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Amarnath Amarasingam Headshot

Is President Obama a Sellout?

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BARACK OBAMA
AP

The fear of the sellout is rampant among many ethnic and racial groups in the United States and Canada. When members of these communities enter positions of privilege, they indeed become objects of pride and admiration, but these feelings are often accompanied by a nervous uncertainty as to whether they will eventually "forget where they came from." The sellout has been branded with several epithets in the majority-white North American context. Most of the derogatory terms have referred to being or "acting white," which has been one of the constant characteristics of the sellout. Black sellouts have been called "Uncle Toms" or "Oreos," while South Asians have been called "coconuts" and Asians have been labeled "twinkies" or "bananas."

These epithets point to a deep-seated animosity towards 'race betrayers' who the host community regards as a traitor and an ungrateful free rider. In studying the fear of the sellout among black Americans, Randall Kennedy notes in his book Sellout that a sellout is "a person who betrays something to which she is said to owe allegiance" and can refer to individuals whose actions "retard African-American advancement."

As Kennedy notes, some of the earliest members of the black community labeled as sellouts were those individuals who recaptured runaway slaves or forewarned white authorities of impending slave revolts. Many black authors who wrote treatises against the community were also roundly hated. One example is William Hannibal Thomas, who throughout his early life championed the African-American cause. Later in life, however, he underwent a radical about-face and published The American Negro in 1901. The black individual, he wrote, "has a mind that never thinks in complex terms; Negro intelligence is both superficial and delusive... [and] represents an illiterate race, in which ignorance, cowardice, folly, and idleness are rife." The African-American response was swift and seething. Some threatened him with physical assault and told him to "go off and hang thyself," while others, like Booker T. Washington, remarked that, "It is sad to think of a man without a country. It is sadder to think of a man without a race."

Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke with derision against racial betrayal. Malcolm X called sellouts "house Negros" and King stated that there are many blacks in America "who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle." Others branded as sellouts were those individuals who, working as spies for the American government, infiltrated civil rights organizations and kept an eye on groups like the Black Panther Party.

It seems that almost without exception, every successful African-American public figure in the United States -- Oprah, Sean 'Puffy' Combs, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell -- has, at one time or another, faced the question of whether they were selling out. As journalist Peter Beinart pointed out, it seems that "the more whites love you, the more you must reassure your own community that you are still one of them."

In a recent interview with journalist and author Chris Hedges, Princeton professor Cornel West launches a full frontal assault on President Obama. Parts of the interview provide a sound critique of Obama's failures as a populist president. Other parts are deeply unfair, and at times disturbing. West stops just short of branding Obama a "race traitor" or accusing him of selling out African-Americans. While I admire Dr. West, read some of his writings, and briefly met him at the 2009 American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal, I found his comments on Obama problematic to the say the least.

Some of West's critiques arise out of a perceived personal affront by Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. For example, he tells Hedges that he did 65 campaign events for Obama, used to speak with him regularly on the phone, and offer prayers for his success. However, West "never got a call back" from Obama. Additionally, West could not get tickets to the inauguration with his mother and brother. "We had to watch the thing in the hotel," he says.

The relationship continued to deteriorate after Obama became President. West, who had always stated that Obama should not think he is safe from critique simply because he is African-American, received a phone call from Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president. According to West, Jarrett was particularly upset by West's statement in an interview that "he saw a lot of Malcolm X and Ella Baker" in Michelle Obama. "I said in the world that I live in, in that which authorizes my reality, Ella Baker is a towering figure," he tells Hedges. "If I say there is a lot of Ella Baker in Michelle Obama, that's a compliment." He goes on to say that while the first lady's initiatives on child obesity and military families are commendable, "why doesn't she visit a prison? Why not spend some time in the hood?"

In perhaps the most revealing part of the interview, West continues:

I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. It's understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he's always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that's true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It's a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.

Such statements drip with condescension and signal that accusations of Obama not being "black enough" may resurface during the 2012 presidential campaign. While West stops short of calling Obama a sellout, calling him "rootless" is little different. Both terms accuse Obama of somehow only having partial ties to the Black experience in the United States. Indeed, describing Obama as rootless is West's way of contextualizing why the first Black president is a sellout. As West's anger and disappointment with Obama make clear, a sellout is much worse than a generic enemy of the ethnic or racial group. Since the community had invested in him/her and placed a certain amount of trust in their loyalty, the betrayal stings exponentially and produces equally virulent scorn and dismissal.