Yvonne Abraham

Educator needs an education

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 22, 2011

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Larry Summers made a lot of mistakes when he was running Harvard, but driving Cornel West from Cambridge wasn’t one of them.

West, now a university professor at Princeton, has been much in the news lately for calling President Obama “a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.’’

West is angry at Obama because he hasn’t been tough enough on the bigs who wrought the nation’s financial crisis. He criticizes the president for failing to follow through on his populist campaign rhetoric, for too weakly supporting “the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable.’’

They’re not unreasonable criticisms; I sometimes have thoughts like these myself.

The problem is that for some time West has opted to couch his views in racial terms: Obama has taken the positions he has, West says, because he is not black enough.

“He’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin,’’ West told columnist Chris Hedges on “All he has known culturally is white. . . . When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening.’’

This independent black brother pointed out that Obama did not grow up among “black folk who have a history of slavery,’’ concluding: “He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.’’

Yikes. West’s blowtorch tone makes you think there is more going on here than a disagreement over principle. Sure enough, he reveals a host of less lofty motivations in the Truthdig piece. He’s mad at Obama, for whom he campaigned hard, because he wouldn’t return his calls. Also annoying: West couldn’t get tickets to the inauguration. The professor, who upbraids the president for being insufficiently populist, was scandalized that “the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel’’ got a ticket and his own mother didn’t.

Obama’s bringing Summers into his administration didn’t help. At Harvard, Summers insisted West do more serious academic work. This incensed the professor, who fled to Princeton in 2002.

“He feels most comfortable with upper-middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart,’’ West said of the president.

This is absolute buffoonery, especially since it comes from a man cosseted in the Ivy League for decades. It would all be laughably over the top, except for the fact that West’s darts reach way beyond his frenemy-in-chief, and right into our neighborhoods.

His comments made me think of the delightful fourth grade boys I met last month. The kids, from Roslindale’s Conley Elementary School, went to Harvard as part of a Boston public schools initiative called Impact 300. The point of the trip was to show African-American boys, who trail every other group in the schools academically, that they can aspire to college educations.

When some of those boys get to middle and high school, they’ll face a phenomenon called “acting white,’’ the perception that if they excel in school, they’re somehow less black.

Roland Fryer, Harvard economics professor, has found that black male high achievers have notably fewer friends in school than their peers. And Kennedy School education specialist Ronald Ferguson, who addressed the kids at Harvard (“Any place in the world that you’re interested in is where you’re supposed to be’’), has found that just the fear of being seen as acting white is enough to distort young people’s behaviors, including making them less willing to express a desire to excel academically.

Obama raised this issue here in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, saying we must “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.’’

To do that, we must convince African-American boys there are infinite ways to be black. And here comes West using the nation’s first black president to say there’s really only one. That’s worse than buffoonery: It’s toxic.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at