Oftentimes, philosophical discussion short-circuits diverse representation, forgoing its promise to include a wide variety of perspectives. In today’s blog, we will focus on Cornel West, a vital philosopher and political activist who has had a huge impact on modern race scholarship and social critiques.
It’s important to note that past historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. play a vital role in West’s philosophy, who hopes to communicate his legacy to the audience of today. From a young age, West became surrounded by prominent religious figures, regularly attending Baptist church where he listened to testimonials of those whose grandparents had been slaves. Additionally, growing up in Sacramento, California, he became impacted by the work of the Black Panther Party, introduced to the powerful effect of political activism and Karl Marx’s work. Thus, as most prominent philosophical figures, his background informed his visions of the world and how best to interact within it.
Attending Harvard University at the age of 17, he would go on in 1980 to gain teaching positions in the areas of philosophy, religion, and African American studies. Later, his two most famous books, Race Matters (1994) and Democracy Matters (2004), would be published which demonstrated his original and provocative philosophical nature. What made his work unique is that his intellectual beliefs were not stagnant but formulated from various doctrines, such as democratic socialism, neopragmatism, and a Christian moral sensibility. Overall, West claims that many black community’s problems “to existential angst derived from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating U.S. society and culture”.
In Race Matters, West shares a collection of essays detailing the detrimental conditions of the black underclass stemming from the “crisis of black leadership” and a spiritual impoverishment. He believed that African American leaders held strategies that were narrow-minded and failed to consider the totality of the situation for underclass black Americans He goes on to criticize America for failing to offer the prospect of success or fulfillment to its American citizens, particularly the black population. “We have created rootless, dangling people with little link to the supportive networks—family, friends, and school—that sustain some sense of purpose in life,” he wrote. This work was published one year after the commencement of riots in Los Angeles that materialized in response to the acquittal of four white policemen in the assault of Rodney King, an African American motorist. He uses this as a starting point to discuss the “nihilism” of underclass African Americans, bringing in the concepts of Karl Marx that he learned early on to feed a larger critique of socioeconomic status and the wealth/race gap. Thus, West isn’t blaming one particular group for the problem, but he does attempt to discover the roots of these issues to help distribute responsibility.
In Democracy Matters, West utilizes what he accomplished in Race Matters to now apply to American domestic policies as well as foreign issues, now dealing with broader questions of race and justice. Throughout the book, West focuses on the concept of “imperialism”, which the US has a rich history of being involved in, as stifling the democratic impulse in American society. He argues that the government now resembles that of an oligarchy as power becomes concentrated within a few wealthy elites, discouraging public debate over important issues as prevalent controversies now seem out of their control. Going even further, he states that the market has now created a “market morality that undermines a sense of meaning and larger purpose”. Breaking this down further, he develops a larger criticism of rampant consumerism and capitalism that is implicated within the drive for imperialism as foreign nations become sources of new markets and resource extraction. Thus, this mindset of profits over humans has contributed to the wide array of injustice that reminds us of how far we have to go in American society in the fight for progress. The solution? West details a revival of the prophetic message of Christian tradition that has its foundation in the black church, giving the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. He also champions youth involvement in democratic process, rather than their constant obsession with material goods that still rings true to this day. He urges universities and academic institutions to encourage the next generation to not allow this violence to continue, pushing for new social and political forces.
In the end, Cornel West remains at the forefront of intellectual philosophy and thought with specific focus on race and class in America. He is a vital figure in understanding the puzzle of how these interpose in America today that brings compelling perspectives that I encourage you to check out! If any of this intrigued you, in addition to the works mentioned above, I encourage you to check out more of West’s work, such as The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989), The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991), Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism (1993), and (with David Ritz) Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir (2009)
Here are also some amazing talks/lectures given by West that are sure to catch your attention!