Skip to main content

What’s Love, and Candor, Got to Do With It?

ISSUE:  Winter 1994
Race Matters. By Cornel West. Beacon Press. $15.00.

Race Matters may be a slim volume, but it has propelled its author to wide public attention, not only because the eight essays collected between its hard covers deal with such controversial issues as black-Jewish relations, black rage, and the crisis in black leadership, or even because its publication date coincided with the first anniversary of the profound social unrest that exploded in south central Los Angeles, but also because the book makes it clear that West is an intellectual in the best sense of the term. His passionate commitment to a wide range of ideas and perhaps more important, to the humanistic implications of those ideas help to sharpen a debate at the very center of our culture, and demand that his clear, eloquent prose be taken seriously.

For West, the rhetoric of liberals and conservatives alike is no longer equal to the task of social analysis, much less to the challenges that white racism and versions of black separatism continue to pose. Both those who align themselves with the liberal notion that “more government programs can solve racial problems” and those conservatives who argue that what is needed “is a change in the moral behavior of poor black urban dwellers” miss what West regards as the essential point—namely, that blacks are not, in the words of Dorothy I.Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, a “problem people,” but rather “fellow American citizens with problems.”

Hence, his insistence that what the times require is nothing less than a “new framework,” one that begins with a frank acknowledgement of the basic humanness and Americanness of each of us, and that then goes on to acknowledge that “as a people—E Pluribus Unum— we are on a slippery slope toward economic strife, social turmoil, and cultural chaos.” Unless the trajectory is reversed—by replacing hatred with love and political cant with unflinching candor—all of us, blacks and whites alike, are doomed to a collective fate: “If we go down, we go down together.” That single, riveting sentence speaks volumes about West’s capacity for moral argument and prophetic vision. It also suggests something of why Race Matters will “matter” to those who often find themselves paralyzed by the racial nightmare from which most Americans can never fully awaken. As West points out, “The Los Angeles upheaval [he insists it was neither a race riot nor a class rebellion] forced us to see not only that we are not connected in ways we would like to be but also, in a more profound sense, that this failure to connect binds us even more tightly together.”

This much said, however, let me hasten to add that West is no more immune from bouts of despair than the rest of us. Indeed, his “Preface” begins with the way that certain observations by Plato and W.E.B.Du Bois continue to haunt him:

In a mysterious way, this classic twosome posed the most fundamental challenges to my basic aim in life: to speak the truth to power with love so that the quality of everyday life for ordinary people is enhanced and white supremacy is stripped of its authority and legitimacy. Plato’s profound—yet unpersuasive—critique of Athenian democracy as inevitably corrupted by the ignorance and passions of the masses posed one challenge, and Du Bois’s deep analysis of the intransience of white supremacy in the American democratic experiment posed another.

West means to stake out a higher moral ground, one that holds fast to the best that America can be at the same time that it refuses to blink in the face of the worst that American life all too often is. West, after all, has been the beneficiary and victim of both sides of the vexing coin—at once a distin guished professor at Princeton University (where he teaches in the religion department and chairs its Afro-American Studies Program) and a black man subject to daily, humiliating reminders that skin color, rather than intellect, is what counts.

Indeed, the latter experiences are so painful that he recounts them in some detail, beginning with the ten taxicabs that refused to pick him up on a Manhattan corner and then moving backward to the time he was stopped on false charges of trafficking cocaine (when West told the officer he was a professor of religion, the policeman replied: “Yeh, and I’m the Flying Nun. Let’s go, nigger!”). Nor is pastoral Princeton, New Jersey an exception. Drive its streets too slowly and you will discover—that is, if you happen to be black—that being pulled over, hassled, and sometimes searched is standard procedure. During his first ten days as a new member of Princeton’s faculty, West made precisely that discovery three times. The “lessons,” shall we say, were not lost on him, although he quickly adds that these incidents, enraging as they might be, “are dwarfed by those like Rodney King’s beating or the abuse of black targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Nonetheless, West’s memories hurt and scar his soul. So it is hardly surprising that he is obsessed by “what race matters have meant to the American past and of how much race matters in the American present.” In this case, the play on words is more than academic cleverness; rather it is, for West, “an urgent question of power and morality” and for others, “an everyday matter of life and death.” Thus, nihilism—at least as the term is applied to black communities—needs to be defined less as a philosophic doctrine arguing that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards or authority than as the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” Granted, the latter brand of nihilism is hardly new—West points out that the first African encounter with the New World was a distinctive form of the Absurd—but the genius of 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. . . . In other words, traditions for blacks surviving and thriving under usually adverse New World conditions were major barriers against the nihilistic threat. These traditions consist primarily of black religious and civic institutions that sustained familial and communal networks of support. If cultures are, in part, what human beings create (out of antecedent fragments of other cultures) in order to convince themselves not to commit suicide, then black foremothers and forefathers are to be applauded.

But at a moment when young black people lead the nation in suicides, West is hardly alone in asking “What has gone wrong?” Is it, as some would claim, the bitter irony of integration, or as others insist, the cumulative effects of a genocidal conspiracy? Both views certainly “play” on the mean streets and among those who have hitched their political wagons to separatism. And of course there are those who would point to the rising expectations set into motion during the giddy, optimistic days of the 1960’s and claim that a certain amount of “downsizing” is inevitable. By contrast, West believes that there are two significant reasons why the threats of nihilism are more powerful now than ever before: one is the “saturation of market forces and market moralities in black life” while the other is nothing more nor less than “a present crisis in black leadership.”

With regard to the first, West ticks off the images of comfort, convenience, machismo, femininity, violence, and sexual stimulation that bombard black consumers and serve to fatten corporate profits. Thus, market institutions

have greatly contributed to undermining traditional morality. . . .[Moreover], the reduction of individuals to objects of pleasure is especially evident in the culture industries— television, radio, video, music—in which gestures of sexual foreplay and orgiastic pleasure flood the marketplace. . . .

As West would have it, black Americans are especially susceptible to these seductive images, with the result that a market-inspired life effectively edges out those “non-market values—love, care, service to others”—that formerly sustained black communities. Much of this sounds as if West were making common cause with the Allan Bloom who took mindless pleasures to task in The Closing of the American Mind, but West has quite another agenda up his sleeve, for he means to eradicate black nihilism through a strategy of love and caring he calls a “politics of conversion.” Here, it seems to me, West is on firmer ground, in the sense that religious values, rather than economic systems, are his forte. Nonetheless, it is harder to see how this “politics of conversion” would actually work than it is to notice how he has cobbled aspects of liberal and neoconservative thought into his analysis:

Like liberal structuralists, the advocates of a politics of conversion never lose sight of the structural conditions that shape the sufferings and lives of people. Yet, unlike liberal structuralism, the politics of conversion meets the nihilistic threat head-on. Like conservative behaviorism, the politics of conversion openly confronts the self-destructive and inhumane actions of black people. Unlike conservative behaviorists, the politics of conversion situates these actions within inhumane circumstances (but does not thereby exonerate them).

West’s idealism is more persuasive when its target is the failure of nerve all too often exhibited by black leaders. Writing about the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, what strikes him as remarkable is the way that “Bush’s choice of Thomas caught most black leaders off guard”:

Few had the courage to say publicly that this was an act of cynical tokenism concealed by outright lies about Thomas being the most qualified candidate regardless of race.&hellip The very fact that no black leader could utter publicly that a black appointee for the Supreme Court was Unqualified shows how captive they are to white racist stereotypes about black intellectual talent.

If generous doses of love are what the black underclass most desperately needs, it is also clear that candor is largely missing in the political rhetoric, and often in the discourse of black intellectuals. With the notable exception of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., few have spoken out against the black anti-Semitism peddled by hate merchants such as Leonard Jeffries or Louis Farrakhan. West is clearly troubled by the nasty turn that black-Jewish relations has taken but feels it is time to move beyond both vulgar name-calling and selfrighteous finger-pointing. For the deeper truth, West insists, is that “black anti-Semitism and Jewish antiblack racism are real, and both are as profoundly American as cherry pie. There was no golden age in which blacks and Jews were free of tension and friction.” But there was, West also insists, “a better age when the common histories of oppression and degradation of both groups served as a springboard for geniune empathy and principled alliances.” To ask why, since the late 60’s, black-Jewish relations have steadily deteriorated is rather akin to his earlier query about why black communities have fallen into nihilism.

West begins, quite properly, with an admission that “few blacks recognize and acknowledge one fundamental fact of Jewish history: a profound hatred of Jews sits at the center of medieval and modern European communities.” Indeed, long before the word “ghetto” was associated with poor urban blacks, walled gates were an ugly fact of life for most European Jews. That much admitted, however, West goes on to insist that the history of Jews in America “flies in the face of this tragic past,” and, moreover, that “the astonishingly rapid entree of most Jews into the middle and upper middle classes” between 1910 and 1967 now serves to divide those who favor affirmative action programs from those who oppose them. The State of Israel has only exacerbated the problem because “without a sympathetic understanding of the deep historic sources of Jewish fears and anxieties about group survival, blacks will not grasp the visceral attachment of most Jews to Israel.” By the same token, “without a candid acknowledgement of blacks’ status as permanent underdogs in American society, Jews will not comprehend what the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks.”

What both groups need to recognize, then, is the “moral content of Jewish and black identities and of their political consequences,” for if it is true that blacks have been in the forefront of the struggle against American racism, it is also true that “if these efforts fall prey to anti-Semitism, then the principled attempt to combat racism forfeits much of its moral credibility—and we all lose.” Thus,

The vicious murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights in the summer of 1991 bore chilling testimony to a growing black anti-Semitism in this country. Although this particular form of xenophobia from below does not have the same institutional power of those racisms that afflict their victims from above, it certainly deserves the same moral condemnation. Furthermore, the very ethical character of the black freedom struggle largely depends on the open condemnation by its spokespersons of any racist attitude or action.

That West does not quibble in his condemnation of what happened in Crown Heights is good news, but it is even better news that black clergymen—from Reverend Gary Simpson of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn (with ten thousand members) and Reverend James Forbes of Riverside Church (with three thousand members) to a litany of others— have voiced similar opinions. Too often what the media serves up are “sound bites” from the angriest militants reporters can corral. But as West reminds us, the best of black culture

as manifested, for example, in jazz or the prophetic black church, refuses to put whites or Jews on a pedestal or in the gutter. Rather, black humanity is affirmed alongside that of others, even when those others have at times dehumanized blacks.

In an age when humanism itself often seems to be under attack, West’s steady faith in the power of love and the necessity of candor is infectious. His reflections on why black anti-Semitism is unworthy and doomed to self-destruction is but one example of why Race Matters is such an extraordinary book. Indeed, one need only turn to his probing thoughts about the complicated psychological myths that surround black sexuality and the ways that black homophobia reinforce images of black machismo identity or to the various myths that have overtaken Malcolm X’s life to feel the reassuring hand of his humanism. For what West represents is nothing more nor less than the black intellectual he has been looking for. Which is to say, if any notes in Race Matters ring false, they are probably those that rattle on about the vacuum in black intellectual leadership. West’s essays make precisely the opposite case, not only putting him squarely in the tradition of black learning that produced the likes of W.E.B.Du Bois and Oliver Cox, St. Claire Drake and Ralph Ellison, but also suggesting that one possibility of the “prophetic” is a future where those who share West’s commitment to truth-telling and a better quality of life for all Americans might yet become a critical mass.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading