Whenever Kanye West offers naive and infuriating racial commentary—a hallmark of his career—fans often wistfully recall the one powerful thing he ever said about race. It’s what many referenced yesterday while trying to make sense of the sight of West standing alongside our president-elect and noted bigot, Donald J. Trump. It happened in 2005 at A Concert for Hurricane Relief, the hour-long, celebrity-filled benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims during which West declared on live television: "George Bush doesn't care about black people.”
As moving a statement as it was at the time, it has long deluded people into thinking West cares more about the plight of black people than he’s ever proven to. West standing alongside a man whose political career started in earnest with questioning the legitimacy of the first black president isn’t the anomalous act—his remarks about Bush were.
Kanye getting cozy with Trump is no political about-face. This is the culmination of man who, outside of a single action more than a decade ago, has only spoken about racism when it impacts him directly. In 2014, while performing at London's Wireless Festival, West had this to say about racism and how he’s treated as an aspiring designer: “I’m just saying, don’t discriminate against me because I’m a black man or because I’m a celebrity and tell me that I can create, but not feel. 'Cause you know damn well there aren't no black guys or celebrities making no Louis Vuitton nothing.”
On its face, this seems like a brave indictment of bias in the fashion industry. But look closer and it becomes clear that West is not for all; he is for self. Despite these critiques, West reportedly gave his blessing to A.P.C. founder Jean Touitou, who chose to include the word “nigga” in a fall menswear presentation. West also once donned himself with Confederate flag imagery, claiming "It's my flag."
And we know that West fancies Vanessa Beecroft, a woman who has used blackface in her work and once declared it was “very stressful to work with black women.” West may not find it quite as stressful, but he shares Beecroft’s habit of questionable statements about women of color—like, say, when he tweeted his casting call for “multiracial women only” for his Yeezy Season 4 fashion show.
Beecroft—like Trump, like the Grand Old Party, and like many people who dabble in racism—often use black people for cover. In an interview with W magazine, Beecroft argued: “I am protected by Kanye’s talent. I become black. I am no longer Vanessa Beecroft and I am free to do whatever I want because Kanye allows it."
There are those who condemn racism because they genuinely want equality for all, and there are those who only do so because they want to belong. Never confuse the desire of wanting to be treated equally with the desire to enjoy the perks of white manhood. No wonder West feels a kinship with Ben Carson, whom he praised last year in an interview with Vanity Fair. “As soon as I heard [Ben] Carson speak, I tried for three weeks to get on the phone with him,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is the most brilliant guy.’”
Reminder: Carson is a black man who has likened Obamacare to slavery and, in a 2015 op-ed about Obama’s new housing rules, wrote "These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse." Now, as the likely next head of Department of Housing and Urban Development, Carson could very well be the black face behind a vast expansion of housing segregation. Men like Carson and West appear more than willing to align themselves with prejudiced elites for self-gain or white validation.
It’s not just the company West keeps—it’s also what he says. In the same year West was touting Carson, he referred to racism as a “dated concept.” After he voiced support of Trump’s presidency, West told concertgoers to “stop focusing on racism,” adding, “This world is racist, OK? Let's stop being distracted to focus on that as much. It's a fucking fact. We are in a racist country."
This acceptance of the status quo is encouraging nihilism. West figures if you can’t beat racists, join 'em. Which he did formally at Trump Tower on Tuesday.
Taking to Twitter to explain himself, West wrote: “I wanted to meet with Trump today to discuss multicultural issues. These issues included bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculums, and violence in Chicago. I feel it is important to have a direct line of communication with our future President if we truly want change.”
When it comes to “multicultural issues,” Trump has been pretty clear, both through his own statements and cabinet appointments, with how he feels about “the blacks,” not to mention Mexican immigrants and Muslims. If West really wants to curb violence in Chicago, he probably shouldn’t be chummy with a man who supports ineffective racist policing policies like “stop and frisk.” And judging by his false cries of massive voting fraud, Trump and the Republican Party seem eager to usher in a nouveau Jim Crow. Not that it matters to West, who didn’t even bother to vote.
Both last year and this week, Trump has referred to West as a friend. They do have a lot in common. West is a “proud non-reader of books”; Trump’s ghostwriter told the New Yorker that “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” Most of all, based on their public statements, West and Trump have little discernible regard for the wellbeing of black people. What West did in 2005 might have been resonant, but that moment has long been negated by remarks made after.
Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard University educated writer who wants a show that'll allow him to recite UGK lyrics with Beyoncé. He's working on his first book, I Can't Date Jesus, for Atria Books.