Cornel West, Using His Powers for Good

Last week on 30 Rock, Cornel West made a quick cameo as a coach to a baffled Tracy Jordan, who insisted on referring to his eminent guest as Questlove—a mistake loaded with resonance. 

For the rest of us, Cornel West is an instantly recognizable, even ubiquitous presence. Some know Brother West from bestselling books like Race Matters; some know him as the Harvard professor who battled with President Lawrence Summers (and lost); some know him from The Matrix as one of the elders of Zion, the last human city; and some know him from Real Time with Bill Maher or CNN or as the friend and confidant of radio/TV host Tavis Smiley.

West is, for all that, a controversial figure, as religion writer Lisa Miller describes in a recent no-holds-barred profile for New York magazine: there are those who believe he’s more into being a media superstar than a thoughtful intellectual. Saturday Night Live satirized him recently, and Aaron McGruder, the comic genius who created Boondocks, loves to bash West as narcissistic. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh flare into tirades about West’s “socialism,” while Michael Eric Dyson and Melissa Harris-Perry criticize him for being at best unloving, at worst hypocritical.

Like him or not, with a news-making move back to Union Theological Seminary (Reinhold Neibuhr’s old stomping grounds, if Niebuhr ever stomped) and a new book co-authored with Tavis Smiley, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, the philosopher who “wants to be like Jesus” keeps calling to those who “have ears to hear.”

A Portrait of Poverty

The new book comes on the heels of Smiley and West’s “Nationwide Poverty Tour” of 2011, where they visited places like Hayward, Wisconsin, Detroit, Michigan, and Columbus, Mississippi. Each book chapter has a similar trajectory—the authors intersperse personal stories of poverty, homelessness, and frustration with discussions of economic and political policies ranging from the New Deal to the present.

Time and again, readers are brought to the vision of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the willingness of Democrats like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to grow in their concern for people of color and for social welfare programs, the attacks upon the poor by Ronald Reagan, and the disappointments of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to turn the tide.

Smiley and West wish to speak for and with the 99% who so often are left without care or help. They present a “portrait of poverty” and then discuss the various forms of poverty in the United States. A poverty of opportunity has left many without inspiration of aspiration; a poverty of affirmation has left our society cold and critical; and poverties of courage, compassion, and imagination have left leaders afraid, cold, and lacking vision.

Smiley and West find American leaders lacking in genuine social love, while everyday people are riding a “tsunami of moral outrage.”

The work ends with a “poverty manifesto” where Smiley and West describe twelve arenas that could move the nation from poverty to prosperity, with a focus on fundamental fairness, women and children, job creation, home life, a universal food delivery system, reform of the prison system, an emphasis on public investment, equitable progressive tax codes, restitution paid by banks and businesses that have abused the system, health care assurances, and a White House conference on eradication of poverty.

The appendix carries a letter to the president that can be photocopied or torn out. It calls for a transformation not only of how Americans talk about the poor, but also of what they do for those without homes, secure jobs, and health care.

Our Brothers’ Keepers

A biblical mentality animates the stories selected, the political and fiscal analyses, and the tenor of The Rich and the Rest of Us. The work builds, ideologically, off West’s recent autobiography in which he declares that for him, “Everything comes beneath the cross—nationalism, tribalism, patriotism, networks, even kinships.”

In the introduction to The Rich and the Rest of Us, Smiley references his “pentecostal” background, and West mentions his roots in the Baptist Church and his admiration for the liberation theologies of Malcolm X and James Cone. Both authors invoke Martin Luther King Jr. as their main influence, quote him repeatedly, and poignantly address his final crusade with the Poor People’s Campaign. Time and again, Smiley and West encourage Americans and their political leaders to think of themselves as their “brother’s keepers.” They ask how a nation that believes itself to be “one nation under God” can comfortably witness children without homes, veterans without adequate health care, and single moms unable to feed their families.

In many ways, The Rich and the Rest of Us is political sustenance for the already converted to liberal and leftist causes. Quoting historian Howard Zinn and looking to the insights of filmmaker Michael Moore probably will not convince many conservatives to rally to the cause—and when Smiley and West rely on Barbara Ehrenreich, they are drawing upon a fellow dissident. Put simply, they are preaching to the choir—but choirs need encouragement too. This is what Smiley and West accomplish: they provide the Occupy generation with a text to rally around.

Every few decades in the twentieth-century readers in America have been brought back to the poor. Upton Sinclair aimed for the heart, but hit the nation in its stomach with his tale of Chicago meatpacking in The Jungle (1906). Michael Harrington showed that the affluence of the 1950s wasn’t for everyone in The Other America (1962). Decades later, William Julius Willson’s two books—The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) and When Work Disappears (1996)—showed what happened to communities when joblessness became the norm. Barbara Ehrenreich trekked from Florida to Maine to the Midwest and worked as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, and, most famously, at Wal-Mart for her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001). Life was so hard in this world, she concluded that it was little wonder that so many turned to otherworldly Pentecostalism.

Smiley and West seem to want to draw from all these genres (fiction, sociology, history, and autobiography) to highlight the plight of the poor. The effect is not as stirring as that of Sinclair’s The Jungle or Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, but maybe concrete evidence, rather than narrative, is what’s needed now.

Black and White… and Green

West’s shift in attention from color to cash resembles the move by W. E. B. Du Bois during the first half of the twentieth century. When Du Bois famously prophesied that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” the century was only just beginning. Du Bois was adapting an idea from European socialists like Emile Zola who believed that the “problem” of the twentieth century would be the conflict between “capital and labor.” After World War II, though, Du Bois turned increasingly to the “problem of allocating work and income.” He joined the Communist Party of the USA and was viewed as a traitor by many Americans, hated by conservatives, and a pariah to most liberals.

West’s trajectory has some similarities. During the 1970s and 1980s, he made a name for himself writing about the problems of race in American philosophy, society, and morality. Now, he has moved to focus more on housing, banking, taxation plans, and material infrastructure. In this way, the “American Dream” of affluence created in the 1950s is not just to him a racialized dream where white people benefit from the labors of darker people; it is a “manipulative marketing tool” that dupes all Americans to buy into the agenda of the wealthy 1%.

Smiley and West are seeking to appeal both to the down-and-out inner-city person of color who struggles to find a job and to white folks in rural Kentucky who shout about the evils of government spending at Tea Party rallies while riding around in their motorized wheelchairs purchased with Medicare money. Readers who may not want to read about black and white in America may be interested in reading about green.

The Rich and the Rest of Us is a terrific book for anyone who cares about social justice in the United States. The personal stories of parents who sacrifice for their children, of recently let go men and women in their 50s who can no longer afford their mortgage payments, of activists who struggle against corporate interests that can outspend them thousands of times over, and of children who don’t have enough to eat and don’t have sufficient parental or teacher attention to make it are powerful appeals to change the political economy of the day. For, as biblical prophets often did and suffered for it, West challenges us to hear words and see sights we would perhaps rather not.