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Story highlights

Peniel Joseph: Meeting with president-elect doesn't make Kanye West a black political leader

Trump's mostly white Cabinet is a bigger statement on race than meeting black celebrities, he writes

Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Political Values and Ethics and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.

(CNN) —  

Kanye West’s meeting with president-elect Donald Trump suggests that, symbolically at least, black people did not just lose the presidential election – we’ve lost our damn minds.

No matter that West’s actions stand in stark contrast to the feelings of hip-hop artists, black voters and civil rights advocates. His very presence at Trump Tower offers a dramatic symbol of the racial bait-and-switch that the president-elect has perfected as entertainment: a 21st -century minstrel-meets-reality-show, starring disgraced rap stars, aging sports icons and an assortment of other rogues.

Peniel Joseph
Kelvin Ma/Tufts University/Kelvin Ma/Tufts University
Peniel Joseph

West is mercurial and his entertaining mixture of talent, ego and unpredictability has a long narrative in popular culture. His meeting with Trump represents a dénouement of sorts, the closing of a political circle begun over a decade ago in the aftermath of his comment that “George Bush does not care about black people” during a live fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims.

But Yeezy’s participation in the president-elect’s traveling reality show comes at great cost to the black community.

President-elect Donald Trump and Kanye West pose for a picture in the lobby of Trump Tower on Dec. 13, 2016.
Seth Wenig/AP
President-elect Donald Trump and Kanye West pose for a picture in the lobby of Trump Tower on Dec. 13, 2016.

When it comes to Trump, we are always better off following his political actions rather than spending time on photo-ops. His interaction with West, whom he called a “good friend,” has gone predictably viral. But it dangerously overshadows actions that carry political weight, such as his choice of Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Senator and notable enemy of racial justice, for Attorney General.

Trump’s cabinet – staffed with the most white males of any since 1989 – tells the true story about his views on race far more clearly than any photo-op with Kanye West ever could.

Unfortunately, West is far from the only black celebrity engaged in ad-hoc negotiations in the pop culture arena with Trump.

Jim Brown, legendary NFL running back and civil rights activist, claimed to have fallen “in love” with the president-elect after a recent meeting in Trump Tower.

No one should question Brown’s sincerity and support for racial and economic justice for the African-American community. He has a long history of working to end gang violence in big cities like Los Angeles and to create jobs for black youth who are disproportionately unemployed.

But, certainly, we might now question his judgment.

The meeting between West and Trump, two titans of Twitter, raises the question: Have celebrities become the new black political leaders in the Age of Trump?

The answer is not really, but the president-elect would sure like to make it so. It is certainly much simpler to discuss pressing matters related to racial justice in America with Kanye West and Jim Brown rather than elected officials, community organizers, policy experts or ordinary African Americans.

Frederick Douglass, legendary black abolitionist and one of the 19th century’s most famous Americans, met three times with Abraham Lincoln, who cited Douglass’ intellectual excellence as bolstering his belief in the necessity for blacks to have voting rights.

Booker T. Washington, head of the historically black Tuskegee Institute, conferred with Theodore Roosevelt about race relations at the White House in a meeting that scandalized the white press.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. enjoyed intimate access to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, pushing at least three US presidents to find common cause with the national struggle for black dignity during the civil rights era.

All of these black leaders, despite ideological and political differences, sought to press the occupant of the White House to expand the scope and vision of American democracy.

The descent from these lofty, historical and political heights is staggering. Trump’s meetings with black celebrities do not evoke King’s summits with LBJ. Rather, they are more reminiscent of the embarrassing spectacle of singer Sammy Davis Jr. embracing President Richard Nixon.

Davis, a stalwart Democrat and civil rights advocate who had previously supported John F. Kennedy, upset many in the African-American community by hugging Nixon on stage at the Republican National Convention in 1972.

Like Brown, Davis was lulled by Nixon’s siren song of black empowerment and self-determination, a decision he later came to regret.

Brown and West, who supposedly discussed “multicultural issues” with Trump, may have gambled that their personal celebrity could forge a bond with a president-elect whose love for glitz is unmatched.

This goes beyond the realm of wishful thinking. Their folly crosses the line into the darker world of pandering, racial accommodation, and identifying so strongly with white power as to be blinded by its destructive impact on the community they profess to defend and support.

They have both, unintentionally or not, pandered to perhaps the most dangerous racial demagogue of our time, one whose actions – the substance of which will be extraordinarily damaging to African Americans – speak more loudly than his words.

Trump’s personal friendships with famous black people will not mitigate the chaos, damage and misery that his political appointees, racially charged rhetoric and policy choices will inflict on the black community.

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A secretary of state whose oil company has wreaked environmental damage suffered most disproportionately by African Americans and people of color, check.

A chief political strategist whose ascent is fueled by white nationalism and the demonization of people of color, check.

What next? Stay tuned.

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” is the title of one of West’s best albums. It might also characterize the state of mind that convinces well-intentioned celebrities that political symbols can overwhelm policy substance and that the mind of an anti-black leader can be changed through gregarious small talk, well-timed photo ops and the shared intimacy of celebrity.