cornel west*The incomparable Dr. Cornel West has been known as a bit of a celebrity professor ever since his signature afro first was spotted on the campuses of some of America’s most prestigious universities. He is the author of 19 books, including the classic “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters.”

He’s even appeared on a few albums and in films. He has been one of the most sought after authorities on matters of race and poverty in the world for nearly 30 years. Recently our Lee Bailey had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Dr. West, who has suddenly gone from being a polarizing figure in the Euro-American academic community to being a polarizing figure in the African American community as well.

As much as we would like to say that we have Dr. Cornel West on speed dial, and that he’s our Spades Tournament partner, we cannot. There’s a reason for the season and that season is the “Poverty Tour 2.0.” It will be hitting the road from September 12–15, 2012, visiting four battleground states: Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida, continuing the crusade to make the eradication of poverty a top priority in America. Being that the election is a stone’s throw away, we couldn’t help but get his take on the DNC and RNC conventions.

“You just wish they both had more substance,” said West. “That’s part of the problem with me. It’s gotten to the point where it becomes so much superficial spectacle rather than dealing with some of the most crucial issues facing the nation. I’m talking about the new Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex, as it relates to poor people of all colors. I’m talking about our foreign policies, the militarism of both parties was quite discernible, and no talk about the underside of our foreign policy with drones dropping bombs on innocent people.”

“No serious confrontation regarding the source of the financial catastrophe of 2008 down on Wall St,” he continued. “There was certain talk about taxes for the rich but the banks are even bigger now than they were before and the regulatory efforts have been so weak, even though I do applaud that the effort had been made by the democrats. So, I’m still very frightened at the future due to the superficiality of both conventions.”

With such a resume one would think that the good Dr. would get about as much love from the African American community as any professor ever has, and that was true at one time. But that changed around 2008. That’s when President Barack Hussein Obama was elected. West, in the tradition of a true democracy, started a discourse regarding poverty in America. But even West must admit Obama is the lesser of the two political evils. However, he still feels the president can and should do more for the poor.

“There is a contrast. Brother Barack Obama is so much better than Mitt Romney, but my dear brother Barack doesn’t REALLY want to come to terms with poverty, he doesn’t REALLY want to come to terms with the new Jim Crow. There’s no talk whatsoever about the prison industrial complex as it relates to the level of unemployment and underemployment, not worried about the drones, not worried about the right to incarcerate a U.S. citizen without trial, without due process.”

After President Obama was elected West and broadcaster Tavis Smiley began criticizing him for not doing enough to stem the tide of poverty in the United States. Their reputations have since taken quite a few torpedoes thanks to the “cult of personality” mindset that surrounds the POTUS. Anyone who is seen as being critical of the President is seen as being counter productive to the liberal American cause, secretly envious of his celebrity status, impatient or just a plain ol’ hater. But it is those individuals who point the finger that appear to not truly understand that protest and speaking truth to power are, at their root, among the most democratic options for change that the common man has.

“If, in fact, you acknowledge that there are certain threats to our precious experiment in democracy called the United States of America and you can’t talk about the truth then don’t say that the truth matters, West told “If you can’t talk about the prison industrial complex, and yet that is a major threat to your democracy in 5 to 10 years, when the prisons explode. Poverty creates levels of despair and paranoia and no one wants to talk about it because of the superficiality of the discourse. While you and I can understand, politically and in the narrow sense, why they didn’t talk about it, in the end somebody in these political parties has to be able to step forward and say something that has to do with reality and the suffering that’s going on out here in a very serious way.”

So, does Dr. West have any hope in our elected officials and their ability to bring about serious change for individuals living below the poverty line in America?

“I don’t have much hope in political parties but I do have hope in the creativity and imagination of U.S. citizens of all colors who are wrestling with these realities. It just shows the degree that both parties are so far out of touch. If we’re living in a plutocratic society, where race, poverty and class constitute major sources of danger to your democracy, and neither party can speak to those realities, and you say you really love your democracy, and I believe they really love their democracy…I’ll give you a fascinating moment. Michelle Obama gave her speech, do you remember what she told the military moms? ‘I’ve got your back’ and she said it with such conviction, it was beautiful. But I didn’t hear any of the democrats say to poor people ‘I’ve got your back’ the way that she said it to that military mom. We know neither one of them can say to black folks ‘Jamal I got your back or Latisha, I got your back’. They can’t say that, but they can say that to a military mom. That shows to me, in a symbolic way, the limits or our political discourse. There’s a superficiality of its content.”

“There’s hope, but we just can’t be optimistic,” he continued. “Black folks at our best have never been optimistic. We’re prisoners of hope. To put it into context, we can go back to the political conventions of 1944, 48 and 52 and they weren’t talking about old Jim Crow right? The reason being? It wasn’t a winning hand. But then here comes Rosa Parks, here comes Fannie Lou, here comes Miles Horton, here comes Martin Luther King. Lo and behold, here comes 1960 Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr outside of the convention. How come? It wasn’t until that moment that they were worried about Jim Crow. The hope comes from the everyday vision and courage of people to tell the truth to the mendacity, mediocrity and superficiality of the conventions.”.

As much as we would like to continue with our incredibly interesting conversation with Dr. West, we’re going to have to cut it short right now for the sake of space and our readers’ eye fatigue. But we will most certainly be back with part two before you know it.