Cornel West’s Race Matters

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Malik Miah

CORNEL WEST ARGUES that the main obstacle to harmonious race relations in the United States is “nihilism” — the sense of worthlessness that exists among most Blacks. In his profound book, Race Matters, written in early 1993, West explains his philosophy and calls on Blacks, and whites, to understand that racism and race are woven in American history and can never be eradicated without understanding that “race matters” in everything we consider “American.”

I agree with West’s basic assumption: that “race” does “matter.” Our society has been and remains tainted by race divisions. There is no American nation per se. The USA is a multiethnic state. We don’t live in a “color-blind” society today, nor have we in the past. Those who advocate that we already live in a “color-blind” society (such as Reagan and the neoliberals), are generally the same people who defend the status quo that keeps Blacks and women in a second-class position. They are generally the same people complaining about “white male bashing.”

After saying all that, I nevertheless firmly believe progressives and socialists must advocate building new nation-states based on ending old ethnic divisions. We must fight for nonracial, color-blind societies as the African National Congress advocates for the new South Africa.

But, I also recognize, that such a transformation, including for South Africa, is only possible with the end of capitalism, a system which breeds divisions and bigotry. We already saw in South Africa the “same old ethnic crap” as the South Africans moved toward their first democratic elections . The battle in the United States is to fight for full democracy (which is why I, like West, consider myself a “radical democrat”) as well as to struggle to replace capitalism with socialism.

While I disagree with West’s focus on nihilism, I do agree with his criticism of such subjects as the role of women in the struggle (i.e. sexism in the movement), traditional liberalism, and anti-Semitism (such as preached by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan). West, of course, doesn’t present solutions to the many deep-rooted problems in the Black community and American society. He, however, does open a debate about issues generally not hung out to dry in the broad public. That’s good.

Nihilistic Threat to Black Survival

West, the former director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University (he’s joining Harvard’s Department of Afro-American Studies and Divinity School this fall), considers himself a Christian and socialist. Not surprisingly, he sees the problem of Black survival in moral and political-economic terms. Unlike most socialists, he does not point his finger at capitalism as the primary source of the problem. Nor does he endorse Black nationalism or the revolutionary vision of Malcolm X as the answer. Instead, he says the main problem facing Black survival in the 1990s is nihilism.

It is not common for Black intellectuals to explain the problem of the Black community in such terms. I think it is one reason why West’s book became so popular in wider intellectual circles. Self-worth, or Black pride, is an important issue. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about it in their time. It is a necessary ingredient to include in the political discussion to determine what to do next.

What Does West Say?

In the chapter, “Nihilism in Black America,” West observes
“The liberal/conservative discussion conceals the most basic issue now facing Black America: the nihilistic threat to its very existence. This threat is not simply a matter of relative economic deprivation and political powerlessness — though economic well-being and political clout are requisites for meaningful Black progress. It is primarily a question of speaking to the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in Black America.” (12-13)

“Nihilism,” he continues, “is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine … it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaningless, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” (14)

“Nihilism is not new in Black America. . . . In fact,” West explains,”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.” (14-15)

So nihilism is our number one problem as Blacks. Defeating white supremacy, of course, must be our central goal. To fight national oppression, African Americans must regain our hope and self-love. This is the main direction of West’s book, and I can agree with that. However, he fails to explicitly show the link between nihilism and the need to organize the fight to end oppression and exploitation. The lack of self-love is directly related to oppression.

Thus West analysis tends to minimize the role of capitalism (i.e. oppression and exploitation, the role of classes in maintaining racial and national divisions). The strength of his view is that he takes on taboo subjects (including Black anti-Semitism, sexism in the Black community, and homophobia) and demands a critical look at how to reverse Black degradation and remove the color line.

Liberalism and Conservatism

For example, he takes on the nostrums of liberals and conservatives:

“The liberal notion that more government programs can solve racial problems,” he notes, “is simplistic — precisely because it focuses solely 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. (2)
West supports government intervention to help the Black and poor communities. But unlike many liberals he says that’s not enough. Tinkering with the capitalist system has brought some improvements but not fundamental relief for the vast majority of poor Blacks.

Black conservatives, a small layer in the Black community, get some hearing precisely because liberal solutions haven’t worked. The debate between liberals and conservative Blacks is not over fundamental change but how best to reform the system that is responsible for the color line.

The liberals say it is a lack of resources. The conservatives blame the victim. They say equality was achieved in the 1960s with the end of legal segregation. The problem is the Black community hasn’t pulled itself up by the bootstraps to close the wealth gap, and so on.

It is not a new debate, of course. But unlike earlier times in American history when African Americans were mainly slaves or sharecroppers, Blacks today are legally equal and more integrated in all segments of capitalist society. Middle- class Blacks broke into new areas of employment and housing even under Reagan and Bush. And while many whites may not like it, whites have had to accept Blacks in leadership positions and holding positions of elected power.

Lani Guinier, the law professor who was smeared as the “quota queen” for supporting affirmative action and raising the idea that race is a central factor of American life, wrote an article for the OpEd page of the New York Times (October 19, 1993) that accurately posed what must be done to begin to fight institutional racism: “What is missing from public discourse is a vision of the future in which society commits itself to working through, rather than running from, our racial history and racial present. What is missing is leadership.”

Crisis of Leadership

West’s comments on “The Crisis of Black Leadership” pose many of the questions being discussed in the Black political movement. “There has not been a time in the history of Black people in this country,” West begins, “when the quantity of politicians and intellectuals was so great, yet the quality of both groups has been so low. Just when one would have guessed that Black America was flexing its political and intellectual muscles, rigor mortis seems to have set in. How do we account for the absence of the Frederick Douglasses, Sojourner Truths, Martin Luther King, Jrs., Malcolm Xs and Fannie Lou Hamers in our time? Why hasn’t Black America produced intellectuals of the caliber of W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Cooper, E. Franklin Frazier, Oliver Cox, and Ralph Ellison in the past few decades?” (35)

West points to the failure of the new Black middle class. A relative term (not used in a Marxist sense), he notes that the middle class historically constituted no more than five percent of African-Americans before the civil rights era. In the last two decades, this percentage jumped to well over twenty-five percent.

“Yet,” he notes, “this leap in quantity has not been accompanied by a leap in quality. The present day Black middle class is not simply different than its predecessors — it is more deficient and, to put it strongly, more decadent.” (35-36)

Why? “Without a credible sense of political struggle, there can be no shouldering of a courageous engagement — only cautious adjustment is undertaken . . . .Presently, Black middle-class life is principally a matter of professional conscientiousness, personal accomplishment, and cautious adjustment.” (37)

“The nihilistic threat to Black America is inseparable from a [threefold] crisis in Black leadership.” First, he explains, the nonelectoral leaders (heads of civil rights groups in the main) are preoccupied with race. The problem? It “downplays the crucial class, environmental, patriarchal, and homophobic determinants of Black life changes.” The elected officials, he adds, lack moral vision. (43-44)

Second, the failure of the traditional civil rights leaders lets narrow nationalists like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton fill the leadership void. These “protest leaders” as West calls them play on alienation and desperation among Black working and poor people. They use demagogy in some cases to expand their support but are not part of the solution.

Third, “this crisis of Black leadership contributes to political cynicism among Black people; it encourages the idea that we cannot really make a difference in changing our society.” (45)

“The crisis in black leadership,” West explains, “can be remedied only if we candidly confront its existence. We need national forums to reflect, discuss, and plan how best to respond. It is neither a matter of a new Messiah figure emerging, nor of another organization appearing on the scene. Rather, it is a matter of grasping the structural and institutional processes that have disfigured, deformed, and devastated black America such that the resources for nurturing collective and critical consciousness, moral commitment, and courageous engagement are vastly underdeveloped.

“We need serious strategic and tactical thinking about how to create new models of leadership and forge the kind of persons to actualize these models. These models must not only question our silent assumptions about black leadership — such as the notion that black leaders are always middle class — but must also force us to interrogate iconic figures of the past. This includes questioning King’s sexism and homophobia and the relatively undemocratic character of his organization, and examining Malcolm’s silence on the vicious role of priestly versions of Islam in the modern world.” (45-46) (West’s analysis includes no criticisms of Christian priests.)

“To be a serious Black leader,” West concludes, “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 moral regeneration and political insurgency for the purpose of fundamental social change for all who suffer from socially induced misery. For a moment, we reflect and regroup with a vow that the 1990s will make the 1960s look like a tea party.” (46)

While I don’t agree with some of West’s criticisms of King and Malcolm X, his basic premise is correct: the middle- class layers and established leaders are not providing answers to the decline of the Black community. My answer goes beyond a critique, however.

What’s needed is a new leadership based on the most exploited section of the Black population, the working class. The leadership must be based on militancy and unity. It must reach out to all people of color too. It must unite with the organized labor movement, and organizations and groups fighting for the emancipation of other peoples of color, women, and defending the rights of gays and lesbians, and other discriminated sectors of society. If this happens and a political fight challenging the ruling class occurs, the future battles will be more like the Boston Tea Party. There will be battles for state power.

Not the “Talented Tenth”

Race does matter. But it is more than just Black versus white. In the 1990s it is more and more a class problem. Under Jim Crow this was less the case since the first task was to end American apartheid. Today, the issue is which class will lead the freedom struggle. The middle-class layers of all colors are incapable of leading the oppressed and poor to their complete emancipation. The lessons of the past thirty years shows that. There can be and will be individual exceptions. But as a class, it will not be the “Talented Tenth” leading the fight for full equality.

The failure of the Black middle-class leadership and the failure of their liberal ideology (the conservative ideology will always have only a handful of supporters) points to the need for a new vision and strategy. Those Blacks who are workers and unemployed have the most to gain. The middle-class layers who suffer some discrimination (there is a colored ceiling) still live well enough not to want to shake the foundations that support them.

In the political arena, a new vision means a break with the two-party system. Jesse Jackson’s strategy of seeking to reform the Democratic Party has clearly not worked, and can’t. Although Jackson and the Congressional Black Caucus have played a valuable role in exposing racism in government, and have taken some positions that are unpopular with the powers that be, their refusal to abandon capitalist politics for independent politics has led to little relief for the majority of Blacks.

The media lynching of Lani Guinier was made easier precisely because the independent power of the Black community is not organized. Clinton wasn’t worried about losing supporters. He knew the liberal Black leaders have no alternative to him and the Democratic Party.

In the last five years, the Black Democratic Party mayors of four of the five largest cities have lost elections. Some point to racism (a definite factor). But the more fundamental reason was a lack of perspective to take on the poverty and corruption of those cities. It would have meant challenging the real powers. It would have meant organizing all people against the two parties. Such an effort would be the end of a promising career in capitalist politics. That’s why Jesse Jackson refuses to go beyond protest politics inside the Democratic Party to building a viable third party.

Not surprisingly, West’s observations about Malcolm X and his politics is his weakest. Malcolm did call for a break with the two party system. He did explain why the Democrats and Republicans do not serve our interests. Malcolm called for the formation of a mass independent Black movement with international alliances. But West’s discussion of Malcolm’s ideas focuses on nationalism, what West calls Malcolm’s articulation of “Black rage” and the notion of “psychic conversion,” i.e. Blacks not seeing themselves through the eyes of whites.

West also criticizes Malcolm’s view of the civil rights movement. “For Malcolm,” West writes, “the civil rights movement was not militant enough. It failed to speak clearly and directly to and about Black rage.”  (101)

Malcolm’s primary criticism of the civil rights movement, however, was not of the tactics used by the King leadership. He attacked their illusions that the system could be reformed to bring full equality for African-Americans. The main civil rights leaders believed the problem was legal rights and lack of opportunity and not the system itself. Malcolm rejected that notion. He said an anti-racist (not just a civil rights) revolution was needed. This was not an ultraleft or sectarian stance. He was simply speaking the truth.

West and his writings are a valuable addition to the debate over racism and discrimination and the divisions in American society.

ATC 50, May-June 1994