Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Race Matters

By Cornell West
Princeton University


From Kirkus Reviews

In essays that challenge the nature of racial discourse in America, the director of Princeton's Afro-American Studies program, professor of religion, and self-described "intellectual freedom-fighter" calls for moral regeneration and profound social change. Scheduled to appear on the anniversary of the L.A. riots (when the nation presumably will take stock of America one year after), this collection (much of which appeared previously in The New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Z, etc.) is consistently effective at pointing out how the intellectual frameworks used by both whites and blacks as well as by liberals and neoconservatives impede true progress and understanding--whether the issue is affirmative action, black nihilism, or the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. West identifies the valuable insights of black conservatives while taking their conclusions to pieces and sees black anti-Semitism as threatening the ethical nature of the black struggle (if it "becomes simply a power-driven war...that pits xenophobia from below against racism from above, then David Duke's project is the wave of the future"). While unsparing in his critique of black leadership and American racism, West situates the crisis in black America inside our market-driven culture, a world of "random nows" and the "empty quest for pleasure, property and power"--a pervasive spiritual impoverishment that transcends race but is most devastating among the poorest, most powerless, and most despised. Aiming at accessibility, West perhaps too much curtails his customary intellectual range; but with clear thinking and sensible analysis being in short supply these days, his words are welcome nonetheless.

The first comment below is an interview with West on the book in The Christian Century

1 comment:

Christian Century said...

Black Politics, Black Leadership:
An Interview with Cornell West


The Christian Century
August 11, 1993


TRAINED AS A philosopher and currently director of Princeton University's Afro-American studies program, Cornel West has written on an impressive range of topics, from American pragmatism to Marxism to democratic theory to African-American theology and literature. He has also been one of the most prominent black intellectuals engaged in public discussions Of race and class. We spoke with West about his most recent book, Race Matters (Beacon), and about issues of politics, economics and leadership in the black community.

In Race Matters you say that discussions about race in the U.S. must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society. So let's start there. What are the flaws that have contributed to what you call the "nihilism" of black America?

In this country stereotypes that go hand in hand the white-supremacist ideas and practices have dehumanized and excluded black people from the human family. At the same time, the economy is based on a vast disparity between the well-to-do and working poor people. For me, then, the flaws in American society can be spoken of in term of a twofold problem: poverty on the one hand, paranoia on the other. The poverty aspect has to do the what I consider a maldistribution of wealth. Poverty in turn contributes to a level of despair. Paranoia leads to distrust that helps create a highly balkanized population. Clearly, such a fragmented, divided population has led to high levels of distrust among the citizenry. In fact, we have problems even conceiving of ourselves as citizens, as opposed to private individuals or constituencies. For me, race is at the core of this crisis of American society and the decay of American democracy. It is in no way a side or marginal issue. Race is crucial to any discussion about regenerating American democracy.

You say at one point in your book that on the practical and political level, the only feasible alternative to the welfare state is to create more jobs for poor people.

I would want to add that I'm not talking about job creation in the same way that President Clinton is talking about it. Among other things, I'm talking about restructuring the wage system, doubling the minimum wage, and providing subsidies to small businesses that support such jobs. I'm talking about different ways in which one challenges corporate power. Current forms of liberalism don't touch corporate power at all; hence the maldistribution of wealth that I'm talking about stays in place. As things stand now, public welfare--public provision--has to conform to corporations' domination of the economy We have to ask about the kind of civic responsibility and social accountability these crucial institutions called corporations bear. In one sense corporations are inescapable. They provide levels of efficiency and productivity But what kind of accountability and responsibility do they have?

Both the left and the right have been taken aback by the collapse of communism and the apparent rise to prominence of markets. The only alternative we have, it seems, is some form of liberal capitalism.

That's true. I'm not against markets per se. I think that market mechanisms are the best that we have for setting prices in a highly complex, differentiated economy. Markets are inescapable. The question is, what are the conditions under which they're regulated? And further, what particular forms of capital are at work within these markets? Are they oligopolies? Monopolies? And again, what kind of social, public accountability do transnational, global oligopolies have?

At the moment, some of us are simply trying to broaden the dialogue. I don't think any of us have faultless solutions or panaceas. But there ought to be, a public conversation about economic affairs, broadly speaking. You can't talk about race without talking about poverty. You can't talk about poverty without talking about the ways in which wealth and power are distributed. That's why, although I accept a place for market mechanisms, I'm also highly critical of liberal capitalism.

You have addressed the crisis of liberalism--black and white. At one point you write that "the crisis of that liberalism is the result of its failure to put forth a realistic response to changes in the economy." Unlike conservative voices, black and white, you don't think self-help solutions are the answer to socioeconomic problems. Especially in light of the defeat of Clinton's jobs bill--a very modest effort to keep covenant with people who are out of work--what is "a realistic response to changes in the economy"?

I'm very disappointed, very discouraged on this point. By a realistic policy I mean one that is in contact with the causes of social misery. That's one thing. Another kind of realism is political savvy. Black liberalism has continually accented the former concept of realism--it has harped on race as the fundamental and exclusive factor that accounts for black social misery. It',s simply not the case. Race is a factor. But it's not the exclusive and maybe not even the fundamental factor contributing to black America's social conditions, and that's why I do have a fundamental disagreement with black liberals.

On the other hand, black conservatives might go so far as to say that, for the most part, race is no factor at all. For them behavioral traits are all-important--if you work hard enough, everything will be OK. To black conservatives I come back and say, Well, the majority of black people are working people who embody the Protestant work ethic, but they're still on the edge of poverty. The husband is working, the wife is working, and still they can hardly make ends meet. That serves, I would think, as a significant counter-example to what the conservatives are talking about. Clearly, black people's social position is not a matter of laziness or an liability to defer gratification. These people are locked into a particular level of the labor force. They don't have access to schools that provide the skills necessary to get out, and on and on and on. True political realism, I think, is a position critical of both traditional liberal and conservative analyses of American economic conditions.

You say that "to be a serious black leader is to be a race-transcending prophet," and you refer to Toni Morrison, Harold Washington and James Baldwin as examples of such leaders. What do you mean by "race-transcending prophet"?

I mean someone who never forgets about race, but who also refuses to be confined to race. Such persons are organically linked in the struggle against white supremacy, as well as in the struggle to sustain those black spaces in which black humanity can be affirmed within the context of white supremacy. Toni Morrison's work is forever attempting to examine the dynamics of black community integration and black community disintegration within larger contexts--the forces of white supremacy, the forces of economic inequality, the forces of male supremacy.

When I say transcend race" I refer to an identification of black people as one part of the human family. In talking about the black condition, you're talking about a certain version of the human condition. To marginalize race is to read Alice Walker and then say, Well, I just read about the black experience. Black experience is particular, but it's also part of a universal human experience. Race-transcending prophets move to this universal level where human beings can identify with one another across the board, without losing contact with the particularity of black experience.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People historically has been an important voice of leadership for black Americans, yet some observers seem to think that the NAACP has lost a clear sense of its vocation. What advice would you give to that organization and its new head, Ben Chavis?

First of all I'd want to congratulate the NAACP on choosing Ben Chavis. Ben is a marvelous leader who brings much to that organization--certainly new vision and new energy. But he has a tremendous challenge ahead of him to try to reinvigorate that institution.

There are going to be internal tensions in the NAACR Since Ben is a prophetic visionary figure, I'm sure a number of the black liberals and black moderates will be a bit suspicious. On the other hand, Ben's temperament and personality are such that I think he will mediate between interests and move people along. That's very important. But the issues of ecological racism, issues of patriarchy, issues of homophobia--they've all got to be hit head on. When we're talking about race we're always already talking about, among other things, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ecology. We can't deny the connections among these issues. If the NAACP doesn't talk about class and gender and sexual orientation and ecological issues, then it will end up confining the issue of race primarily to black middle-class men. That's much too narrow.

Did that narrowness have anything to do in your estimation with the NAACP's response to the Clarence Thomas hearings?

It took them a while to come around. They procrastinated and then finally came out against Thomas. But it was much too late. It's good to have a democratic debate within your organization. But one would have hoped that the debate would have taken place much more quickly and would have reached the conclusion that Thomas simply was not a jurist who was going to promote the interests of the majority of Americans, let alone the majority of black people.

You speak quite positively about the past in your book. At several points you write forcefully about memory and about passing on traditions to new generations. By contrast, some progressives talk pre-dominantly about overcoming the past. Does this relatively positive view of the past constitute a point of distinction between you and other progressives?

Yes, I think so. I take Edward Shils, Hans George Gadamer, T. S. Eliot and Edmund Burke quite seriously in terms of their understanding of the crucial role played by a dynamic tradition--a tradition that is understood as forever moving. The tradition that I talk about is a tradition of resistance and critique. Therefore I would want to separate these writers' insights concerning the past from their conservative ideology. But their insights are valuable, and tradition is important to me. I believe that certain significant practices have been hammered out within me by the black church tradition I come out of I fall back on these practices--they serve as a background against which I work. I don't shun tradition at all.

What is your own church tradition?

"Progressive black Baptist" would be the most accurate way to put it. I am very much a product--to this day--of the black church tradition, specifically, of the black Baptist tradition.

In Race Matters you discuss at length the importance of mediating institutions, as some neoconservatives have called them--churches, mosques and other volunteer organizations. In your praise and support of these kinds of institutions you seem to be on the same ground as the neoconservatives.

I agree with neoconservatives about the importance of these institutions. But I think the erosion of such structures is due in part to market forces-the activity of buying and selling. These forces undermine the values that keep these institutions in place--loyalty, commitment, trust, care, concern. Neoconservatives celebrate the market even as they celebrate the family and other mediating institutions. Their position seems to be self-contradictory. Conservative or neoconservative thinkers have to look closely at what it means to live in a market culture, and a market culture is different from a market economy.

All of us would agree, as I mentioned before, that a market economy of some sort is inescapable. But a market culture is something else. A market culture cannot provide the space in which a family or civic institutions can develop real moral content. Market culture is driven by such stimulants as hedonism, narcissism, egoism and so forth. Here, of course, I'm following Christopher Lasch, among others, which puts me in very different place than black neoconservatives such as Thomas Sowell or Glenn Loury.

Similarly, I share with neoconservatives a sense of the crucial role of family, but I'm against the patriarchal family. When I talk about family, therefore, I'm talking about the affective ties and supportive networks that provide cultural armor for human beings as they confront the terrors and traumas of life. All of us need some cultural armor against death, dread, despair, disappointment, as we move from womb to tomb. However, the patriarchal family isn't the only source of such armor. Love, care, concern and nurturing can take form in an egalitarian family as well. In fact, I think that they are more likely to do so--that these qualities are actually better formed--in an egalitarian family.

Toward the end of your book you talk about institutions that are capable of channeling black rage in constructive ways, but it seems that you identify only two such institutions or traditions that are in a position to play this role--life black church and black music. Is that an accur-ate assessment of your position?

You should include mosques too, black mosques-even the few black synagogues. And to a degree black athletic apprenticeship networks are also significant in this respect. But yes, religious institutions and black music are the dominant institutions that can and do channel black rage constructively. And the degree to which young people find themselves further and further removed from these institutions is the degree to which their rage begins to spill over--usually in self-destructive ways, but also in ways destructive for those around and outside of black communities. We're seeing more and more of this spillover.

The worst thing that one can imagine is a rage boiling in the depths of one's soul that generates not just despair and desperation but, as is increasingly happening, a cold-hearted-ness and a meanspiritedness. In some ways cold-hearted-ness and meanspiritedness mirror the larger attitudes, especially of elites, toward black social misery. On the one hand you have elites that tend to be indifferent to black social misery. On the other, you have a boiling rage in which more and more persons feel indifferent toward the life and property of others. It's not so surprising, then, that probably the most salient feature of our society, in terms of everyday experience, is violence and the fear of violence.

How healthy is the black church amid all this?

It's hard to say. There's a healthy prophetic church represented by, for example, Jeremiah Wright's church in Chicago (Trinity United Church of Christ) and Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn. But no, the black church is not healthy at all. It's in deep crisis. It has struggles over patriarchy. it has struggles over homophobia. It has struggles over the relationship between spirituality and making it in the rat race--that is to say, survival. In many ways the black church is at a crossroads and has been for a while. If it doesn't meet the challenge, it will become more and more archaic. If the black church does meet today's challenge then we're off on a whole new stage of black church involvement in the black freedom struggle.

What do you think about the ministry of Johnnie Ray Youngblood and his church in Brooklyn as described in Samuel Freedman's new book Upon This Rock?

The book is a powerful account of an impressive ministry. Again, however, I think Freedman's narrative points to the need for black churches to depatriarchalize. Youngblood is an extraordinary pastor, an extraordinary brother. But if I have one criticism about that ministry, it concerns the relationship between attitudes expressed toward black women and the ways in which we go about empowering black men. To empower black men even as we promote egalitarian sensibilities among them toward black women--that's tough. Among men--black, white, red, yellow, whatever--most conceptions of power usually subordinate women in some way. Some models of power put women slightly under men on a hierarchical scale; in the worst cases, women face outright degradation. Patriarchy is one challenge, I think, that Youngblood's dynamic ministry has yet to confront.

A striking aspect of Race Matters is your willingness, unusual in some black intellectual circles, to affirm "Americanness." You sympathize black nationalism, but in the end you seem to have a different vision. We're all New Worlders. We all participate in New World circumstances, New World conditions. Some of us look back to legacies of European settlers, some to legacies of more recent European immigrants. Some of us come out of legacies of Mexican/Chicano land dwellers whose land was taken, others to legacies of indigenous people whose land was taken. Some of us bear the legacy of African slaves who were brought over to the New World by force. But we're all New Worlders. That's what I mean when I call myself a jazz freedom fighter. Jazz is New World--thoroughly New World. In one sense it's thoroughly modern, even though it was created by a people who were beneath modernity--African slaves, African workers under Jim Crowism. But jazz is thoroughly New World modernity.

I have a profound commitment to New World modernity, although i think we can learn much from European modernity. I think we can learn much from other modernities as well. But for me, jazz, American pragmatism, skycrapers, all of these New World phenomena--they are deeply American in both the hemispheric sense and the national continental sense.

You end your book by taking about jazz as a model for politics. Political models usually strive for something along more classical lines. We want our government to be as balanced and regular as a Haydn symphony, say, not as creatively unpredictable as a Charlie Parker quintet. Given our present political circumstances, it's a risky metaphor.

Most good political metaphors are risky--just as genuine democratic politics is risky.