GATES: How is it different to be black in 1997 then it was in 1967?
WEST: I think that is an interesting question because on the one hand, in
'67 we had a slightly higher poverty rate. We had much more intact
communities. We had a smaller black middle class. We had a much more strong
industrial working class even though deindustrialization was just beginning to
unravel be the automobile workers in Detroit or rebel workers in Akron, Ohio.
You had fewer examples of persons at top echelons in our society. No Colin
Powell. Very few -- no Kenny Chenaults (ed. note: Kenny Chenault is
CEO of American Express) not at all. Senior management, corporate America,
GATES: Right--maybe vice president for community affairs or
WEST: Community affairs or human relations and even that would have been
and few between.
GATES: Euphemism: B-l-a-c-k, right?
WEST: You are absolutely right. But what is frightening about 1997 is
the erosion of the systems of caring and nurturing in America at large, but in
particular,black America so you actually have more isolated, insulated, lonely,
alienated, estranged black folk especially among the working class and working
poor, but it's true across the board and that's what is frightening.
We had a much deeper sense of community in '67 than we do in '97. This is
important to say that not in a nostalgic way because it's not as if '67 was a
time when things were so good. Materially speaking, we were much worse. But
culturally speaking in terms of social connection, they were much
GATES: Well, how did we get this peculiar outcome -- which is that we
have a large black middle class in history quadrupling since 1967 doubling
under Ronald Reagan alone, and 45 percent of all black children living at or
beneath the poverty line. How did this come about?
WEST: I think we had a decision to make in about 1964, '65 just prior to
the wave of uprisings. we had 329 rebellions in 257 cities. We had over 200
rebellions one night when brother Martin was murdered. That changed things.
Before in '64 and '65 America had a chance. They could decide to go
social program base, liberalism. Or, they could go full employment base
liberalism. They took the
easy way out. Typically American. Social program base liberalism. What
that would do would be to highly divide the New Deal from the Great Society
that would target the poor and not make it universal and would downplay the
role of jobs with a living wage. Because to go for employment based liberalism
was a significant challenge to corporate America that is why it was easier to
go the other way. These social programs would be contingent. They would be
variable. They could shift. We could pull the rug from under them. Whereas
if we said there is a right to a job with a living wage and that is the very
basis upon which we are going to fight poverty connected to the fight against
racism, then we actually have some grounds of legitimacy against any form of
management that would attempt to bring power and pressure to bear at the
workplace to push folk out and to get the government to claim that that person
has a right to a job with a living wage. We did not go that route. It was the
liberals who pushed. There were a few-- Schultz and others did push at that
time. But it didn't work.
The Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill that Ron Dellums and others were
talking about at that time. It would have been a very different America. The
trade union movement would be much stronger. Working people's power
would be much stronger. Instead we went the other way and admit when we
hit sluggish growth, when the profits began to decline, when the competition
from Japan or at that time West Germany and other places intensified, then you
could get a restructuring of the capitalist economy, the low road, the low
wages moving to other parts of the world looking for low wages and allowing
those workers in the United States -- the plunge to engage in social slippage
no longer be able to keep the jobs that they had at wages that were
commensurate at that time, their own time and talent as well as power. So we
got a very different situation.
GATES: Well, how much of this though, is structural and how much is
behavioral? How do we as black leaders talk about individual responsibility
without being appropriated by the right? But also, structural change, without
being appropriated by the left?
WEST: Well, they go hand in hand. I mean there is always a very
delicate interplay between individual actions and institutional conditions.
But there is no such thing as institutional conditions without any individual
actions and no such thing as individual action without institutional
conditions. So there is always personal responsibility.
At the same time, there should always be social accountability. We
shouldn't talk about one without the other. When we do talk about both, I
think we recognize that it is always possible for persons to work hard, to
sacrifice and to make a difference in their life. That's true for nearly any
set of social conditions as a certain constant in human life that even limited
years that one has just cracking a smile makes a difference in peoples's
lives. People have agency; people have responsibility; people have a
choice to do that. Or you could be mean. See that's true in the concentration
camp. That's true on Park Avenue.
But as we know, we are a little more complicated than that because you
have power, wealth, influence circulating in a variety of different ways.
Therefore, it is going to take much more than cracking smiles in order to make
the world a better place. You are going to have to organize, mobilize, bring
power and pressure to bear on various status quos in place. That's where the
structural institution comes in. There is no fundamental social change by
being simply of individual and interpersonal actions. You have to have
organizations and institutions that make a fundamental difference. Yet, there is no organizations and institutions that
are worthwhile in terms of fighting for and dying for unless there is some
individual integrity and character and virtue that is at work within various
individuals in those institutions especially their leaders.
GATES: What's happened to our people in the last 30 years? I mean we have
forms of cruelty that we visit upon each other scarcely imaginable in the
WEST: Well, I think when LeRoi Jones wrote his book, Blues People
in 1964, he was saying something quite profound. He was saying that these
people are neither sentimental or cynical; they're blues people. Blues is
neither with these narcissistic fantasies of innocence and these Peter Pan-like
descriptions of the world. We couldn't accept that. But we weren't cynical
either for the most part. Put it this way--the cynical tendencies were not the
dominant tendencies which meant that we were still willing to fight and
struggle and sacrifice and give service to others even when it did not look as
if it would
produce major consequences and effects.
GATES: We danced with irony, but we didn't fall over to the
WEST: Absolutely right. That's a wonderful way of putting it. But
theirs is with irony, with compassion in our hearts. Because it is quite
possible to be an ironist and a cynic too. But the compassion trumped the
I think what has happened as a result of the penetration of these markets
sensibilities in which persons attempt to get over by any means--hustling
mentality, gangster orientation, people feeling as if well, this talk about
doing something because it is right, and just and morals doesn't allow you to
get over. Very market driven, very capitalist at its worst. Also, very
American. And so black people have no monopoly on this, but it has certainly
penetrated our communities in ways that it sapped some
of our spirit.
GATES: What can we do about it?
WEST: We have to talk about it honestly. We have to be true to ourselves.
We didn't give it an account for why it is so -- to help us get out of it. We
are not locked into it forever. This is a word of role of leadership.
I think we have a profound crisis of black leadership now in our
communities. Most of the best leadership is probably at the grass-root level,
which is relatively invisible but in terms of the larger regional and national
leadership, we just don't have enough fearless truth tellers. I mean part of
the popularity with Louis Farrakhan has less to do with the content of his
message and more to do with the form that he portrays himself--as being a free,
black person who speaks what is on his mind with boldness and fearlessness.
Who is willing to pay the consequences.
GATES: And black people love that.
WEST: Well, human beings do. There is something about boldness and
fearlessness and being free enough to speak what is on one's mind that warrants
freedom. Shakespearean claims about "to thine own self be true as the night
follows day, that would be false to no man." He is absolutely right.
The problem is we need much more moral content. We need sharper analysis
of how wealth and power and influence, how you keep track of the role of
corporate power and big banks and so forth, globally as well as domestically
but also be able to link the boldness and fearlessness with a sense of humility
so that you always open to listening to other voices so you don't assume you
have a monopoly on truth. If we had a whole wave of new leaders, I think in
some ways we might in the next five or seven years, then black American would
be a different place. Black America would be on the move. When black America
is on the move, America is on the move.
Historically, when in fact we hit the issue of race head on as the
abolitionists did, as the CIO did and organizing unskilled and semi-skilled
black and white workers as we know in the '60s that spawned the feminists and
the gay movements and lesbian movements and others because they were also freed
up to speak the truth to themselves and to speak the truth to their own
suffering caused by patriarchy, heterosexism, homophobia, or what have you.
Usually it has been the black spokespersons and leaders who have served as
catalysts in this regard.
GATES: The Poor People's Campaign was about economics; it was about
class--no one would have been caught dead using the word class at that time.
WEST: Well, one, brother Martin was murdered, and you needed a leader who
had credibility, legitimacy to hold that multiracial alliance together,
especially at a moment when various groups were accenting their own racial
identities. You had white backlash which is identity politics, and you had the
black power movement, which is identity politics. Both were clashing. King
was trying to talk about a multiracial alliance that talked about class and
economic inequality. So it was both the moment and context on the one hand, as
well as the loss of a great leader on the other. If brother Martin had lived,
it still would have been very difficult. But he had a much better chance that
brother Ralph Abernathy, as talented as Ralph was.
GATES: And then also what happened of course was that affirmative action
kicked in under Richard Nixon. Who benefited from affirmative action?
WEST: Some people would claim that it was probably the black middle
class, but there was more than black middle class. You had black working
people, blue collar, from policemen to firemen to even some construction
workers and others who benefitted when those plans were implemented.
The problem is that affirmative action could never really get at the issue
of corporate power in the workplace, and so you ended up with the downsizing;
ended up with de-industrializing. You ended up with the marginalizing of
working people and working poor people even while affirmative action was taking
place, and a new black middle class was expanding.
So we end up with this paradox that you mentioned before just larger
black middle class, devastated black industrial working class and increasing
black working poor and very poor. Affirmative action is something that I think
is very crucial and necessary. It's a very weak strategy actually. When you
think of 244 years of slavery and 81 years of that finally you are going to be
allowed to be part of the pool from which people choose jobs. That's not a
substantive kind of move, but it was very important. It was a concession that
the business establishment and education establishment made with those various
forces in the '60s that were bringing critique and resistance to bear; it was a
concession. For a while as the stability remained rather fragile, the even the
right wing elites went along with it. The early Pete Wilson, the early Bob
Dole, early George Bush. They were all pro affirmative action.
GATES: Early Richard Nixon....Do you think that a socialist revolution
is necessary to take care of the problems of the poor that you described? Or
can capitalism be amended? Can a more humane face be put upon the system as we
know it, which is maximize profit and a great lifestyle for more people than
probably any other society that we have experienced.
WEST: I think anytime we talk about transforming in capitalist
society, we are talking about a process not a particular event so you can't
talk about a socialist revolution. You can't talk about revolution per say in
that way I think we are talking about various means by which we are able to
convince the demos, which is to say convince the significant number of fellow
citizens that they have a right to a life of decency and dignity that they are
not able to live now, and it's changeable because certain priorities are
promoted, certain choices are made. The result would be a fundamental
transformation if in fact, one could convince persons that the most powerful
and the most wealthy ought to have some public accountability be it wealth tax,
be it more progressive income tax, be it workers having some voice in
investment decisions within those entities and enterprises and so on. That's
what I actually mean by fundamental social change.
So in that regard it would still be a very both experimental and a mix.
I don't think we would ever eliminate markets. I think markets are mechanisms
that determine prices that are necessary for mass heterogenous populations, and
markets do generate levels of technological innovation and productivity that is
crucial. But when unregulated, they often generate levels of vast inequality
and ugly isolation that makes it difficult for people to relate and connect
with one another. So the question is really how do we think seriously about
this mechanism called a market. It ought to be determining not values but
prices. It's very different. These days it determines values even more so
with the market culture and so on. But we have to have some markets in place
were there were conditions on which they are regulated. How do we eliminate
poverty. How do we ensure that working people have a sense of power, vitality,
vibrancy, and at the same time, how do we treat our rotating elite with
humanity, which is to say render them accountable, not delinize them but also
convince them that they have a stake in the public interest that this matter --
their personal greed.
GATES: Would it be possible not to regulate markets but to
increase the social safety net -- I mean the welfare state -- so that markets
floated the way that they float now, but you wouldn't be caught in a freefall
if the market floated in the wrong way for your life.
WEST: That would be nice. I mean we've got some examples like Sweden and
others that have been able to cut back on the poverty rates by providing strong
social nets within a capitalist framework. The problem is that in America is
that the nation state has been so weak when it comes to the history of big
markets the history of big business in a way so we have a very weak welfare
state compared to European nation states. Hence, you would have to have some
significant regulation if not governmental intervention to convince
corporations to pay the taxes that
they ought. Then to convince the lobbyists that most of the taxes ought
not to go to the military side of the budget but rather the social side of the
budget. You see.
So it's a battle that cuts through and across the board whether we
recognize it or not. But you are right. It is certainly possible for there to
be a kind of regulated capitalism that could do away with the worse of the
poverty that we know in the states. That is a possibility. It's highly
improbable given the powers in vested interest in place at the moment but it is
certainly possible and it is certainly worth frightening for. In that sense we
certainly do humanize capitalism. There is no doubt about
GATES: What can we do personally to help those trapped at the lower edges
of what we might think of as the bell curve of class?
WEST: Well, I think we've got to be quite articulate in speaking very
clear and plain language about some of the sources of the social misery in
inner cities as well as rural poor. This is true for poverty across the board,
no matter what color.
To speak clearly means to use one's own position, status, whatever
authority to accent that suffering that is so much bigger than and much more
significant than whatever achievements and accomplishments that one may have
made as a person or individual. So in that sense it is a matter of trying to
shift a spotlight away from ourselves as professors who have succeeded and,
therefore, reinforce the American dream that everyone can succeed if somehow
they were to work hard and to say quite explicitly that is simply not true that
we were able to work hard as many who have worked hard. We were able to
cultivate our own intelligence and so forth. There are many who are highly
intelligent. We were lucky we were fortunate that a combination of working
hard, struggle on the one hand, and the institutions opening up.
GATES: Affirmative action.
WEST: Affirmative action, on the one hand, and some of those elites who
were willing to open up those institutions. Neil Rudenstine and others... Very
important because this is team work that cuts across race, but we still have to
speak very clearly about why it is that so many folks still find themselves
catching so much hell. And as professors, as persons concerned with not just
educating persons but teaching persons how to critically and lovingly question
a status quo in order to fundamentally change it, that our work becomes
connected to the plights and predicaments of folk in these inner cities.
But it is connected in such a way that we are not perceived as messiahs
that we do not have the power to single-handedly uplift the people. That what
we do is both in realm of ideas is shape the climate of inclined opinion, and
in our own lives try to exemplify the same freedom and the same compassion that
we are calling for others to enact.
GATES: How do you respond when someone stands up at the end of one of
your lectures and says,"what are you doing for the black community? What are
you men and women at Harvard in Afro-American Studies doing for the
community? And what are you doing at Harvard anyway?"
WEST: Well, of course we would not be at Harvard if it were not for
community people who sacrificed and suffered so much. So the very presence
of yourself and myself at Harvard is testimony to the tremendous struggles of
folk on the streets, on the blocks, in the churches, in the mosque, in the
synagogues, in the temples and so on.
At the same time, we recognize that we are individuals who do freely
choose. We have one life to live, and we want to try to make an impact in our
way as well as live lives of decency and dignity in our way. Therefore, no
community dictates to any individual how to live their lives. You can
criticize and you can push but people freely choose. We can't have a freedom
struggle without free choice. In terms of where you want to live and so on,
but we are subject to serious scrutiny and accountability.
What I like is the spirit behind the question because all of us are
accountable in some way. It ought to be accountable in a significant way
especially as those who take the life of the mind seriously. We got the count
of various arguments coming in. Sometimes they are ad homininum-- sometimes
they are not. But you have to counter it in some way. That's what democratic
process is all about. What a democratic life is all about.
In addition, though, I would say you have to fight in the life of the
mind as well as fight in the streets, as well as fight in the courts, as well
as fight in congress and the White House. Every site is a sight of
contestation. There are various forms of weaponry, intellectual weaponry,
spiritual weaponry, political weaponry, economic weaponry. Because we are on
the battlefield, and there are bullets flying, some symbolic, some literal and
the life of the mind is a crucial place where the battle goes on. Your work,
William Julius Wilson's work, bell hook's work, a whole host of persons play
a crucial role on that battlefield.
But to be on that battlefield you have to equip yourself, you have to be
prepared; you had to be disciplined; you have to be prepared; you have to read;
you have to write; you have to converse; you have to lecture; you have to
teach....That is similarly true with our pens; that is similarly true with
sculptures; that is similarly true with engineers and physicists and chemists
and so forth. That's why there is no one model or one paradigm that dictates
how all black people ought to do and say.
GATES: How much ideological freedom though do we tolerate within the
black community? I mean Clarence Thomas recently was on the cover of
Emerge magazine with a handkerchief on his head. Then he was on the
cover on Emerge again in the position of a black jockey. I mean where
does critique start...
WEST: I think we must never, ever demonize one another. That's true not
just black people to black people; that's human being to human being. We must
never so thoroughly disrespect someone that they are beyond the pale and,
therefore, have no possibility of being changed. This is part of the struggle
with Minister Louis Farrakhan of his being so demonized by the mainstream, we
had to come back and criticize but not demonize and see him as a human being
who is concerned about suffering and yet warrants a certain
critique as well.
Clarence Thomas must never be demonized. He ought to be deeply
criticized, ought not to be disrespected in terms of having his humanity called
into question even though a person like myself may have very deep disagreements
with him. It's so easy to begin to demonize someone you think is so far
removed and as the demonization begins to expand, it ends up being everybody
but your friends. After a while everybody else but you. That is a slippery
slope that is so easy to slide down, and that's what is dangerous. So there
ought to be a robust, uninhibited conversation in black America with different
black ideological perspectives.
GATES: Right, without fear of being thrown out of the race.
WEST: Without fear being thrown out of the room or the race, but your
argument might be weak; and your vision might be trite.
GATES: Do you feel guilty about your own success?
WEST: Well, success is such a relative thing for me. I'm fundamentally a
Christian which means that ultimately all of these penultimate titles and
things you just had to wear with a loose garment. Really. There is a sense in
which the quality of one's life and the richness of one's spirit is ultimately
the benchmark. If you can't have a good time and smile and relate to people
across race and class, then the success that you have ultimately is just
sounding brass and tinkling symbol.
Not only that but life is such a mysterious thing that you are up one
day; you are down the next day. A lot of the homeless brothers and sisters who
were a success ten years ago, they are now on the street. Maybe ten years
later they will be a success, but the crucial question is what is the quality
of their life. Who are they loving? Who's loving them? Can they still smile
and make through all this darkness and thunder that every human being has to
deal with on the way to death. In that sense, you can textualize it within
that framework, which for me is a Christian framework, it becomes much more
relative than people view it oftentimes.
GATES: Well, how do we turn or transform the guilt of the survivor--which
a lot of those in the new black middle class, the affirmative action crossover
generation has-- into a commitment to services you put so well in your last
WEST: Well, if you are always trying to do something for a cause bigger
than you-- connected with serving others--then it is hard to be guilty. You
have to do that without resentment. You have to do that without condescension
or attempt to do that without paternalism and haughtiness and arrogance. But
if you are continually trying to engage in that kind of action, then that
survivors guilt will become marginal in the feel of the moment. You will
GATES: Julian Bond told me yesterday that the Joint Center has just done
a study, which is not public yet, showing that one million more black men voted
in 1996 than voted in 1992. To what do you attribute that?
WEST: Well, it's something that happened in black America on the male
side, and the female side is already been of course involved in a tremendous
vibrant movement of womanism and redefining womens' role and critiquing
patriarchy, and the black male has had a tremendous time
adjusting to this.
I think as a result of discussion, the Million Man March has played a
very important role in being provocative which is to say provoking us to
reflect on the very distinctive plight and predicament of black men. Whether
one agreed with the march or not, whether one was critical with Minister Louis
Farrakhan or not, we all have to get Minister Louis Farrakhan credit for
calling the march in such a way that it generated this tremendous discourse,
tremendous conversation, this tremendous soul
One result has been an increase in black male volunteerism and churches
and social service agencies as well as voting. So I think we have to seize on
this motion. The question is how do you translate that imagery into something
that has much more institutional and structural transforming possibilities.
That's a challenge. But you cannot talk about these institutional changes
without talking about how people feel about themselves, whether they trust one
another, whether they are willing to work together whether they are willing to
affirm one another because as long as we are distrusting and disrespecting one
another, we can have the best vision analysis in the world; it's not getting
off the ground.
GATES: Is there a role for the churches of this process?
WEST: A fundamental role. If the churches don't move, much of the
community won't move. We've got a situation in which a black church is still a
major institution in the black community where 55 percent of the black folk
attend and over 75 pass through its doors. How can we talk about the black
community without talking about the black church. The black church is dormant,
much of the community is dormant. If the black church is leaning toward the
right, much of the community is leaning toward the right. If it is leaning in
the left wing direction having repercussions. Now of course these are in
relation to issues. Labor, patriarchy, homophobia, all these are different
issues. Some churches can move right on one issue, left on another issue very
much like the Catholic church. Progressive on
labor and retrograde on women. You find that as paradigmatic on a number
of churches across the board. There is a crucial role for persons like myself,
Christians still deeply concerned about the progressive potential of the black
church and who has a deep love of not just those people who sit on those pews
but also believe that the gospel when preached can actually make a difference
in people's lives.
GATES: But can it really make a difference in the lives of the
post-modern gangster culture that is for so many people very unhealthy and a
reflection of deep trial and tribulation within the African-American
WEST: Well, keep in mind when we talk about gangster mentality in
America, I think it is best to start at the White House, State House, City
Hall, school, mosque, church, synagogue and then get the gangster rap. Because
they are all on the same continuum. We are talking about levels of corruption,
levels of graft, trying to avoid the 11th commandment -- thou shalt not get
caught getting over by any means. That's a very, very human thing. A very
American thing to go from elites to across middle classes all the way down.
GATES: And has a long history.
WEST: Has a long history going back to Adam. But the problem is
when you have gangster mentalities at work among disadvantaged folk, it's even
more devastating because often times it is much less regulated, less priority
put on it and so on. So in that regard I do believe that not just the churches
but strong communities, strong trade unions, strong families can make a
difference in terms of producing persons much more virtuous than what one
usually finds in a gangster culture. But they cannot do it alone. You have to
have those jobs of minimum wage. You have to have that healthcare. You have
to have that child care. You have to have good schools. You have to have some
sense of joy and ecstasy in one's life be it personal or be it communal and yet
churches can make a contribution. There is no doubt about it. Historically
black churches have made a crucial contribution is sustaining that kind of
black sanity and black joy. But churches never have been able to do it by
themselves with the economy in the state that it is with the role of the nation
state being what it is, but they certainly can play a role.
GATES: Given the reluctance of any system that perceives
itself as functioning and profitable to change, I worry quite a lot that the
two nations within the black community are destined to stay two nations. Two
nations defined by class. Are you optimistic?
WEST: No, I am not optimistic, but I've never been optimistic
about humankind or America. The evidence never looks good in terms of forces
for good actually becoming prominent. But I am a prisoner of hope, and that's
very different. I believe that we do have signs of hope, and that the
evidence is underdetermined. We have to make a leap of faith beyond the
evidence and try to energize one another so we can accent the best in
another. But that is what being a prisoner of hope is all about.
GATES: What are the signs of hope that you see?
WEST: I just see many good, decent people willing to fight, willing to
serve. I see it on a local level; I see it on a regional level; I see new
organizations sprouting up. You got new parties here. Labor parties here. You
got progressives in the Democratic party trying to make sense of the
republicrats like President Clinton. People who are not giving in to despair
though they have a sense of just how despairing is. They refuse to give in to
despair. They have the courage to love and the courage to serve and the
courage to fight.
There are millions of people around this country like that. They are
signs of hope. Unfortunately, they are not as organized as corporate America;
they are not as powerful as the big finance is as effective in bringing their
various ins and aims to bear, but there are certainly signs of hope. As long
as they are around, it's like it's worthwhile.
GATES: Can we organize this new class of leader -- I mean as you said,
there weren't professors at Harvard; there weren't Vernon Jordan's around in
1967. Can't we, referring to your statement about the crisis of black
leadership, can we begin to think about this new group of people as possessing
enormous potential for leadership?
WEST: Oh, sure. I mean you talk about Vernon Jordan, Ken Chenault,
these are just highly talented and intelligent persons who can bring tremendous
amounts of insight to a movement. But as we know, the highly intelligent and
the highly trained have no monopoly on courage. In the end it is going to be
the question of those who are willing to fight and sacrifice, which means that
we have to look at a variety of different places. It could be among the
working poor, the very poor; it could be the middle classes; it could be the
working classes; no class has a monopoly on courage and vision. It is
fundamentally a question of choice and courage as a matter of cultivating the
discipline necessary to serve, and that is something that cuts across
GATES: And in being optimistic enough...having enough hope to want to
WEST: Absolutely right. But when you are fundamentally committed to
something that is right, you just decide to go down fighting. Period. No
matter what it looks like. That's the best of the blues people.