Haaretz late last week earned themselves a significant traffic spike by spotlighting a series of comments rapper Kanye West made during an interview with the New York City radio station 105.1 FM. In an attempt to explain why President Obama’s presidency is perceived as stalled, West invoked an old canard, suggesting that cartel-like behavior among Jews and oil magnates gave members of those groups more power than African-Americans.
It’s always unfortunate and frustrating to hear someone with West’s platform revert to tropes and stereotypes that are essentially conversation-enders. But it’s worth parsing what West actually said, rather than dismissing him as a crude anti-Semite, because his remarks do capture a number of important anxieties. West told 105.1 FM:
Man, let me tell you something about George Bush and oil money and Obama and no money. People want to say Obama can’t make these moves or he’s not executing. That’s because he ain’t got those connections. Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people. Black people don’t have the same connection as oil people.
“You know we don’t know nobody that got a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that we can go to when we down. You know they can just put us back or put us in a corporation. You know we ain’t in situation. Can you guarantee that your daughter can get a job at this radio station? But if you own this radio station, you could guarantee that. That’s what I’m talking about.
I don’t really think this is an accurate diagnosis of how race has affected Obama’s presidency. And it ignores a whole host of other incentives Republicans in Congress have for blocking his legislative initiatives.
But that doesn’t mean that race isn’t in play here — it’s just working in a different way than the one West articulated. The Presidency is as connected an office as exists anywhere in the world. And it comes with a house that even people with nicer residences, and who own radio stations, would do quite a lot to get to visit. What is different about Obama’s experience of the presidency is the way his race has inspired a certain class of his critics to suggest that his occupancy of that office is fraudulent or illegitimate, or that his tenure in the White House has somehow degraded the stature of the Oval Office. Obama’s presidency is less an illustration of the inability of African-Americans to make powerful connections that they could use to both their personal and group advantage, than of how hard some people will fight to prevent them from garnering that social capital and spending it. It’s absolutely lamentable and shameful that our first African-American president has faced this backlash, but it’s silly to pretend that our first Jewish president won’t be subject to ugly suggestions that he or she is part of some sort of sinister conspiracy. And there’s a great deal we can learn by analyzing the tactics that Obama’s opponents have used to try to delegitimize his presidency, and by honestly assessing the efficacy of the administration’s response.
What I think West is trying to get at in the pivot from discussing Obama’s presidency to decrying the difficulty of building a pipeline into positions of power is a sense that there isn’t enough internal solidarity and self-help in African-American communities, in part because there aren’t enough black people in positions of power who can extend a hand up to the people who aspire to follow him. That’s a different problem, and an important one. But it also obscures the networks that do exist. I’d be curious to hear how folks who are part of the black fraternity and sorority system, for example, or the Jack and Jill network, feel about West’s diagnosis. But this is not a concern that’s limited to West, either. In The Best Man Holiday, Quentin (Terrence Howard), who does civil rights and media monitoring work, suggests at one point that gay lobbies like GLAAD are more effective than equivalent African-American groups.
It’s one thing, though, to attempt to learn from the ways that other marginalized groups have built political and cultural power. And it’s another entirely to ascribe them with mystic powers of solidarity that paper over deep divisions and conflicts that do great harm to both members of the groups in question, and to people outside them. West may admire Jewish networking, but I doubt that he wants African-Americans to have the exact same experience of Jewish political organizations in the U.S., which haven’t exactly been conflict-free. Invoking some sort of monolithic Jewish authority isn’t just a bad idea because it’s a stereotype, and one that’s fueled hatred and suspicion of Jews for years. It’s a myth that obscures the difficulties of building political power and an enduring movement.