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Cornel West: talking about race matters.

Cornel West speaks like a real "down brother," sporting an accent that blends a taste of Southern homeyness with a blast of New York street hardness. West seems somehow to have effectively mastered the dialects of both academia and the proverbial street corner deftness.

As director of Princeton University's Afro-American Studies program and professor of religion, West typifies what some observers are labeling the new, hip, "public intellectuals," academicians who step from behind the ivy-covered walls of academia to stand before the graffiti-covered walls of urban America.

This past summer, West's latest book Race Matters hit the national bestseller lists; the "public intellectual" became a man in demand, bouncing around the lecture and book-signing circuit like an agent on a mission.

Some critics might say that Cornel West merely straddles the fence between liberalism and conservatism and just caps on everybody. Some admirers have opined that he has fused the "heart" of the African-American religious tradition with the "head" of the Black Panthers' political perspective. There may be some truth to all of that.

No doubt, West is not a scholar that one labels easily. Possessed with a quick mind and tempered with a purposeful, thoughtful delivery, West provides a fresh voice to many stale, lingering social/political conundrums.

THE BLACK COLLEGIAN caught up with West between circuit stops in Philadelphia for the following, wide-ranging interview. Covering everything from white supremacist images to racial violence to homophobia, from reverse discrimination to the Thomas/Hill affair to how collegians can fight campus racism, our conversation makes for some interesting, timely reading.

T.B.C: The major problem of this century, as W.E.B. DuBois is forecasted, is still the problem of the color line. In your opinion, why do the issues of race and color continue to permeate so much of the American psyche?

West: As you know, DuBois himself, 50 years later,added the issue of labor to that assessment of the problem of this century being the problem of the color line. Part of the problem is that in the latter part of this century, the distribution of wealth and power in this nation and around the world is going to present the most formidable challenge. But it is articulated, or expressed, in the form of the various ways in which white supremacy and male supremacy have served as justifications for insuring the unequal distribution of wealth and power in this country and the world.

On the cultural level, on the psychological level, there is a problem of meaninglessness and hopelessness, and race has always served as one way of trying to provide a source of meaning for, especially, white persons so they can simply hold onto their whiteness to give them a sense of being somebody. Yet we see the degree to which, at their cultural and psychic level, that's no longer as sustaining as it once was, even though some people are grasping for it for dear life.

In so many ways, Dubois was right, and yet in another sense, you can't talk about that color line that he was alluding to without talking about issues of class and gender, or economic inequality and woman subordination.

TBC: In your book you write about "envisioning a time when white supremacy is stripped of its authority and legitimacy," yet most Christian--a tradition out of which you operate--places of worship are replete with white supremacist images, idols, etc. How do you juggle that paradox?

West: Well, it just shows how very, very difficult it is to shake folk loose from white supremacist captivity. White supremacy is so profoundly embedded in American and Western civilization that certainly we can make progress and we can ameliorate things, but it is very difficult to envision a time in which it's completely eliminated. That's one of the reasons why we have to have radically democratic institutions that make people accountable so that even though people might have white supremacist ideas in their heads, they can't act them out because there are institutions that won't allow it. That might be the best that we can do in the next 100 to 200 years.

TBC: So do you think that kind of accountability is a government responsibility or an individual responsibility?

West: It's got to be enforceable by government by law, no doubt about it. But on the other hand, each individual has to take it upon themselves to insure that they themselves are accountable and others are accountable by means of persuasion, engagement, and so forth.

TBC: Most American whites, even the likes of those who supported and voted for David Duke here in Louisiana, it seems, don't readily admit to being racist or that racism even exists in America on a wide scale. Yet, we African Americans know of the pervasiveness of racism. How can the sickness be treated if the patient won't even acknowledge the ailment?

West: That's a good question. That's one reason why communications are so very important, because you've got very subtle forms of racism, very covert forms of racism that are quite operative and do have consequences and effects, but people won't recognize them.

You know the study about the sports announcers who always refer to athletes like Magic and Jordan with animalistic metaphors but who refer to athletes like Larry Bird with notions of intelligence and leadership, and so forth. And they didn't even rcalize they were doing this. Once it was pointed out to them, they said, "Oh, my gosh, I guess that's true." But that is a subtle form of racist allusion., even though those sports announcers are not David Duke supporters. That's just one small example. There are a whole host of these that happen on the job, in the street, across the board. You've got to be able to communicate to folk that this is actually taking place for them to be able to acknowledge and recognize it. That doesn't make communication the sufficient condition for change, but certainly it's a necessary condition.

Then you've got issues of power and institutions and the fight over resources which are part of the sufficient condition, but a necessary condition is that there has to be lines of communication open so people can recognize that this racism is still quite strong in its subtle forms, when it is being denied because it is not overt.

TBC: Let me throw some words at you that, perhaps, punctuate the discussion of race in America: guilt, fear, violence, retaliation, suppressed guilt, deeper fear, more violence. How do we begin to break that cycle?

West: The only way out is through some form of struggle together. We need to actually look at the places where there are much more decent race relations than other places. You find one in sports because they are involved in something bigger than themselves. Therefore, they have to, in fact, keep an eye on something other than just themselves.

For example, the white player for the Bulls who made that championship-winning shot ... Now when Paxson grabbed Jordan to hug him, that's genuine, that's real, because they were trying to win a game. The same is true in music. That doesn't mean that there's no racism at all there--it might still be there--but they are involved in something bigger than themselves.

What we saw on the basketball court with the Bulls was struggle together. You know, it was mainly bloods, but it's still multiracial. What we need are these kinds of enactments in different spheres--in politics, economics, in culture, etc., because the only way you can deal with fear, guilt, violence, and so forth, is for persons to actually feel as if bonds of trust can be forged, because arguments don't do it.

Somebody can say, "OK, I like Black folks, Black folks are equal. I believe they have the same status as anybody else." Yet on a visceral level, the same fear and anxiety are there. The only way that fear an anxiety call be addressed is in struggle together with folk.

Now, of course, we live in such a segregated, fragmented, Balkanized society, that it's hard to provide those occasions wherein that kind of multiracial struggle can take place.

TBC: So, is racism, on its most basic level, a Black problem or a White problem?

West: White supremacy itself is a European construct. The practice of racism in its most dominant form, which is its white supremacist form, was a form which white folk primarily perpetuated and benefitted from. That doesn't mean that Black folk themselves don't have the capacity to go around dehumanizing other folk. There's no doubt about that. But I do believe that when we talk about race in America, we are talking primarily about white supremacy and its consequences.

Now, I do believe that one of the responses to white supremacy has been the notion of Black supremacy. But it's a counter reaction. When Elijah Muhammad came up with his own various narratives on Yacub and other things trying to account for white supremacy, he was responding to what all of us know to be the case, the very vicious consequences and pernicious effects of white supremacy on Black people.

We all need to respond to that. I recognize Elijah's grappling with that. I might not agree with his particular response, but I know he had to deal with the problem because the effects and consequences are real.

In that regard, I believe that white supremacy is still in many ways the major culprit, as it were though, on moral grounds, we ought never to permit or condone any form of xenophobia.

TBC: White students seem often to view affirmative action measures, which are an attempt to address past wrongs, as reverse discrimination. Is this a collective lapse in historical memory or is there some validity to their view?

West: In many ways it becomes, ultimately, an excuse to overlook the degree to which there have always been preferences at work in administration policy, for example, preferences having to do with regional diversity. You can come from Montana or South Dakota and have a much better chance of getting into a college than if you come from New York. You have had alumni sons who have had tremendous preference in regard to getting into different institutions. Athletes as well--there is a host of different preferences. The fact that they would highlight solely Blackness makes me deeply suspicious.

Of course, as we know, empirically speaking, the major beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women, because there are more of them. And rightly so; I think women ought to have access like anybody else. They are 52 percent of the population; Black folks are 12.2 percent of the population.

So the fact that they would target just Black students when talking about affirmative action without talking about forms of preferences that have been at work, only makes me deeply suspicious; it's simply another way of perpetuating the ugly stereotype of associating Black folk with inferiority.

TBC: The word "homophobic" is an often used term throughout your book and, seemingly, you define anything not pro-homosexual as homophobic. Yet, homosexuality is clearly denounced in both the many versions of the Christian Bible and in the Islamic Qur'an. So what message are you trying to deliver?

West: That's a good question, because there are different levels of examining this thing. When you, in fact, have any authority, be it scripture, a king, a president, or anybody condemning a particular orientation, it easily becomes associated with a hatred of those persons who are oriented in that way. It doesn't necessarily have to be that way. You can condemn an orientation and still, in fact, keep track of the humanity of gays and lesbians.

My fundamental concern is to keep track of the humanity of folk, which means that you keep track of the humanity of gay African-American men and lesbian African-American women, and so forth. It's a different kind of debate in terms of those who keep track of the humanity of folk and still disagree with the orientation. That's a different kind of dialogue.

If we're willing to have that kind of dialogue, then all of us would acknowledge that you don't go around namecalling, degrading, and physically attacking these folks. That's something we can all agree on. But it shades over so easily into, on one hand, like preachers saying, "Homosexuality is a sin"--and they've got some scriptural basis for that--and, on the other hand, claiming that somehow homosexuals, therefore, ought not to have any rights, ought not to have access to resources, ought not to be respected as human beings. It's that second move that I refuse absolutely.

The debate about whether, in fact, gay and lesbian orientation is, itself, of the same status as heterosexuality is a different kind of debate.

I personally think that sexual orientation is probably the least interesting aspect of human beings. Therefore, I think we make too much of it. It doesn't really bother me at all what James Baldwin was doing. I know him to be a great freedom fighter and one of the finest essayists of the 20th century. In that regard, I'm probably a bit more radical than most because I really don't believe that sexual orientation is that significant in terms of what makes a person a human being. But in a society obsessed with sexuality, it makes a whole bunch of difference.

With men who are concerned about their machismo, to see a man with another man is going to bring all kinds of anxiety to bear. We all have to deal with that. I grew up in the Black community, a deeply homophobic community for the most part, so I cannot deny that I have certain homophobic elements and residues in who and what I am. I just picked it up on the comer with the bloods. But, at the same time, I fight against it because I recognize that kind of socialization is highly problematic.

TBC: Clearly, there is a deep crisis in ethical and moral leadership among African Americans and European Americans. What can we realistically tell our youth about ethical and moral leadership in a time and place overflowing with self-serving money-grabbing and wanton greed?

West: Yes, that's so true. One, we have to let them know that there is a very rich tradition of Black freedom fighters. Even if that tradition is not as strongly manifest at present, it is a tradition that they have to be in contact with so that they can help meet the challenge of the next century better than so many Black leaders are at present.

By getting in contact with, I mean learn about, tty to exude, try to exemplify, and be a part of. But it is true, for the most part, the examples that they see often fall short. Large numbers of our politicians, though by no means all, refuse to be truthtellers about our situation and become part of a system saturated with lobbyists, moaned interests, and, therefore, glib compromises. On the other hand, you get a number of protest leaders who oftentimes are much more in it for themselves and more manipulative than they are sacrificial and prophetic.

TBC: For today's generation of both African-American and European-American college students, the Civil Rights Movement is rapidly becoming a forgotten chapter in our history. How can we recapture that spirit amidst the rising tide of white amnesia about America's racist history?

West: We've got to tell the truth about the racist history. We've got to tell the truth about the response to that racist history. A lot of times people overlook John Brown, Elijah Lovejoy, and the Ann Bradens and the Andrew Scherners, those Americans of European descent who were part of the Black freedom struggle. White students need to know about these people because they've lost contact with them.

Black students need to acknowledge that there has been a significant number of anti-racists in white America, by no means a majority, but a small but significant number. Because often we look at it just in terms of Black and White, and that's just too narrow.

On the other hand, we also have to acknowledge that around the world, we are seeing a xenophobic frenzy. Everybody's turning inward to their own group. Therefore the Civil Rights Movement, which was an attempt for persons to consolidate within the group and turn outward at the same time, very much cuts against the grain.

TBC: The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill affair underscored so much of the racial and sexual relations dynamic that exists in America today. The hearings were real-world high drama. Whom did you believe, Thomas or Hill, and why.?

West: I believed Anita Hill partly because I'd met Anita Hill and I know her to be a person of honesty and integrity. I radically disagree with her politics--I talk about that in the book. I believe people can be persons of integrity and honesty, even though they have different politics than you do. Clarence Thomas I've never met. I did, in fact, read his work. I did listen to his speeches and I was just convinced that I didn't see the kind of integrity that I would have liked to have seen.

In addition, it just struck me that here was somebody who radically distanced himself from Black people as a group, given his individualism, but, as soon as he's in trouble, he's appealing to the group. And yet you've got millions and millions of Black poor people who are in deep trouble, much, much deeper trouble than he was in at the hearings. And yet when they make an appeal to the group, he cut them down, and said, you ought to be individualistic. I saw hypocrisy there that was quite upsetting.

TBC: Much of what you talk about as possible solutions to the race problem--transracial coalition toward progressive movements, replacing racial reasoning with moral reasoning, ethical principles and wise politics over skin pigmentation and racial phenotype--are actually right in line with the philosophy of the religion of Al-Islam, the religion which Malcolm X embraced in his final year at the highest point of his development. yet you don't readily acknowledge that philosophical connection. Why not?

West: Yes, that's true. It's mainly because for someone writing out of a Christian tradition there's going to be a number of overlaps with the best of, or the prophetic elements of, other religious traditions. So for me, prophetic Islamic brothers and sisters are very much comrades in the same way that prophetic Buddhists and prophetic secular folk are. I primarily talk about this transcending of racial reasoning, skin pigmentation, and so forth, out of my own tradition, but it can easily be linked to a number of other traditions. Christians have no monopoly on prophetic insight. Muslims have it, Buddhists have it, secular folk have it, agnostics have it. Prophetic insight is something that one can gain access to through a number of different traditions.

That's why in the last chapter on Malcolm, I talk about his second conversion. I was very much affirming all of that, but showing the overlap, even though he arrived at it through a very different tradition than I did.

TBC: What do you think African-American collegians can practically do to actively fight racism, particularly in a college campus setting?

West: To those to whom much is given, much is required. This means students have to be disciplined, they have to cultivate their talents, they have to broaden their vision. They do that in a practical way by supporting one another through organizing study groups and through critical dialogue. This organizing study groups and critical dialogue can take place both among themselves and across racial lines. But it's got to be something that they are engaged in doing, something that is sustained.

Oftentimes, in the younger generation there is a certain reluctance to sustain that kind of organizing and mobilizing. That's the real big difference between the 1960s and the 1990s, in terms of young folk.

But I have tremendous confidence in young folk these days, and yet it's very clear to me that they haven't produced a Black Panther Party, they haven't produced a SNCC. They haven't produced the organizing on the ground that the 1960s young people did. Even though you've got Hip-Hop, at its best, from Chuck D to Arrested Development to Queen Latifah--you've got a whole host of folk who are quite politically engaged. Yet it hasn't translated to any organizing or mobilizing on the ground at the same level that the 1960s did.

Now you can't compare the two, in one sense, because they are very different moments. But there is a certain reluctance among young people to really want to sustain organizing or to create new organizing. That's always the benchmark of political maturity. It's not just putting forth the views on records. It's not just engaging in dialogue, but also trying to institutionalize it.

TBC: Any final words of advice or encouragement that you'd like to share with African-American college students?

West: Right now we're at a turning point in the history of this country. It's going to be precisely those courageous and visionary young students, young people in general, but students in particular, who can make a fundamental difference. I want to say that the Black freedom struggle, from the very beginning, has always been disproportionately propelled by young people, and that will continue to be the case in the latter part of this century and into the 21st century. I do have great faith in the ability of young folk, especially those highly disciplined young folk who take the life of the mind seriously and link it to principled struggle for freedom in this country and abroad. I do think they can make a difference.
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Title Annotation:interview with Colonel West, director of Princeton University's Afro-American Studies program; race discrimination and white supremacy
Author:Kazi, Kuumba Ferrouillet
Publication:The Black Collegian
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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