN: Is he wrong?

WEST: You see, he didn't hit your first part, when you said black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs, that's a different question than special responsibility for everybody. I'm saying that's not true. He has not made poor people a priority. They had - the White House responded to Tavis Smiley and I, last week after Jesse Washington's speech in AP, and said they have made poor people a priority in this administration. I say that's a lie. I want to see the evidence. Let's argue the case out. Not personal, let's look at the evidence.

MARTIN: But speaking of arguing the case out and not making it personal, when you said, as you did in two interviews, that one of your criticisms of him is that you couldn't - he didn't return your phone calls and that you couldn't get a ticket to the inauguration with your mother and your brother, and you said that the guy who picks up my badge from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration and you don't, and that is part of the criticism, do you think that that detracts from your message, that it seems as though it's really more about egoism?

WEST: The point is that there's two different tracks here, though, sister Michel. One is the matter of evidence. If the White House says they have made poor people a priority, let's look at the evidence and see the tilt toward Wall Street oligarchs. That's a fact. That has nothing to do with personal relations at all.

At the same time, when I was asked what is my personal relationship with the president, I talked about what I perceive to be a relative lack of decency. The 65 events that I did for him and not a thank you. I think that's lack of decency. That is a personal truth. The first one is a political truth. The two are very different. But when I'm asked a question I tell the truth about my personal relation, I tell the truth about policy.

Let's make the case, where have poor people, where have working people been at the center of Obama's democratic policy? That's in part one of the reasons why the right wing has been able to engage in this vicious kind of critique. And I protect the president against the right wing critiques. But I'm not going to protect the president when he fails to focus on poor and working people.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, and I want to end where we began, with the tour that you and Tavis Smiley are making next week, which is that I wonder whether the train has left the station in the sense that if you feel that there have been two-and-a-half years of a failure to address the issues of poor people and they're engaged in these heated negotiations right now over federal spending and the debt and so forth, when(ph) you feel that the interests of poor people have gotten lost - why not go sooner? Why next week when this is the critical week? I'm wondering whether the train's left the station.

WEST: Well, I mean, maybe we should've done it two years ago, but I think - the thing is, brother Tavis just came up with the idea a few days ago and be able to pull it off by August 6th, we're hitting 16 cities, we're beginning at Indian reservations, going to hit our indigenous brothers and sisters. We're going to hit the brown barrios. We're going to hit our poor white brothers and sisters. We're going to hit the Asian poor. And of course we're going to be highlighting as well the black hoods and the black ghettos. But we got it was as soon as we can do it. And we're highlighting this.

This thing is going to go on and on into the election. We're going to listen. We're going to learn. But most importantly, we're going to cast the limelight. We want a national conversation about poor people and especially their precious humanity.

MARTIN: Cornel West is the class of 1943 professor in African-American studies and religion at Princeton University. He was kind enough to join us from the studios there. He's also co-host, along with Tavis Smiley of the public radio program "Smiley and West." Professor West, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEST: Thank you so very much. You stay strong.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.