Race Matters, by Cornel West
by Cornel West.
Beacon. 105 pp. $15.00.
Cornel West has been acclaimed as one of the most important commentators on race relations in America. He has been the subject of feature profiles in major publications and appears frequently on televised public-affairs programs. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, has described West as “the preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation”; according to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, his is “one of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic, and healing voices in America today.”
Until recently, West’s audience has been limited to specialists in the culture and politics of black America. In Race Matters, however, West, a professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton, is writing for a much broader public. The essays here, all of which have previously appeared in magazines and books, deal with a number of the most controversial issues of the past several years, including the Los Angeles riots, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation, Malcolm X, affirmative action, and black-Jewish relations.
To a certain extent, the esteem in which West is held derives from his image as a man of moderation. He is not hostile to whites, he refuses to blame all the troubles of the inner city on white racism, and he is critical of black appeals to racial solidarity. Although he pays tribute to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, West seems more comfortable with King’s prophetic integrationism than with Malcolm’s militant nationalism. He eschews the traditional liberal calls for urban Marshall Plans, focusing instead on spiritual values and the need to revive a sense of community as steps toward racial reconciliation.
West thus presents himself as steering a prudent centrist course among liberal statism, racial exclusiveness, and the conservative stress on personal conduct. As he puts it here:
The liberal notion that more government programs can solve racial problems is simplistic—precisely because it focuses solely on the economic dimension. And the conservative idea that what is needed is a change in the 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.
But passages like this notwithstanding, West is not, in fact, the centrist he would like us to think him. Although he can issue sweeping pronouncements that suggest a breaking of ranks with today’s racial orthodoxies, in the next breath he is capable of blithely contradicting these same positions. An example is his rejection of race-specific solutions, which is followed by an unequivocal endorsement of affirmative action, one of the most divisive race-specific policies ever enacted. He also engages in polemical maneuver—by, for instance, denouncing arguments based on race solidarity and then outlandishly citing as his single case in point the support that many blacks gave to Clarence Thomas.
West engages in such posturing, I believe, in order to camouflage political beliefs which are well to the Left not only of the Center but of contemporary liberalism. Although the word “socialist” hardly appears in these pages, the assessment of American society that West sets forth owes more to the Marxist tradition than to the American civil-rights heritage. West, to be sure, does not focus on social class; rather, his radicalism is intermixed with a kind of New Age politics in which the dynamics of class recede while questions of race, gender, and sexual orientation are brought to the fore. (One laughable sign of West’s embrace of the “diversity agenda” is the length to which he goes to be linguistically correct, as in his reference to “Jim and Jane Crow segregation.”)
But West does not try to conceal his view that American capitalism is evil. He writes of life in America as an “empty quest for pleasure, property, and power.” Blacks, West contends, “reside in a jungle ruled by a cutthroat market morality” which breeds nihilism and leads, in the inner city, to an environment of utter despair.
It stands to reason that if the American economic system is intrinsically immoral, then those who accept the system have been touched by its corruption. And so it is, West believes, with the black middle class and black political leadership. He excoriates the former for having renounced the “vibrant tradition of resistance” fostered by the civil-rights movement while adopting a life based on “professional conscientiousness, personal accomplishment, and cautious adjustment.” Likewise, West criticizes black political leaders for their “lack of authentic anger,” and their general stance of accommodation with American ruling elites.
In both instances West’s criticisms are unfair, extraordinarily so in the case of the black middle class. The traits he ascribes to black professionals are, in fact, precisely the traits required for successful lives and careers. If more Americans of whatever race were as committed to the work ethic and the idea of excellence as are West’s black professionals, the country would be greatly strengthened and our racial climate vastly improved. It hardly needs to be pointed out, moreover, that these professionals represent the first mass black middle class in American history; the eyes of the nation are on their performance at work and at home, and they scarcely need the additional burden of civil-rights protest which West seeks to foist on them.
Much the same can be said for black political leaders. West presumably takes little comfort in the presence of Ron Brown, Mike Espy, Lee Brown, and other blacks in the Clinton administration, since these officials have risen to their current positions not as activist protesters but as professional politicians, and their success can thus be seen as reinforcing the notion that, in one area at least, American race relations are improving. It is precisely this idea—that the system might be working—which West seems least able to tolerate.
Given his treatment of black professionals and politicians, it will come as no surprise that West has little use for black conservatives. The idea, for example, that black conservatives have been the objects of ad-hominem attacks earns his scorn—West has evidently paid little attention to the many, many attacks on Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, and Clarence Thomas in which the major point has been to deny their credentials as authentic blacks. But more disturbing is West’s accusation that “the widespread support black conservatives received from conservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations and from Jewish neoconservatives has much to do with their views on U.S. foreign policies.”
Here we have a perfect example of West’s style of debate. As on a number of other issues, he plays loose with the facts: while black conservatives may have written critically of the tendency among black intellectuals to sympathize with authoritarian regimes of the Left, mostly they focus on domestic controversies like affirmative action, busing, and welfare. As for their specific foreign-policy views, West stops short of asserting explicitly that support of American policy is unworthy of a black intellectual, but the implication is unmistakable in his statement that black conservatives are “viewed in many black communities as mere apologists for pernicious U.S. foreign policies.”
In a passage highly critical of the entertainment industry, West disparages the “reduction of individuals to objects of pleasure” and bemoans the way our culture has been polluted with “gestures of sexual foreplay and orgiastic pleasure.” One might suppose that West, who repeatedly stresses the moral dimension of the racial debate, might find common ground here with conservative critics of the liberal ethos. Yet one will search in vain for any reference to such issues as rap music, the civil-liberties movement, First Amendment absolutism, or the cultural legacy of the 60’s—although other black leaders of impeccably liberal reputations have spoken out about precisely such matters. Instead, West reduces all social ills to one issue alone: capitalism, with its “sexual and military images,” its marginalized youth, ruined families, and ravaged communities.
One of the most controversial chapters in Race Matters deals with relations between blacks and Jews. West himself is very much in the tradition of interracial harmony, at least among those of a progressive political stripe, and there can be no question of his harboring anti-Semitic prejudices. Nevertheless, his attempts to explain the roots of black-Jewish division are deeply flawed, evasive, and less than honest.
West accurately cites affirmative action as a major point of difference between blacks and Jews. But while observing that hostility to preferential treatment is less pronounced among Jews than among other groups, he adds that Jewish opposition “seems to reek of naked group interest, as well as a willingness to abandon compassion for the underdog of American society.” This is tantamount to saying that Jewish opposition to affirmative action has nothing to do with concerns about fairness, democracy, or fears of racial balkanization, but is due simply to moral blindness. Nor does West recognize the irony in his reference to Jewish group interests in discussing a policy which openly places one group, blacks, above all others in the apportionment of economic rewards.
An even graver problem emerges in West’s treatment of Israel. He begins by acknowledging that some blacks, by failing to grasp the “deep historical sources of Jewish fears and anxieties about group survival,” have been oblivious to the “visceral attachment of most Jews to Israel.” But Jews, for their part, he writes, fail to recognize what “the symbolic predicament and literal plight of Palestinians in Israel means to blacks.” Because of this, blacks see the Jewish defense of Israel as a “second instance of naked group interest” and an “abandonment of substantive moral deliberation.”
West then pushes this symmetrical formulation further to the extreme by asserting that black-Jewish ties were especially damaged in the 1980’s by the policies of Israel’s Likud government: “When mainstream American Jewish organizations supported the inhumane policies of [Menachem] Begin and [Yitzhak] Shamir, they tipped their hats toward cold-hearted interest-group calculations.” Blacks, he adds as a balancing afterthought, are not guiltless, either, as when they accept the various conspiracy theories about Jewish economic power.
On almost every point, West’s analysis is inaccurate, and often obnoxious as well. The comparison he draws between Begin and Shamir on the one hand and Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farra-khan on the other is absurd, for the obvious reason that the Likud leaders neither said nor did anything inimical to the interests of blacks, while Jeffries and Farra-khan have issued blatantly anti-Semitic declarations and threatened Jews who opposed them.
Furthermore, by focusing on the Likud period, West has either forgotten or is unaware of a bit of relevant history. During the 1960’s, it was Israel’s Labor government under Golda Meir which was the object of savage attacks by black radicals for its alleged policies of racist genocide and imperialism. More to the heart of the matter, there is no evidence that black resentment of Jews has been significantly fueled by Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, or that black attitudes toward Begin and Shamir were much different from black attitudes toward Margaret Thatcher or Helmut Kohl.
West’s observations on blacks and Jews conform to a clear pattern: he attributes a perspective to all blacks or many blacks or some blacks which in fact represents little more than his own opinion or an opinion limited to the relatively small fraternity of like-minded black leftists. And a similar tactic is evident in West’s hazy and substanceless prescriptions for change. While he is under no obligation to provide his readers with a laundry list of policy ideas, we can surely expect more than, for example, the assertion that “Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses, it is tamed by love and care.” But here too there may well be deliberateness behind the vagueness. By repeatedly stating that capitalism is the root cause of the American racial dilemma, and that little real change can be achieved without a fundamental reorganization of the economy, West skillfully deflects many of the crucial and divisive issues over which America is now agonizing.
Despite the artful packaging, West’s ultimate message is neither new nor courageous. Indeed, were he to argue his case for socialism openly, “one of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic, and healing voices in America today” might discover that very few were listening.