Cornel West: Race matters
Transcribed by Joe Courter and Eric Piotrowski.
March 1999

Cornel West spoke February 16 at the Shands Auditorium in Gainesville as part of Black History Month at the University of Florida. Dr. West is author of "Race Matters" and a professor at Harvard University. What follows are excerpts from his talk:

I've come tonight as a part, a very small part, of a great and grand tradition. A tradition of struggle, a struggle for decency and dignity. A struggle for freedom and democracy. And I decided a long time ago, back in Sacramento, California where I grew up, that I wanted to live and die as part of this tradition of struggle. Those who were willing to give so much and love so deeply that they could cut radically against the grain in order to hold up a bloodstained banner of freedom and democracy.

Think of a Harriet Tubman. Think of Ida B. Wells Barnett, Frederick Douglass, and A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, Martin King, Fannie Lou Hamer. Neither angels or gods, but good God, what human beings they are. They are still with us if we keep this tradition of struggle alive. And thank God for Carter G. Woodson and all of his genius, that he decided a long time ago that there ought to be a month to reflect not just on black history and the doings and sufferings of people of African descent, but to raise the issues that being black in a civilization so deeply shaped by a vicious legacy of white supremacy. What are those issues? For me it raises the most fundamental questions of what it means to be human. What kind of people are we really? What kind of nation are we really? What kind of persons and individuals are we really, when you look at yourself closely and honestly?

In most human beings, no matter what color, [they] would rather evade, deny and avoid that kind of question. They'd rather play the role and wear the mask, and muddle through and skate rather than struggle. That's why black history is always inseparable but not reducible: to human history, to American history, New World history. Carter G. Woodson wanted us to look at the world through a set of lenses from those folks on the underside of the human predicament, the night side of the American experience...

Usually America would rather not face it [its legacy of white supremacy and its impact on all people and its culture.] Not just the white side of town, but in the black community - we all do it. Don't talk about the white supremacy in black folks - no, no that cuts too deep, and yet it's there.

I always like to remind the white brothers and sisters when they come up to me and say "You know, brother West, I'm not a racist at all, I've transcended that. My uncle's got a lot of work to do, but not me. No, mmm-mm. I'm a liberal, I'm a progressive." And I say "That's wonderful, I appreciate the effort. But if there's white supremacy in me, my hunch is there is still a little in you--you better check yourself."

There is no way you're gonna have 244 years of white supremacist enslavement, and 81 years of Jim and Jane Crow Jr., then [every] 2 1/2 days for 51 years a black man, black woman, or black child was hanging from some tree - the strange fruit that southern trees bear that Billie Holiday sang about, and then in 27 years the vast majority of white brothers and sisters transcended racism. It's a joke--the same way black folks still haven't transcended it. History's not like that. You don't leapfrog over institutional and systematized forms of evil so quickly.

The question is not who is pure and pristine, the question is what is the quality of your struggle against it. The male supremacy in me is there. I can read bell hooks day in and day out, but I still got male supremacy in me. The national arrogance in Americans across the board that thinks that somehow an American baby is worth more than an Iraqi baby. Nothing but national arrogance in us. The class haughtiness of the bourgeois and upper bourgeois who think that because they tack so quickly somehow that makes them more clever and more wise than the brother who just.. takes.. his.. time.. and talk.. the.. way.. he.. wants to. You don't know what he's been through, and what he's culled from his experience.

All these are forms of evil. Why? Because they lose sight of the humanity of other people. And that's why any time you talk about race in America you're talking about race and a whole lot of other things. That's why the disabled and physically challenged brothers and sisters can get in the discourse, because they know what it's like to be marginalized in that wheelchair. Or the elderly, or gay brothers like Tennessee Williams or James Baldwin, or lesbian sisters like Audre Lorde or Billie Holiday, because they know what it's like to be closeted and have their humanity held at arms' length.

This is what makes the discourse painful. And American civilization is not one that encouraged wrestling with evil, misery and pain. Henry James said America is a hotel civilization; one of the reasons he left and went to Britain to write some of his best novels. He said there's something about American civilization just like a hotel that believes that the lights are on all the time. Leave your room and it's dirty; come back, it's clean. You don't see who cleans it. There's an obsession, just like a hotel, with comfort, convenience, contentment--so quintessentially American. How can a city on the hill that claims to transcend history engage in a discourse about race, about suffering, about pain and misery? Either push a button and it disappears, or you just keep movin'.

That's why the tradition of struggle in this country is always one of oscillation--it surfaces during hot moments and is pushed to the edges during cold moments. The vast majority of citizens just turn their backs. "Yeah, I know we got problems, and that things are difficult, but I'm busy, I got things to do." A hotel civilization that believes itself to be innocent. Believes itself to be not just the best, but near perfection. It's an infantile mentality to ascribe any innocence to oneself at the deepest level, and for a nation to believe itself innocent means that you're going to end up with a sentimental, melodramatic culture that cannot deal with the tragic, and cannot deal with wounds and scars. And what a serious challenge it is to engage in a serious discussion about race in a hotel civilization.

There is oftentimes name calling, finger pointing; highly individualistic, no real wrestling with the institutions and structures and the larger historical backdrop. Oftentimes it's individualistic so that one can get off the hook as an individual and go on and do one's business with no guilt. And the two traps are guilt and pity. And black history is not about guilt or guilt-trippy white brothers and sisters, and it's certainly not about pity, viewing black people as some passive victims. What sits at the center of black history at its best is respect. Self respect. An acknowledgment of victimization but never accepting solely the victim's status. Always resisting. Always criticizing, questioning, trying to organize, trying to mobilize, trying to convince other persons both in the black community and outside that it is worthwhile to take a risk, and be part of a freedom struggle.

To look at history through the lens of black history is to look at 1999. Let's examine this economy: 49% of black children live in utter poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. It's a crime and a disgrace. Forty-nine percent! Forty-seven percent of brown brothers and sisters under six live in poverty. Twenty percent of all of America's children across color live in poverty. It's 2% in Denmark; 4% in Sweden. And even Germany, which is a nation not known for social generosity in this barbaric century given its treatment of Jewish brothers and sisters, only has 7% of their children living in poverty.

What's going on? Children are 100% of the future. What kind of message are you sending? Are we sending, the nation? And yet the economy is so strong. You know, through the lens of black history we're gonna look at American society from the underside. We want to raise questions. Why is it that 1% of the population in America own 39% of the wealth? Sounds oligarchic, plutocratic, to some degree pigmentocratic. That 1% owned 22% in 1979, 39% now. How much wealth inequality can American democracy take before it's shattered? The next 9% own another 35%. No serious discussion about it. Unbelievable profits. Corporate profits up 200% since 1980, CEOs' salaries up 400% since 1980, CEOs' salaries of the fortune 500 companies up 925% since 1980.

But for 80% of America's workers, declining wages since 1973. How do you account for that? High profits but wages decreasing. You're a CEO--you get fired--you get a compensation package for $123 million, and on the way out you ask your secretary to take a cut. Nothing but corporate greed. Managerial greed. There's no method of accountability for working folks. And black people are disproportionately working people. You wouldn't know that from the media. No, no; from the media we get Oprah, Michael Jackson both way at the top, or you get the brother on his way to jail. That's the image. These black folk are doing so well they're taking over. Most popular woman in the country, Oprah; most popular man, Michael Jordan. All the black folk are doing so well.

Or in connection to the criminal justice system: how come they can't behave? How come they're out of control? And yet the vast majority of black folks are hard working people who get up every morning, fix that cereal for the kids, and send them off to school with a prayer, usually to some decrepit public educational system that doesn't have enough resources in order to seize their imagination. [applause]

But the black family itself is shattered more and more. So many of our brothers drifting, unemployed, underemployed. Many of them trying to hold on for dear life, and too many of them are themselves rootless. And the women, they're overworked. Going to work, they have to deal with speed-ups, take-backs in their contract with management, having to work extra hours just to make the same wages that was the case 15 years ago, and then come home with the child, still looking for some emotional connection. That's the masses of the black folk, hard working folks; you'll never see it on U.S. television. There was that show "Roc" which I liked very much; didn't last too long. [laughter, applause] Didn't last too long on BET, I recall. Too much dignity for everyday black folk.

The hype is you're either upper middle class, and therefore you've become so refined that you distance yourself from your other folks. Isolated, oftentimes in white contexts that allow white brothers and sisters to be so comfortable that you are no longer a bodily or a political threat. And then there's the rest of them. Nothing but the cousins of the upper middle class. First and second and third cousins of the upper middle class. Now granted there's stereotypes across the board. You don't see any white working brothers and sisters other than Roseanne and a few others on TV, too. It cuts across the board, but we're talking about the present as history through the lens that Carter G. Woodson wanted us to view it: through black history and its lessons.

What else do we see? We see a multinational corporate elite travelling around the world, making big profits, looking for cheap labor, coming home to downsize already insecure working people. "Downsize"--nothing but a bureaucratic word for being fired. Working folks are just exchangeable disposable commodity, just a little item on the budget, rather than flesh and blood human beings trying to sustain their families. And then having to blame themselves--something must be wrong with them--as the corporations become more mean and lean in order to be attractive and appealing to stockholders on Wall Street. So Wall Street goes way up, breaking records week after week, month after month. But the vast majority of Americans across race and the vast majority of black folks, wrestle with economic insecurity and anxiety...

[T]hat fundamental question: What if black subjugation is a precondition for the healthy conditioning and flourishing of American democracy? What if they're the scapegoats who must be the permanent underdog in order for America to be America? That is the question of the Black Nationalist tradition. It's a fundamental question. Black Nationalists of course reach very different conclusions than a radical democrat like myself, but I take seriously the challenge. Very seriously, because no matter how well a certain slice of black folk may do in the American mainstream, the vast majority of black people, the masses of black folk, not the ones with 3 piece suits but the ones on the corner, are not treated kindly or equally, or whose humanity is not assumed but rather to be proven, then Garvey's challenge and Minister Louis Farrakhan's challenge remains.

And through the eyes of white America the Garvey movement, and the Nation of Islam and so forth, are viewed as just some kind of crazed lunatic fringe group, obsessed with frightening white brothers and sisters and Jewish brothers and sisters; because they're looking at these groups through the lens of white fear and anxiety. And as long as you look at black folk through the lens of white fear and anxiety, you're going to get a distorted view of what's going on.

Black history says there's nothing wrong with white brothers and sisters being concerned with what's going to happen to them, but there's something else that's called black pain and black suffering that also requires some limelight. And addressing black pain and suffering from a vantage point of the black nationalist tradition is one that says what? America just does not have the capacity to ever create a multi-racial democracy in which the masses of black people are treated equally as full-fledged citizens. That's the challenge of black nationalists. And nobody likes to talk about it. But it's real, and if we don't wrestle with it, sooner or later, it will be near catastrophe. Uprisings-probably from the prisons, more so than even in the cities. And then we're gonna have to engage in one of those quick, overnight public forums: got a problem, got a major problem, what are we gonna do? Trot out the HNICs, the Head Negroes In Charge. You all know what I'm talking about. That's the challenge. For me the black nationalist challenge does not lead toward the black nationalist conclusion, only because I don't believe it's workable in the global village - there's nowhere to run. Any black state would be just like my beloved Ethiopia: locked within the international economy, having to deal with the large armies of the world powers. There's nowhere to run. We're all caught in this together. Not only that, but as a radical democrat I'm always suspicious of those black leaders who've been designated president before an election's taken place. Gotta have democratic processes.

So as we reflect together collectively on the very rich legacy, but always ambiguous legacy of black history, let us try to rededicate ourselves to meet some of these challenges and I simply say to each and every one of you, for those who are willing to meet these challenges, I'll be there with you, because I'll be going down fighting. I've had too much love and care and wind at my back as a part of this very history that I've been talking about. Thank you all so very much.

previous article [current issue] next article
Search | Archives | Calendar | Directory | About / Subscriptions |

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional eXTReMe Tracker