“We live in one of the darkest moments in American history,” Cornel West begins his new introduction to the 25th-anniversary edition of Race Matters, published on December 5, 2017. West, a philosopher, political activist, and one of America’s most provocative public intellectuals, wrote Race Matters a year after the LA race riots, which left more than 50 people dead and more than 2,000 injured in the spring of 1992.
But while West told me he was on the “edge of hope” when the book first came out, he believes that the outlook on racial relations in America is even bleaker now. Rather than citing President Trump as the problem, West calls him a “sign of our spiritual bankruptcy.” He is equally critical of President Obama, who West cites as a symbol of the neoliberal establishment, especially when it comes to his Wall Street bailout and drone strikes.
I spoke with West, currently a professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University, about why he thinks that Obama’s ascension should not be seen as a culmination of Malcolm X’s activism, the role of race in Trump’s election, and his feelings about the American flag. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: When you wrote Race Matters, it was a dark time in terms of what was happening with black Americans after the LA race riots. Now it’s 25 years later. Did you expect things would improve? Are you surprised by where the country is, in terms of racial relations?
Cornel West: History is always open-ended––unfinished and incomplete. I was hoping that we would be able to move in a much stronger direction that tilts towards empowering the weak and vulnerable in our society, but we’ve moved in the exact opposite direction. I was at the edge of hope when I wrote Race Matters 25 years ago. I have even less hope now, which means we just have to fight that much more intensely. There’s a sense in which hope is as much a consequence of action as it is a cause of action.
As things become more hopeless, we have to fight more intensely because of issues of integrity, honesty, decency, truth, justice. You have to choose ways of being in the world, even when it looks as if you have very little chance of being victorious at the present moment.
You notice that discourse is shifting from poverty to diversity. Why do you see that as a problem?
It’s neoliberalism, which is this obsession with smartness and richness and bombs dropped on other parts of the world and sometimes bombs dropped here. It tends to put the stress much more on access to middle-class status and making that access more diverse––rather than attacking poverty, ensuring jobs with a living wage, quality education, single-payer healthcare. So the shift from attacking poverty––let’s say Martin King in 1968––to this obsession with diversity that you’re getting in the Supreme Court in relation to affirmative action, was a dilution and a domesticating of the issue.
One of the ways of making sure you sanitize any talk about racism is to talk about diversity.
You write that the “Black managerial and middle class must take responsibility for too often being callous and indifferent to its Black poor and working class citizens.” Can you explain that a little more?
We lost sight of attacking issues of poverty, class––with the death of Martin—and moved into an obsession with having black faces in high places. As long as we had those black faces in high places, the poor could live symbolically through them, vicariously through them. Or those black faces themselves, middle class and upper middle class, could claim that somehow they were the index of progress. Whereas the real index of progress is ensuring that when you’re living in poverty, you have a quality education for everybody––not ensuring you have more kids at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Now it’s a beautiful thing when you’ve got black kids at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but if that’s your index of progress, then we forget about the masses of everyday black people.
Thank God we’ve got William Barber and Liz Theoharis leading the poor people’s campaign during the Trump years, but the issue of focusing on poverty is something that ought to hold across the board if we are to have any moral authority. Same is true in terms of Martin Luther King Jr.: concerned about bombs dropped in Vietnam killing Vietnamese babies. He knew he was going to be unpopular, but he had to preserve his moral integrity. So it is with the drone strikes. Under Bush, we had what? 53 drone strikes. That was a war crime because they were killing innocent people.
You got more than 550 under President Obama, and [the C.I.A.] said, “We have not killed one civilian.” It turns out they were lying. Those are war crimes, too, but we lose our moral authority as a people and as a movement if all we can engage in is strategic language rather than serious moral critique of evil and injustices.
President Obama represented a symbol of the highest achievement for a Black American. Is there a danger of complacency by reading too much into his election and forgetting everything that needs to be done to improve race relations?
It’s very clear that under Obama, you had a bonanza for black middle-class folk that had careers in the academy. Who got books. Who got careers on TV. Who got jobs. Remember all the black folk who were on TV under Obama? They were doing very well, but the black poor or the black working class was still getting devastated. See, the police were still going after them. They were privatizing schools under Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education. They were tightening up national security and surveillance to keep track of different folks. Only one Wall Street criminal went to jail. You can see how twisted the rule of law was.
The black middle classes are celebrating because they had the black face with the highest place, The White House, so they’ve got access to diversity jobs and so on. Magazines, TV, newspapers hiring black folk like I don’t know what. What I call the “rent a Negro” phenomenon. They wouldn’t last that long, which [they haven’t]. Look on TV now––you hardly see any black people. You ended up with this upper middle class renaissance, but our poor and working class were forgotten. When Tavis [Smiley] and I raised the issue of poverty and poor people, it looked like we were hating Obama, as opposed to loving black poor people.
It was cast in personal terms rather than cast in the moral terms of, as a people, we, at our best, [have] always been concerned about all of us––not just the top, highly successful ones. I have nothing against black success, but I can’t stand black success when it generates an indifference toward black poor people.
You write that you worry about academics maintaining a critical perspective while still maintaining an allegiance to the institution. Can you talk about that boundary?
Well, the best of the academy is a love of truth, goodness, and beauty. The worst of the academy is the commodification of the academy, the marketization of the academy. It becomes nothing but careerism and opportunism. That’s true for anybody in the academy, not just black people. We’ve seen the academy become so thoroughly corporatized that it’s very much market-driven. It makes it difficult to make sure we’re committed to deep education as opposed to just market-driven schooling. And there’s the connection between the academy and television, radio, social media, where everybody’s for sale.
Therefore, the sellout becomes the norm. People can’t wait to sell themselves because they can’t wait to be visible and highly public. We end up losing a lot of serious moral substance, integrity, honesty, and courage. Why? Because people want popularity. Integrity is pushed back.
I’ve been very blessed 40 years in the academy. But I certainly intend on being true to my calling, not just my career. I’ve been trying to tell the truth about the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, Harvard, Yale, Princeton. The truth about anything. The Black church, the black bourgeoisie. I’m not perfect, so I fall on my face like everybody else. But that’s what it is to be part of the legacy of the Martin Luther King, Junior and Fannie Lou Hamers. Of John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone. Black musicians set the standard. Radical freedom and love; radical love and freedom.
What do you see as the role of race in the election of Trump?
There’s no doubt that the vicious legacy of white supremacy was a major factor in the Trump victory. The major factor, but not the only factor. The other factor was the neoliberal policies that allowed for a massive redistribution of wealth from poor and working people to the top one percent. People were hungry for a populist message.
Then Trump comes along with a pseudo-populist message, tied to white supremacy, but also tied to male supremacy. The issue of misogyny in this election is fundamental. It amazes me how people could talk as if it’s all about racism and not say a mumbling word about patriarchy. Patriarchy played a very important role. Homophobia and transphobia, too. That’s not to downplay racism––but it’s not the only factor.
Issues of class are very important. The issue of homophobia is very important. And, in foreign policy, this imperial machismo identity that Trump had played an important role.
Do you see parallels between the Black movement and the women’s movement? How do they inform each other?
The similarity between white supremacy and male supremacy is that you have elites who think they can do anything and treat anybody anyway they want with no accountability, no answerability, no responsibility. With sexual harassment, what you have is this misogyny, patriarchy, in which men are treating women as if they can do anything they want with no accountability at all and get away with it year in, year out, decade in, decade out. And they got caught. Thank God for voices that call for accountability. You see all these intellectuals, actors, politicians across the board because we know patriarchy shot through every institution in our society.
Well, male supremacy and white supremacy are the same. You treat black people, brown people, red people, anyway you want and can get away with it. No responsibility. And Trump is the symbol of that. If anybody is a gangster, to be a gangster is to exercise arbitrary power over others in an abusive way and get away with it; to feel as if there’s no accountability, no answerability, no responsibility. Trump is the ultimate American gangster right now. There’s no doubt about it.
Movements like Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement sprung up and have been facilitated by social media. What does it take for these to be successful and long-lasting?
The movement for black lives now [includes] more than 40 organizations. You’ve got many standing committees throughout the country meeting regularly. We had a wonderful gathering in Boston just a few weeks ago––not a lot of visibility but still very much consolidating, solidifying. Same with Standing Rock, with our indigenous brothers and sisters, continually organizing––not just around the pipeline, but around a variety of different issues trying to preserve sacred land and the respect of indigenous peoples.
Same with the feminist movement from below. In January, [it was] very much corporate feminists. Then in March, feminism [came] from below––poor women, working class women, lesbians, trans, and others, that those movements are trying to institutionalize. They are very much alive, and they’re the ones to keep an eye on because they’re getting at the most fundamental issues and willing to pay the major costs.
Your great-great uncle was lynched when you were just nine years old and hung in an American flag. Colin Kaepernick recently made waves by refusing to salute the flag––a gesture meant to bring light to the oppression of Black Americans. What are your own feelings about the flag?
I want to salute brother Colin and brother Eric and the others––those courageous, visionary athletes––to make this issue a crucial one. I am first and foremost a Christian. For me, every flag is under the cross. So often, the flag becomes an idol to worship or fetishize, to defer before––whereas for a Christian like me, the cross signifies unarmed truth, unconditional love. The flag is always a national symbol, and that national symbol is under unconditional truth, unconditional love––so the cross is always a critique of the flag. I never really thought that the flag required my uncritical allegiance.
I acknowledge that the flag has been a symbol that people have been willing to live and die for, in the name of the nation. And that’s a beautiful thing, relative to what the causes in the war are. Some wars are unjust, you know. But without that unarmed truth and unconditional love, you end up with a narrow nationalism, a chauvinism, a form of idolatry that worships a nation rather than worships, for me, a God, as a Christian.
We’re at such a deeply divided time in our country. The two political camps cannot seem to agree on facts or understand each other. How can we bridge the divide?
Commit to acknowledging that each and every human being is made in the image of God, regardless of what evil choices they make; that there’s still something that’s worthy of a person being treated with love no matter how cruel they are. That doesn’t mean that you don’t count on their evilness and keep track of their evilness, but it doesn’t preclude or foreclose your ability to stay in contact with their humanity. Also, everybody has a capacity to change. They don’t have to be frozen at the moment. A young gangster like Malcolm Little can become a great prophetic voice in 20th century America called Malcolm X––but it’s all love that does that. Love can play a fundamental role in changing people from gangsters to freedom fighters.
You’ve been critical of Ta-Nehisi Coates, saying that he is an example of trying to “fit into” the neoliberal establishment. Can you explain your criticism of his work?
His third book begins with the good negro government, with the reconstruction governments, and goes directly to Obama as an example of good negro government. I’m critical of that formulation precisely because you got war crimes in the form of drone strikes. One percent of the population got 95 percent of the income growth the first four years of the Obama administration. You had a refusal to focus on the new Jim Crow for seven years, and Wall Street got off scot free, with no criminal going to jail, with free money, interest free, for three years, but students have to pay interest rates and bail out Wall Street (and not bail out Main Street). Now, if that’s good negro government, I’m still critical of it.
On page 103 in [Coates’] text, he says that Barack Obama is a culmination of Malcolm X’s legacy, and there’s another figure that one can talk about––how he is our shining Black prince. It’s a flagrant misreading of black history. Barack Obama is in no way the culminating moment of Malcolm X’s legacy, and I’ll fight over that ‘til the day I die.
That’s a larger discussion. I’d like to sit down and talk to the brother. Don’t allow anybody to think that a moderate neoliberal head of an American empire is the culminating moment of one of the greatest critiques of White supremacy and capitalism and the American empire, Malcolm X. Barack Obama’s relation to Malcolm X is about as tight as the relation of John Coltrane to some bluegrass singer. Just because they’re the same color doesn’t mean that they’re in the same trajectory.
Do you think that Obama’s unique position made his race more salient? He couldn’t just be a president, but he was seen to be a Black president or representative? So there was no other way to even look at him, where people felt like they had to choose a side?
That’s absolutely right. He’s head of a white supremacist empire, but the important thing is if all you see is his color, and you don’t see his policies to what’s going on with those drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and Pakistan, if you don’t see the Wall Street friendly people coming, the Tim Geithners and Larry Summers, who are running his economic team. If you don’t see [Joel] Brenner, who’s coming out of Bush’s counter-terroristic group and heading Obama’s counter-terroristic group, if you don’t see those continuities and all you’re seeing is skin color, then you’re missing much of the picture. It’s not just white supremacy. It’s white supremacy situated in a relation to empire predatory capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and it’s not just ideological. It’s a matter of the truth, and you’re going to mislead people if you think that it’s all about race.
At one point, brother Coates says Obama was such a deeply moral human being and one of the great Presidents, and you’re thinking, “But what is your definition of morality, because he assassinated three American citizens with no due process?”
If George Bush did that, he wouldn’t say that. But [Obama is] a black man. He’s let off the hook. I don’t let anybody off the hook.
You want to hold everyone to the same standard.
The same moral standard. Absolutely. That’s what makes Black people who we are. We are one of the greatest peoples in the modern world because we have been one of the most hated people, but we’ve taught the world so much about love and morality. That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. stands for. That’s what Fannie Lou Hamer stands for. Once we lose that, then we lose our moral credibility and our spiritual integrity, and we become nothing but just folk obsessed with power like everybody else. That’s not who we are at our best.