Interview with Cornel West, professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy of Religion at Harvard University. His eleven books include Keeping Faith, Prophetic Fragments, Future of the Race (with Henry Louis Gates,Jr.), Breaking Bread (with bell hooks) and the bestseller, Race Matters.  Interview conducted in the spring of 1997.


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, literally white.

GATES: Right--maybe vice president for community affairs or personnel.....

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 better.

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 '60s.

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 other side.

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 cynicism.

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. What happened?

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; you 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 it.

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 black 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 book?

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 continually evolve.

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 searching actually.

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 community

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 one 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 class.

GATES: And in being optimistic enough...having enough hope to want to serve.

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.


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