By Chinaza Okonkwo, Guest Columnist
On September 2, 2005, before a national television audience, Kanye West famously declared that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” These bold words launched him into a new level of conscious consideration among the Black community. However, its clear that his sentiments regarding a Republican president have radically changed in the thirteen years since this iconic moment. While Kanye’s new standing as a pariah in the Black community was already obvious to many (after his incoherent rants and then support of Donald Trump), his recent visit to the White House should’ve cemented the idea that the “old Kanye” is gone. His recent meeting with Donald Trump follows a long and racist history of political candidates using entertainers and celebrities to acquire Black approval & votes. As we see it, there are two important lessons to be learned from this meeting.
- Kanye West is representative of a sector of people who have a widespread platform, but lack deep knowledge of the critical issues about which they speak. Instead of critical thinking, he resorts to parroting popular conservative and Republican base talking points. During his rant at the White House, he jumped through many different topics about welfare, mental health, mass incarceration, and the power of racism. Here is the truth:
According to the Huffington Post, “Medicaid had more than 70 million beneficiaries in 2016, of whom 43 percent were white, 18 percent black, and 30 percent Hispanic. Of 43 million food stamp recipients that year, 36.2 percent were white, 25.6 percent black, 17.2 percent Hispanic and 15.5 percent unknown.” Historically, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is probably the program that has most frequently been called welfare, as it was created in the famous “welfare reform” of 1996. As a result of that reform, the program today is much smaller than its predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and it only served 2.7 million people in 2016. Of those, 36.9 percent were Hispanic, 27.6 percent white, and 29.1 percent black.” Contrary to stereotypes and Kanye’s own beliefs, welfare isn’t the reason that Black people are mostly Democrats. It’s probably because Democrats passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
After this initial tangent, Kanye then said that mental health is the reason why “Black people fall back into the trap door that is the 13th Amendment.” If we analyze facts alone, mental health is something that the Black community definitely needs to focus on, and the 13th Amendment does indeed have a clause that basically allows for legalized slavery within the prison system. However, focusing on the mental health of Black people is not enough to combat mandatory minimum sentencing, the use of plea bargaining that violates the rights of citizens to a fair trial, implicit and unconscious racial bias in the jury system, prosecutorial blocking of a diverse jury, policing, laws, over-policing of communities, and the harsher punishment for drugs usage administered to Black and brown communities over white groups.***
One of the most controversial things that Kanye said was on the power of racism, claiming that it was an “invisible wall.” This dangerous proposition is simply untrue. The effects of racism and bias can be seen in all sectors of life, from housing to education to jobs. Saying that racism is an “invisible wall” implies that we don’t need to fight for greater equality and for fairer laws because everyone should be able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” To a person like Kanye–who has exorbitant wealth that can alleviate the effect of racism on his life–it may seem like an invisible wall, but the experiences of so many Black people easily run counter to his claim.
- During a famous interview at the University of California Berkeley over 51 years ago, Malcolm X spoke on how when presidents and political leaders come into power, the first thing they do is to invite supposed Black leaders for lunch in order to gain their approval. True to form, Donald Trump has met with celebrities such as Kanye West, Tiger Woods, Jim Brown, Ray Lewis, and Steve Harvey. Perhaps more telling is who he hasn’t met with: there has been no sign of any grassroots organizers or Black intellectuals actively involved with their communities. Malcolm X aptly critiques this phenomenon:
“Show me in the white community where a singer is a white leader or a dancer or a trumpet player is a white leader. These aren’t leaders. These are puppets and clowns that have been set up over the Black community by the white community and have been made celebrities and, usually, they say exactly what they know the white man wants to hear.” And we see the way in which Trump views West as he calls him “a smart cookie” after Kanye is done praising him.
It is time for us to choose our political and social leaders carefully, and it critical that we choose people who are knowledgeable about the issues that we care about and that we call out Black entertainers and white politicians who use them as a decoy and menial way to gain our trust.
***In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. The scientifically unjustifiable 100:1 ratio meant that people faced longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine – two forms of the same drug. Most disturbingly, because the majority of people arrested for crack offenses are African American, the 100:1 ratio resulted in vast racial disparities in the average length of sentences for comparable offenses. The FSA was a step toward fairness, but the 18:1 ratio was a compromise and it still reflects outdated and discredited assumptions about crack cocaine. Because crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, there should not be any disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses – the only truly fair ratio is 1:1.”