Race Matters (1993)
Race Matters confirms Cornel West's
stature as the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of
We are living in one of the most frightening moments
in the history of this country.
The fact that Henry Louis Gates Jr. could make that statement about a book which is premised on this ludicrous assertion by Cornel West must be profoundly depressing to anyone who cares about black America. No one can, or should, deny the long and horrible history of racial oppression in this country. Racism is still a reality and, though it can never be expunged entirely, we should vigilantly seek to limit its impact on the life of our nation. But, by any objective measure, you would have to say that the last fifty years have seen a tremendous amount of progress in the area of racial relations. It is simply ridiculous to compare the status of black Americans today to that of blacks fifty, a hundred or two hundred years ago. And to argue that this is a uniquely dangerous moment in the history of black America is to virtually beg to be dismissed, which Cornel West should be, as a kook and a crank.
Cornel West has built his entirely unjustified reputation as a serious philosopher on a bizarre blend of Christian rhetoric and Marxist doctrine. He is defined, for the most part, by his robust criticism of liberal and conservative approaches to the problems of the black community, his dismissal of the current crop of black political leaders and writers, and his own steadfast refusal to offer any ideas or solutions of his own beyond the most general platitudes and completely discredited Marxist cant. But there's a method to his lack of a constructive message : his willingness to lash out at everyone else (except Tony Morrison, for whatever reason), enables him to portray himself as an independent thinker and his simultaneous willingness to identify problems but not to propose remedies, enables him to exploit those maladies, even exacerbate them, for his own purposes.
You can get something of a feel for his modus operandi in his discussion of nihilism, which he identifies as a central threat to black America :
The proper starting point for the crucial debate
about the prospects for black America is an
Nihilism is not new in black America. The first
African encounter with the New World was an
The genius of our black foremothers and forefathers
was to create powerful buffers to ward off the
What has changed ? What went wrong ? ... None of
us fully understands why the cultural structures
Okay, I buy a certain amount of this analysis : yes, the biggest problems in urban black America are the decline of the church and the end of the nuclear family, the two institutions most responsible for providing community support to people. But what's this about no one understanding what happened to them ? The 60's happened. The Great Society, which West lauds elsewhere, happened. Government stepped in and tried to replace existing institutions, most disastrously by creating economic incentives for people not to work and to have children out of wedlock. At the same time, the cultural Left, of which West is now a part, sought to free morality from its religious tether, with the entirely predictable result that moral standards lost their validity.
Yet where does West place the blame ? He points at black leaders (we'll give him that one) and at free markets. But is there anywhere in the United States where capitalism was more restricted by government regulation than in America's major urban areas ? Mind that this book was written before the GOP took over Congress and passed Welfare Reform, and before Republican mayors took over several of America's biggest cities : as the past few years have demonstrated, it actually turns out that when you restore law and order and bring market forces to bear on black inner cities you can increase employment, reduce crime, and reduce teen pregnancy.
What West was doing was contributing to the problem, by suggesting that it was hopeless. He had no positive alternatives. Here he is describing the choice between liberal and conservative policies :
The liberal notion that more government programs
can solve racial problems is simplistic--precisely
Yeah, okay, there is a moral dimension, not just an economic one, to the problem. Conservatives have identified some moral solutions. But at the point where West's analysis would lead a more open-minded person inexorably toward those solutions, he instead chooses to focus on blaming someone for the circumstances as they exist. It turns out he's quite right about the problem with black leadership, as his own failure shows. These leaders, like West, are so busy parceling out blame for the past, they have no time to work on solutions for the future.
Would that this were the only example of such willful backwardness in the book, but most of the essays are filled with similarly retrograde notions. There's a profoundly silly one called, "Black Sexuality : The Taboo Subject," which assumes that whites still view blacks like they did Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird : like it's just one easy step from breaking up a chifforobe to having their way with our poor, innocent women :
White fear of black sexuality is a basic ingredient
of white racism. And for whites to admit this
Castrations of lynched black men ? We all recall the tragic murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, but we're not exactly in the midst of a castration epidemic.
Equally inane, though considerably more harmful, is his take on affirmative action. While acknowledging that such programs are counterproductive, because they make even worthy beneficiaries feel like they are cheating to get ahead, he advocates maintaining them simply as pay back for past discrimination.
What is it finally that West calls for as his solution to the problems of black America ? He wants a new kind of leader :
To be a serious black leader is to be a race-transcending
prophet who critiques the powers that be
In other words : Cornel West, a leader who has skipped right past the unique problems of black America, dismissing all competitors along the way, to arrive at Marxism for everybody. God forbid.
-WIKIPEDIA: Cornel West
-ESSAY: Cornel West on Frantz Fanon, One of Great Revolutionary Intellectuals of the 20th Century: “Decolonization implies the urgent need to thoroughly challenge the colonial situation.” (Cornel West, December 6, 2021, LitHub)
Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : West, Cornel
-BOOKNOTES : Title: The Cornel West Reader Author: Cornel West Sunday, February 20th, 2000 (C-SPAN)
-Africana.com: Article: West, Cornel
-West, Cornel (altculture)
-Cornel West (New Bones : Contemporary Black writers in America)
-EXCERPT : from Race Matters by Cornel West
-ESSAY : Free Mumia? (Cornel West, Aspenlinx)
-ESSAY : Which Way Forward For Progressives (Cornel West, Nader or Gore: The Choice For Progressives)
-ESSAY : Cornel West, On Architecture? (Appendx)
-REVIEW : of THE GOOD SOCIETY By Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton (Cornel West, NY Times Book Review)
-LECTURE : Cornel West's : Opening Remarks : Fall Forum 2000 (Coalition of Essential Schools)
-FORUM : On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack (Boston Review)
-INTERVIEW : with Cornel West (the two nations of black america, PBS, Frontline)
-INTERVIEW : Cornel West: ordinary people (Tom Knapp, March 1994, Rambles)
-INTERVIEW : Washington Ripple Interview with: Cornel West : 'It's a matter of trying to deal with the best traditions that have
been bequeathed to us by tose who tried to keep track of the plight and precidament of ordinary people... I call it radical democracy.' (Patrick Green, Washington Ripple )
-PROFILE : Go West : Professor-prophet Cornel West takes his sermon to the streets (NINA WILLDORF, October 2001, Boston Phoenix)
-ARTICLE : Under Attack, Summers Vows To Compete To Keep Afro-American Studies Faculty : Hailstorm of criticism prompts president to pledge support for diversity (KATE L. RAKOCZY, 1/02/02, Harvard Crimson)
-ESSAY : Let Us Now Praise Cornel West : Decline and Fall Ý (ROSS G. DOUTHAT, January 11, 2002, Harvard Crimson)
-ESSAY : Harvard's Gates of Power (Jonathan Yardley, January 14, 2002, Washington Post)
-ESSAY : White Guilt = Black Power (Shelby Steele, The Wall Street Journal | January 8, 2002)
-ESSAY : Can Crying Race Be Crying Wolf? (KATE ZERNIKE, January 13, 2002, NY Times)
-ESSAY : of Spinning Race at Harvard : The Business Behind the Gates-West Power Play (Thulani Davis, January 16 - 22, 2002, Village Voice)
-ESSAY : A Harvard Education (Fareed Zakaria, January 8, 2002, Washington Post)
-ESSAY : Top-Dollar Prof. : Bucks over blackboards. (Rod Dreher, January 11, 2002, National Review)
-ESSAY : Af-Am Nonsense : Inside the Harvard-Cornel West controversy. (John Derbyshire, January 11, 2002, National Review)
-ARTICLE : Harvard 'Dream Team' roiled : Black scholars, Summers in rift (David Abel, Boston Globe, 12/22/2001)
-ARTICLE : At Odds With Harvard President, Black-Studies Stars Eye Princeton (JACQUES STEINBERG, December 29, 2001, NY Times)
-ARTICLE : Black Scholars Mending a Rift With Harvard (KATE ZERNIKE, January 4, 2002, NY Times)
-ARTICLE : Larry Summers v Cornel West : Seeing crimson : The folly of making famous professors write learned books (Jan 3rd 2002, The Economist)
-ESSAY : Harvard's Rapper : ÝFrom the opening lines of Cornel Westís rap CD, you know youíre in the presence of something unusually bad, but it takes a minute or two for the full scope of its Shatnerian shlockiness to make itself known. (Rod Dreher, 1/04/02, National Review)
-ESSAY : Idea of the Day : Advertisements for Himself (Inigo Thomas, January 4, 2002, Slate)
-ARTICLE : West Shifts Hip Hop Talk's Focus to Attacks (PHILLIP M. CHAN, October 2001, Harvard Crimson)
-PROFILE : Western Philosophy : Is Cornel West the most hopeful man in America? (Cornel Bonca, March 23 - 29, 2001 , OC Weekly)
-PROFILE : The Unreal World of Cornel West: All and Nothing at All (Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic, March 6, 1995)
-ESSAY : Prophet Motive : Explaining the Backlash Against Cornel West (Brent Edwards, Feed)
-ESSAY : No light in his attic : For the tragic impact a "progressive," PC education has on minority students of great promise, look at the sad case of Harvard's Cornel West. ( David Horowitz, Salon)
-ESSAY : CORNEL WEST'S EVASION OF PHILOSOPHY, OR, RICHARD WRIGHT'S REVENGE (Ralph Dumain, Third Age)
-ESSAY : CORNEL WEST: BETWEEN RORTYíS ROCK AND HAUERWASíS HARD PLACE (William Hart, American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, May 1998)
-ESSAY : Media Circus : Blacking Out Navel-gazing and move-busting with the African-American intellectual elite at The New Yorker's Harvard bash (FARAI CHIDEYA, Salon)
-ESSAY : Mothers Who Think : America's war on children SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT AND CORNEL WEST HAVE WRITTEN A CALL TO ARMS FOR AMERICAN PARENTS. BUT THEIR BIG-TENT STRATEGY LEAVES US STRANDED AT THE FRONT. (JOAN WALSH , Salon)
-ESSAY : "A Brief Analysis of Social Analysis and a Social Analysis of Cornel West's Contributions" (Theodore Walker, Jr., 20 March 1997 presentation to the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Black Religion)
-LINKS : Resources for further study of the thought of Cornel West (baylor.edu)
-ARCHIVES : "cornel west" (NY Review of Books)
-ARCHIVES : "cornel West " (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of Race Matters By Cornel West (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Race Matters By Cornel West (Paul Delaney, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Future of the Race By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West (1996) (Gerald Early, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Future of the Race by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West (Nell Irvin Painter, The Nation)
-REVIEW : of David Brion Davis: Jews and Blacks in America, NY Review of Books
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE:
In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 by Hasia Diner
Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States edited by Cornel West
Blacks in the Jewish Mind: A Crisis of Liberalism by Seth Forman
What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance by Murray Friedman
African Americans and Jews in the Twentieth Century: Studies in Convergence and Conflict
killing rage: ending racism by bell hooks
-REVIEW : of Prophesy Deliverance! : An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Cornel West (William D. Watley, Theology Today)
-REVIEW : of The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought By Cornel West (Charles C. West, Theology Today)
Wow, I thought this was one of the least intelligent and thought-out critiques to his work I've seen so far. There are a number of factors that contribute to the decline of church and family in the black community, such as the drop in MMPI and unemployment rate spikes since your conservative hero, GWB, took office. In addition, the welfare reform act didn't raise black employment numbers, they were on the way up before republican took congress. All the Welfare reform act did was throw women and CHILDREN off welfare rolls. Good work. Finally, it's nice that the real problem is black leadership, and not a distorted social, captial, and ecological structure that disadvantages blacks.
West should have offered more solutions, but it's clear you don't understand the real problems.
- Dec-13-2006, 12:18
The problem black America faces is listening to nitwits like him.
- Jan-08-2006, 10:36
why don't you come up with the solutions, give him credit for pointing out many of the problems black america faces...
- Dec-30-2005, 09:47
Too late with that professor advice, I have to write an 8-page paper on it and I'm not allowed to use obsceneties. With West you don't need racism in order for prejudice to prevail, he can find dozens of other assumptions and categorizations to contribute to the issue.
- Mar-15-2004, 20:30
thank goodness, someone thinks this book is full of b.s. too. Attention all college professors: dont waste your students time with this one.
- shawanna myers
- Dec-07-2003, 19:43
What disturbs me most is that when I type in "Cornel West Race Matters" into Google, this article appears first.
It's a huge shame that Google cannot be told to "search by quality".
- Jun-10-2003, 17:13
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd