In early October 2018 Kanye West met with Donald Trump at the White House in Washington DC. Sitting opposite one another in the oval office, they exchanged views on the abolition of slavery, gang and police violence in Chicago, mental health, plane design, entrepreneurialism, a potential 2024 presidential run, the cosmos, and multiverse theory.
Gathered around the two men were stacks of flashing cameras and a mob of suited media representatives who were called on sporadically to ask mild-mannered questions. Even by the standards of a presidency that has turned governance into little more than mass entertainment it was an unedifying spectacle.
Yet the Trump phenomenon has an uncanny ability to make structural fault lines in American society visible, literal and painful. What historically has remained unsaid or gestured towards in euphemistic half-phrases has, in the past three years, been shouted from the rooftops or become brazenly physicalized.
Trump’s meeting with West was no different, in that it revealed the antagonistic relationship between race and class in the United States in the twenty-first century. West’s position as a millionaire and an African American has forced him to embody two contradictory forces at once. These forces have entered into an irresolvable battle for power over his mind
This tension is revealed by a close analysis of West’s monologue in the White House. His digressive talk veered between the parroting of neoliberal economic shibboleths and insightful analysis of oppression from a man who, with more perception than most, called out the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina for what it was – a vast act of racialized state apathy.
As a millionaire businessman living a life of luxury in Los Angeles, West is an archetypal plutocrat: moneyed, pro-free market, pro-tax cuts for the ultra-rich, and apparently able to pay for a private fire service to protect his family from the effects of climate change.
In the White House meeting, he churned out the tiresome right-wing attack line on the undeserving racialized poor, saying that “welfare is the reason why a lot of black people end up being Democrat.” He boasted of his entrepreneurial nous in a world that fetishizes big business, claiming that “I’ve never stepped into a situation where I didn’t make people more money.”And amidst praise of billionaires, he talked enthusiastically about private healthcare and his desire to “empower the pharmaceuticals.”
On the other hand, West has been subject to structural racism - a process in which racial difference is used to create and maintain an uneven socio-economic hierarchy. Such racism has been a basic precondition for the functioning of the same plutocratic state of which West is a part economically, from the moment the plantation system was dissolved at the end of the Civil War.
Dissonantly intruding into his conversation with Trump was the repressed presence of systematic state violence against African Americans in the USA. West drew attention to the premeditated disinvestment that has taken place in community programs in US inner cities, and how the shrinking of state support has augmented America’s prison-industrial complex: “we got rid of the mental health institutes of the ‘80s and the ‘90s,” he told the president, “and the prison rates shot up.”
West also reflected on the lack of educational provision in historically African American areas, saying that “we never had anyone who taught us, they didn’t teach us.” Most challenging of all, he showed how the system of chattel slavery persists in contemporary America when he concluded that “we’re putting people in positions to have to do illegal things to have to end up in the cheapest factory ever, the prison system.”
West’s analysis points to the neoliberal transformation of race relations that has occurred in the US since the 1980s. The removal of infrastructural supports for minority populations, whether in employment, economic or community development, has collided with an increasingly militarized state apparatus that criminalizes people of color. This project has bled exploited minority bodies dry of surplus value and created a theatre of violence that is used to justify increased discipline and punishment by the state and its security apparatus.
While this is comparatively recent history, it has a much deeper provenance. Since the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, the entwined class and race warfare that has raged in the USA has reinstituted plantation slavery on transformed terms by generating veiled forms of enforced labor, establishing supposedly-neutral juridical frameworks that override civil rights, and creating extra-legal structures that condemn populations of color to dispossession.
As a result of this process, West’s race and class are in schizophrenic conflict with each-other, two different and opposing elements that are forced to share the same mind. In this sense, the most revealing part of his monologue in the Oval Office was when he spoke about his “bipolar disorder.” We ought not to understand his bipolarity as simply an individual phenomenon, the product of a mind that may be disintegrating in the face of the pressures of fame. Instead, such contradictions are best understood as the product of a particular racial history.
The great African American thinker W.E.B. Du Bois called this phenomenon ‘double consciousness’ in his masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk: “One ever feels his two-ness,” he wrote, “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Hence, the imperative to identify with a nation that has exerted systemic violence on the basis of race generates inevitable internal divisions, of which mental illness is one manifestation.
The rationale for covering up these divisions by the plutocratic class is obvious: West is the latest example of the tactical deployment of a single racially-defined but wealthy individual to mask deep structures of oppression. By turning the issue of race into a question of friendship between powerful men, sustaining the illusion that anyone from anywhere can become rich, and suggesting that people of color can share in their worldview, this class can perpetuate demonstrably racist structures while presenting a blithe and innocent countenance to the world.
The media reaction to West’s appearance in the White House has been every bit as insidious. Many commentators have gorged themselves on his clear mental distress; just look at how often words like “bizarre” and “surreal” are used in reference to the meeting. These op-eds cast West as the latest in a long line of African American ‘fool’ characters that have entertained white populations from the days of the minstrels. Most of these readings fail to carry out even the most basic political analysis of the root causes of this purportedly eccentric behavior. Once again, individual personality takes the place of history.
“My eyes are wide open and now (I) realize I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in,” wrote Kanye in a recent tweet that announced his political retirement. In many ways, however, it is not so much that he was used as a vessel by others that is most problematic in his encounter with Trump. Rather, it is the way in which the whole sorry episode has elucidated the continuing racial divisions in American society and the techniques by which mass spectacle has depoliticized them. These divisions have real and damaging effects on individual consciousness and the wider struggle for justice in America.