February 29, 2016
Hillary Clinton won the South Carolina primary on Saturday night by almost 50 percent of the vote, thanks in large part to her support from the African-American community, which made up a historic portion of the Democratic vote last night. A stunning 86 percent of black voters supported Clinton over Sanders in the first contest between the two candidates in a state with a large black population.
Both candidates have been courting black voters with a series of high-profile endorsements and events in the run-up to not only this race, but looking ahead to the Super Tuesday contests next week. Six southern states, all of which carry large numbers of black Democratic voters, will cast their ballots. But as the campaigns raise questions about each other’s commitment to the black community, some of their surrogates are beginning to turn on each other as well.
Dr. Cornel West, one of the preeminent public intellectuals on issues of a race and inequality and an avid Sanders supporter, had harsh words for civil rights leaders supporting Clinton’s campaign during an interview with VICE News as he toured South Carolina on Sanders’ behalf last week.
West spoke at length of “Brother Bernie’s” activism during the civil rights era, while questioning Clinton’s commitment to the cause. When asked why some civil rights leaders were backing Clinton’s campaign, including Rep. John Lewis, who marched in Selma in 1965, West replied that Lewis and others had lost their way.
“There’s no doubt that the great John Lewis of 50 years ago is different than the John Lewis today,” West remarked. “He’s my brother. I love him, I respect his personhood, but there’s no doubt he’s gone from a high moment of Martin Luther King-like struggle to now [a] neoliberal politician in a system that is characterized more and more by legalized bribery and normalized corruption. That’s what big money does to politics. And the Clinton machine is an example of that.”
Lewis’ home state of Georgia will vote on Super Tuesday and has 116 delegates at stake, making it one of the most consequential states that will vote next week. In 2008, African-Americans made up more than half of Georgia’s Democratic electorate.
West repeatedly referred to both Lewis and Rep. Jim Clyburn, who was also involved in the civil rights movement and now represents South Carolina in the House of Representatives, as “neoliberal politicians.” The classification, he explained, refers to “a politics that proceeds based on financializing, privatizing, and militarizing.”
West said that Clyburn and Lewis had become “too well adjusted to Wall Street.” They are now a part of a system, he said, “in which politicians are well adjusted to injustice owing to their ties to big money, big banks, and big corporations, and turning their backs, for the most part, to poor people and working people. Poor people and working people become afterthoughts.”
‘Most black politicians these days are neoliberal politicians, so it’s almost natural for them to side with Hillary Clinton.’
More broadly, West asserted that black politicians supporting Clinton lack the kind of “courage” it takes to support Sanders and to “pursue truth” and justice.
“Most black politicians these days are neoliberal politicians, so it’s almost natural for them to side with Hillary Clinton,” he said. “But with the neoliberal era coming to a close, four months from now [when the party picks its nominee], you watch how the shift sets in.”
Neither Clyburn’s office nor Lewis’ responded to requests for comment for this story.
West’s comments come just eight months after he praised Lewis at a Unitarian Universalists event honoring the congressman, who received a human rights award. At the time, West called Lewis a “moral titan” and suggested that the same young people he now says are more courageous than Lewis could learn something from the congressman.
“When we see you, we see integrity, we see courage and we see someone who is willing to be honest.… Nobody’s all the way right, but even when you’re wrong, you point it out with that love,” West said at the gathering. “What we need is precisely the raw stuff that went into you. How do you translate that to the younger generation?”
The VICE News interview with West this week took place during a trip to South Carolina to examine the role of the black vote in the state as well as the Clinton legacy with black voters in general. Those voters will play a huge role on Super Tuesday, as both candidates compete for approximately one-quarter of the total delegates up for grabs this year. Watch the dispatch, which includes more from the West interview, below.