Surely one of the questions that comes to mind as we read the various commentaries on the skirmish between Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson is “Why Should We [those of us who sit way up in the ‘cheap seats’] Care?” Permit me to offer an answer that is both simple and a bit more involved. While, ostensibly, this debate appears to be about an ego-driven flap between two high profile Black intellectuals, it is significant to some of us because it involves our efforts to interpret some of the actions (both instrumental and symbolic) of the nation’s first bi-racial President. This flap involving West and Dyson would not have occurred were the current occupant of the White House Caucasian.
As we enter the fourth quarter of our current President’s second term, we will no doubt be treated with more debates around President Obama’s multi-dimensional legacy. Many Black intellectuals are likely to raise the question, “What did Barack Obama do for Black people?” This question is problematic for two reasons: (a) it reflects what might be called the “fallacy of phenotypical thinking,” i.e., someone who is phenotypically Black shouldchampion policy issues and causes of particular importance to many Black people; and (b) this question tends to ignore the formal-legal/institutional circumstances under which the President of the United States (POTUS) operates.
This is not the place for a treatise of the nature of the “separation of powers” principle onwhich the Framers built into the US Constitution. Suffice it to say however, these constitutional architects never imagined that a later POTUS would be partially of African descent, nor generally foresaw that the issue of slavery that was present at the founding of the republic would have such long-term consequences with regard to the cancer of racial inequality that continues to affect the American body politic.
This background is relevant as we attempt to make sense out of the current flap between Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson. The former has taken President Obama to task – who has repeatedly been referred to as the nation’s “first Black president” – for not championing policy issues designed to benefit poor folks and Black folks. Such a positionhowever seems to ignore the formal-legal constraints under which this President must operate. Dyson, in a recent interviewcorrectly points to the high regard in which this President has been held by many Black folks. In this recent interview, Dyson* stated:
And I think West miscalculated the degree to which Black people would not only be deeply in love with Obama but see him as the fulfillment of a centuries-long quest for freedom and self-expression in America….And I think he understands the degree to which the passion would be deep.
[See: “Listen: Michael Eric Dyson’s Interview on His Break With Cornel West,” Part 4, https://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2015/04/Michael Eric Dyson tells the root about his split with mentor cornel.html?wpisrc=sl ipad, (accessed 22 April 2015).]
The current contretemps of clashing egos involving Drs. West and Dyson, fails to address not only the formal-legal/institutional constraints under which this President operates, but the added constraints of deep-seated institutional racism, and this President’s own hyper-cautious political personality which is an added constraint. We should care about this flap between Dyson and West, but for reasons that really have very little to do with the two ofthem. We will surely be devoting substantially more time to these and related issues in the decades ahead.
* NOTE: Presidential approval data compiled by Gallup suggest that Dyson might be correct. Notwithstanding Professor West’s torrid criticisms of President Obama’s muted stance on issues of interest to many African Americans, his approval ratings among African Americans during his first term ranged between 86 percent (the week of January 19th 2009 when he took the oath of office) and 91 percent (the week of November 5th 2012, when President Obama was reelected). These high approval ratings reflect what I have chosen to call African-American infatuation with President Obama.