Kanye West’s Quixotic Quest

The man who once declared that a president and a party had no use for black people is now a pawn in a game dedicated to marginalizing those same people.

Kanye West meeting in the Oval Office with President Trump (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

It would not be a story if a famous black pop star today—or anyone else for that matter, really—said on camera that Donald Trump doesn’t care about black people. There’d be no controversy. Not only is it evident that the president doesn’t really care about a great number of people, it is eminently fair to ascertain from his policies and comments that the president does not spare thoughts for the interiority of black lives. Such a claim against him would neither be revelatory nor would it be especially damaging for his political prospects. Such is 2018.

What to make of, then, the now-infamous defection of Kanye West, a man at least partially famous because of his racial critique of a sitting president, to the umbrella of Donald Trump? After the two had lunch this week, and West delivered a bizarre monologue in support of Trump, much attention has been paid to the inner workings of West’s own mind. Questions of his mental health, of his magnetic alignment along the same poles of misogyny and narcissism as Trump, and of his embrace of a hodgepodge of conservative-ish ideas have been the focus. But those analyses are mostly personal and quasi-psychological, often ignoring the currents of history that have propelled Trump and West to a lunch at the White House. Those currents can provide answers, both to how West arrived at this point, and to why he and the rest of the country have abandoned the black people most in need.

It took an unspeakable tragedy to shake America out of its doldrums. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina disintegrated the fabric of thousands of lives. It topped the Louisiana levees, and sent walls of water that turned flimsy homes into matchsticks. It sent toxic sludge into vulnerable neighborhoods, and sparked an exodus that has since reshaped the entire demography of the Gulf Coast. And the deadly aftermath of a slow-rolling crisis that saw almost 2,000 people dead revealed the faults in both local and national society. The faces of the dead, those subject to abuses under de facto martial law, and those who were underserved by the disaster response were most often black. And the faces of the law—the capital-L Law—the authorities who crammed people into substandard housing, who decried survivors as looters, and who dithered in providing aid, were most often not black.

It was not easy to talk about exactly what was going on then. The language of institutional racism and environmental justice was well developed but most often relegated just to the margins of public debate, to courtesy appearances at conferences and weekend slots on commentary shows. If black academics and thinkers gained a measure of prominence, the thoughts of those on the margins—say, those born in the projects in New Orleans—were safely ignored in the mainstream. In the eyes of media, decades of a racial Pax Americana had yet to come to a close. Conversations about race were tolerated, so long as they never became more than that.

Then an unlikely provocateur helped upset the balance. At an NBC telethon and benefit concert for Katrina relief on September 2, 2005, a young hip-hop artist, then just two days after the release of his successful sophomore album, stood with the actor Mike Myers to make his direct-to-camera appeal. Standing awkwardly, with his hands in the pockets of his pastel chinos, the man immediately—at least according to Myers’s reaction—went off script. “I hate the way they portray us in the media,” he began. “If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. If you see a white family, they’re looking for food.” He rambled, he stuttered, clearly overwhelmed in the moment and trying to complete some appeal to an audience, while also publicly working out his own response and responsibility. “Those are my people down there, so anybody out there that wants to do anything to help … with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible,” he continued, still trying to complete the thought. Myers attempted to get back on script, going back to his appeal. But then he was interrupted.

“George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” Kanye West told America.

Time has moved on. America’s first black president was then still in his first year in the U.S. Senate. Ads for the premiere of the fourth season of Donald Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice, flanked the telethon. Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana had just begun his climb to prominence in the House. Congressional cafeterias still served Freedom Fries. Twitter did not exist, Myspace had yet to reach its peak traffic, Facebook was a year-old website restricted to college students, and West’s mammoth single “Gold Digger” was still on its ascent through American music charts, where it would soon cement him as a crossover star. Polos with sleeves were in. Telethons were still a thing.

The moment seems ever more distant because of what’s become of the artist. This week, West continued a media firestorm with his public support of Trump, as he went to Washington, D.C., for a high-profile meeting with the president. The artist, who once rapped about conspiracy theories about Ronald Reagan creating crack to stop the Black Panthers, embraced the president, who once called for the death penalty to be brought back to New York to kill five black and Latino men falsely accused of rape. And when asked about the comments that 13 years ago caused their own firestorm, West fully recanted.

“I think we need to care about all people, and I believe that when I went on to NBC, I was very emotional,” West told reporters. “I was programmed to think from a victimized mentality, a welfare mentality.” In that moment, whatever atomic shifts that differentiated 2005 Kanye West from 2018 Kanye West became fleetingly clear enough to capture in words. His unfiltered, uncomfortable outburst had been the product of a “welfare mentality,” his own deficiency rather than that of a world of cruelties. But the person before him, a president who has called for police to brutalize suspects and who has called the deaths of thousands of Puerto Rican citizens under his tenure a hoax, is not the enemy, West claims.

What happened between Bush and Trump? In 2005, the year Katrina hit, Gallup polls recorded the highest satisfaction with race relations among African Americans in recent times. Sixty-eight percent of black respondents said that relations between white people and black people were “very good” or “somewhat good.” The same poll showed 49 percent of black respondents felt the same in 2016.

It’s clear that racial divisions in perspective about Hurricane Katrina were major contributors, both to the national outlook and to views of Bush and of the two parties. A Pew Research Center poll from September 2005 found that 71 percent of black people saw in the disaster proof that racism was still a major problem in the country. The opposite was true of white people, where 56 percent of respondents believed the existence of racism was not an important factor. The majority of black people in Gallup polls from that year indicated that the federal response was slow because of the race of the victims, and only a third of black respondents rated Bush’s response in particular as “good” or “very good.”

Given those data, two things are true. The first is that West spoke not just from the outskirts of debate or the fringes of public opinion, but from within the beating heart of black political thought. He wasn’t particularly eloquent or visionary, but just outspoken enough to utter a frustration that was clearly commonly understood, but until then still unspeakable in polite company. The second truth is that the sentiment behind his utterance was so passé because it revealed the shaky foundation on which the modern age has been built. If the president, a party, and a people could abandon black citizens to their death, and if invisible structures that tended to amplify those deaths still remained in place, could the ideas of bipartisanship or compromising democracy ever work?

To say Katrina was an awakening would perhaps be too hard of a sell for a voting bloc that had never had much love for Bush, but the tragic and public reminder of institutional racism and of what reasonably seemed like public antipathy toward black plights played no small part in shaping the country since then. As Melissa Harris-Perry and James Perry wrote in The Nation in 2009, “The Democratic Party found its voice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” Bush’s failures, real and perceived, provided a platform for critique against the GOP, and also brought harder systemic racial critiques closer to the orbit of mainstream politics. Those failures also awoke some legacy organizing arms in black communities that had become complacent or rudderless. These were all factors in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, an election that excited West.

Of course, much of the political reorganization in America since Obama’s first election has been a backlash to the very black electoral muscle that got him elected, to Obama’s own connection with the black community, and to the rise of powerful black activist structures such as Black Lives Matter. Trump’s ascension marked the completion of a 50-year process of forging a modern GOP into a party of white men, one dedicated to diminishing welfare, cutting the safety net, and rolling back the Voting Rights Act..

It’s actually seemed at times that the modern GOP has been built explicitly on a foundation of proving the spirit of West’s notorious quote right. As the GOP has abandoned its ambitions of being a multiracial big-tent party, it’s settled mostly for concern-trolling and antagonizing black citizens, instead of making even token efforts to court their votes. Despite polling data showing overwhelming evidence of black fear about voting-rights violations and voter purges, Republicans have made complicating elections, purging voters, and implementing additional obstacles to the ballot a core part of their policy platform. Despite evidence showing black respondents care deeply about police reform, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have laid the groundwork for labeling activism in favor of reform dangerous, and have marked black community leaders who rally against police brutality as “black-identity extremists.” Last year, as white nationalists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, the president could not be moved to quickly and unequivocally denounce hood-wearing Klansmen and neo-Nazis without also blaming people “on both sides.”

As the GOP as a whole has followed Trump’s concern-trolling, dog-whistling strategy of stoking white anger and black pain, a predictable dynamic in the wider discourse has emerged. Anti-blackness has become more and more acceptable within the bounds of standard conservative debate, rhetoric, and policy. America’s innately center-locating system of public discourse thus makes reflexive denunciation of racism among and on behalf of black people more and more unacceptable in debate. The window moves and the center moves, to the point where it’s no longer even remotely damaging to credibly charge, or even for large swaths of the country to believe, that the president harbors ill will toward certain races of people.

More so than any other single thing, West’s lodestar has been a contrarian sort of controversy. Once, that guiding light aligned with what appeared to be a genuine concern for black well-being, and controversy could be sought and found in pointing out the ways that white policies failed black people. Now politics have changed. Contrarianism dictates that the political preferences and concerns of ironclad majorities in black communities are to be ignored.

West’s performance in the White House and his rambling, disjointed, attention-seeking political consciousness are all too complicated to truly understand for sure. Perhaps the burden of foresight has corrupted the seer. Perhaps the venality and vanity West often agonized about in his music finally overwhelmed him. Perhaps two decades of his life have been conducted in a media crucible that can only produce warped and bent people. Perhaps he is, in some way, less than well. Perhaps these are all true. But it is clear just how the country has changed in the past 13 years, and why West’s comments have been important bookends for an era. It was once difficult for a viewing public to accept an observation that the country had abandoned black communities. Now that’s just part of the plan. It’s a mundane observation. Kanye West does not do mundane.