Cornel West Visits and Lectures on Race


Last Thursday, students and faculty packed the Colgate Memorial Chapel to hear Cornel West talk about racism in America. He spoke for nearly two and a half hours, giving as much time to the question and answer portion as to the lecture itself.

He had neither notes nor a feeling of obligation to stick to his 1994 book Race Matters, which was advertised on Brothers’s posters and which CORE Challenges of Modernity classes read this spring. What mattered more for West were the humanities, morality and social justice in the face of unfet­tered capitalism and corporate crime.

He covered nearly everything – death, politics, Plato, funk – but at the center of his talk was the economic crisis and the ways in which it worsened race relations.

“You have such a market-driven society obsessed with profits, and so you end up with a massive distribu­tion of wealth from poor working people to the well-to-do,” he said in an interview before the main event. “That affects everybody, no matter what col­or, culture or whatever. But you end up with oligarchic power, plutocratic power – with one percent owning 42 percent of the wealth.”

“So how does the wealth gap af­fect racism?” he asked. “You have the devastated black poor, a disintegrated black working class and you have un­precedented opportunities for the up­per black middle class who become the symbols of American greed like Obama and others.”

“But they usually hide and conceal the massive intensive suffering of the black poor, of the black working class and the black lower middle class,” West said.

“So you end up with a new Jim Crow, which, in some ways, is a dis­tinctive feature in terms of how we talk about race in the present: the prison-industrial complex, but that’s insepa­rable from social neglect, economic abandonment, shattered community, shattered families, Depression-like levels of unemployment, Depression-like levels of under-employment, in black America.”

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “in the age of Obama, it’s very difficult to talk about the black poor and black working class because there’s an obses­sion with symbols, symbolic achieve­ment, symbolic success and that’s one of the things that I try to shatter.”

It’s hard to say that racism now is as vicious as it was in 19th century America. Between 1882 and 1968, whites lynched 3,500 black people.

West, however, is reluctant to say that discrimination is fainter today than it was one hundred and fifty years ago.

“It’s still vicious,” he said, “but insid­ious, so it’s hard to get at, so people can live in a state of denial. You see in the first form there’s no state of denial. You can go to the vanilla side of town and say, ‘what you think about these choco­late folk in terror?’ ‘Oh, it’s so sad, you know, it’s a sad thing. I’m sorry about that’ and so forth. That’s liberal people. The conservative view is, ‘Hey, that’s the way it is, that’s how reality is.’ In this new form: ‘everybody has an equal chance, what are you talking about? This is equality of opportunity. We have an equal playing field.’ So that’s denial. You couldn’t just deny Jim Crow – ‘did you hear about Johnson gettin’ lynched on Friday?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s the way it is’ -– it’s what happens to black men. See, they’re not in a state of denial.”

West explained the two forms of racism: “There’s Jim Crow Senior,” he said, “and that is a species of American terrorism – lynching, psychological intimidation, teaching black people to hate themselves – there’s a psychic, spiritual, structural and institutional dimension to it. But then there’s Jim Crow Junior, which is…de facto in practice – residential, educational – and it’s much more difficult to deal with that de facto in the North because it’s institutional, structural. It’s hidden, it’s concealed [and] the media won’t raise any questions about it. They reduce it to individual choice, so it’s hard to tease it out.”

He ended the talk with Martin Luther King, Jr. who, West pointed out, “was organizing poor people of all color” at the end of his life.

“He was fighting the empire and American imperialism in Vietnam, and keep in mind that when he was shot down like a dog, that 72 percent of Americans disapproved of him and 55 percent of black Americans disapproved of him,” he said.

“I was just in upstate New York, over in Buffalo the other day,” he said, “and they were telling me about Martin King’s speech in 1967, and the room was one half full because the black preachers and others had organized against it calling him a red and a communist because he had come out against the war. And The New York Times and Time magazine were saying he’s a red, a demagogue. He’s un-American. And that scared the black folk who before had been with him.”

When asked whether King would be as unpopular now as he was when he was killed in 1968, West answered, “Absolutely…we keep him frozen in 1967,” before he organized the Poor People’s Campaign. King, he reminded me, was killed while marching with sanitary public works employees.

“Where are the so called intellectuals now?” West said.