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Race Matters ()

     Race Matters confirms Cornel West's stature as the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of
    our generation.
        -Henry Louis Gates Jr.

    We are living in one of the most frightening moments in the history of this country.
           -Cornel West, Epilogue to the Vintage Edition (1994) of Race Matters

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
    examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities.  Nihilism is to be
    understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate
    standards or authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying
    meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.  The frightening result is a
    numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world.  Life without
    meaning, hope, and love breeds a coldhearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the
    individual and others.

    Nihilism is not new in black America.  The first African encounter with the New World was an
    encounter with a distinctive form of the Absurd.  The initial black struggle against degradation and
    devaluation in the enslaved circumstances of the New World was, in part, a struggle against
    nihilism.  In fact, the major enemy of black survival in America has been and is neither oppression
    nor exploitation but rather the nihilistic threat--that is, loss of hope and absence of meaning.  For as
    long as hope remains and meaning is preserved, the possibility of overcoming oppression stays
    alive.  The self-fulfilling prophecy of the nihilistic threat is that without hope there can be no
    future, that without meaning there can be no struggle.

    The genius of our black foremothers and forefathers was to create powerful buffers to ward off the
    nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness,
    meaninglessness, and lovelessness.  These buffers consisted of cultural structures of meaning and
    feeling that created and sustained communities; this armor constituted ways of life and struggle that
    embodied values of service and sacrifice, love and care, discipline and excellence.  In other words,
    traditions for black surviving and thriving under usually adverse New World conditions were major
    barriers against the nihilistic threat.  These traditions consisted primarily of black religious and
    communal networks of support. ...

    What has changed ? What went wrong ? ... None of us fully understands why the cultural structures
    that once sustained black life in America are no longer able to fend off the nihilistic threat.  I
    believe that two significant reasons why the threat is more powerful now than ever before are the
    saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life and the present crisis in black

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
    because it focuses on the economic dimension. And the conservative idea that what is needed is a
    change in the moral behavior of poor black urban dwellers (especially poor black men, who, they
    say, should stay married, support their children, and stop committing so much crime) highlights
    immoral actions while ignoring public responsibility for the immoral circumstances that haunt our
    fellow citizens.

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
    deep fear even as they try to instill and sustain fear in blacks is to acknowledge a weakness -- a
    weakness that goes down to the bone. Social scientists have long acknowledged that interracial sex
    and marriage is the most perceived source of white fear of black people -- just as the repeated
    castrations of lynched black men cries out for serious psychocultural explanation.

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
    (including the black component of the Establishment) and who puts forward a vision of
    fundamental social change for all who suffer from socially induced misery.

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.


Grade: (F)


See also:

Cornel West Links:

    -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:
    -BOOKNOTES : Title: The Cornel West Reader  Author: Cornel West  Sunday, February 20th, 2000 (C-SPAN) 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: 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 : "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 (
    -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
       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)

    -Affirmative Action and Diversity Page
    -Literature on Race, Ethnicity  and Multiculturalism (Ethics)
    -African American conservatism and the political right (World History Archives)
    -ESSAY : Facing Up to Black Anti-Semitism (Joshua Muravchik, American Jewish Committee)
    -ESSAY : Beyond the Nationalism of Fools: Toward An Agenda for Black Intellectuals (Eugene F. Rivers, 3d, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY : What's Holding Blacks Back? (John H. McWhorter, City Journal)
    -ESSAY : Courting the Black Vote (Matthew Rees, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY : A Dangerous Literacy: The Legacy of Frederick Douglass (Henry Louis Gates Jr., NY Times Book Review,  May 28, 1995)
    -ESSAY : Taking Sides Against Ourselves (Rosemary L. Bray, NY Times Book Review, November 17, 1991)
    -ESSAY : Are Blacks Excluded? (Joseph Berger , NY Times Book Review, August 1, 1993
    -REVIEW : of BLACK INTELLECTUALS Race and Responsibility in American Life. By William M. Banks (Jerry G. Watts, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : "The Loudest Silence Ever Heard": Black Conservatives in the Media (Lionel McPherson, in the Friar August-September 1992)
    -REVIEW : of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America  By ANGELA D. DILLARD (SCOTT L. MALCOMSON, NY Times Book Review)