Authors: Cornel West
To my wonderful son
CLIFTON LOUIS WEST
who combats daily the hidden injuries of race
with the most potent of weaponsâ
love of self and others
people in the United States differ from all other modern people owing to the unprecedented levels of unregulated and unrestrained violence directed at them. No other people have been taught systematically to hate themselvesâpsychic violenceâreinforced by the powers of state and civic coercionâphysical violenceâfor the primary purpose of controlling their minds and exploiting their labor for nearly four hundred years. The unique combination of American terrorismâJim Crow and lynchingâas well as American barbarismâslave trade and slave laborâbears witness to the distinctive American assault on black humanity. This vicious ideology and practice of white supremacy has left its indelible mark on all spheres of American lifeâfrom the prevailing crimes of Amerindian reservations to the discriminatory realities against Spanish-speaking Latinos to racial stereotypes against Asians. Yet the fundamental litmus test for American democracyâits economy, government, criminal justice system, education, mass media, and cultureâremains: how broad and intense are the arbitrary powers used and deployed against black people. In this sense, the problem of the twenty-first century remains the problem of the color line.
The basic aim of a democratic regime is to curb the use of arbitrary powersâespecially of government and economic institutionsâagainst its citizens. Based on this uncontroversial criterion, the history of American democracy in regard to black people from 1776 to 1965 was a colossal failure. This also holds for red, brown, and yellow peoples. For one generationâthirty-five yearsâwe have embarked on a multiracial democracy with significant breakthroughs and glaring silences.
Racial progress is undeniable in America. Never before have we had such a colorful menagerie of professionals in business, education, politics, sports, and the labor movement. Glass ceilings have been piercedânot smashedâby extraordinary persons of color. Overt forms of discrimination have been attacked and forced to become more covert.
Yet the legacy of white supremacy lingersâoften in the face of the very denials of its realities. The most visible examples are racial profiling, drug convictions (black people consume 12 percent of illegal drugs in America yet suffer nearly 70 percent of its convictions!), and death-row executions. And the less visible ones are unemployment levels, infant mortality rates, special education placements, and psychic depression treatments.
The most immediate consequence of the recent experience of multiracial democracy is increasing class division and distance in American society and black communities. This is so primarily because the advent of the multiracial American regime coincided with escalating levels of wealth inequality. The new inclusion of people of color within the professional slices of American society occurred alongside the expansion of unaccountable corporate power in the economy and government and the unleashing of arbitrary police power in poor communities of color, especially black, brown, and red. The result is black-middle class achievements that constitute black progress alongside devastated black working and poor communities that yield unprecedented increases in prison populations and overlooked victims of police abuse. Decrepit schools, inadequate health care, unavailable childcare, and too few jobs with a living wage set the stage for this social misery.
Democracy matters in race matters because class and gender matter in American society and black life. Wealth inequality (the top 1 percent have wealth equivalent to the bottom 95 percent, or 48 percent of the financial net wealth in the country!) tips the balance against fair opportunity in education, employment, and other crucial life-chances. Corporate powerâwith its plutocratic, patriarchal, and pigmentocratic realitiesâlessens the abilities of citizens and workers to have a meaningful voice in shaping their destiny. Police powerâdisproportionately used against poor communities of colorârequires just and fair regulation if it is not to be viewed as illegitimate and arbitrary.
The major culprit of democratic possibilities here and abroad is the ever-expanding market culture that puts everything and everyone up for sale. The expansion of corporate power is driven by this pervasive commercialization and commodification for two basic reasons. First, market activities of buying and selling, advertising and promoting weaken nonmarket activities of caring and sharing, nurturing and connecting. Short-term stimulation and instant titillation edge out quality relations and substantive community. Second, private aims trump public aspirations. Individual successâsometimes at any cost by any meansâdownplays fair and just transactions so workers' and citizens' power is weakened. And no democracy can survive, no matter how strong its markets are, without a serious public life and commitment to fairness and justice.
The kind of structural transformation we need is best represented by the forces of Ralph Nader, Al Sharpton, and Dolores Huerta. We have seen stirrings of this multiracial alliance of concerned citizens and neglected workers in Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Harlem, and San Antonio. But I believe black progressives will play a disproportionate role.
The impact of the market culture on black life has been devastating. As Stanley Crouch rightly has noted, fifty years ago black communities were the most civilized and humane in Americaâhighly nurturing, caring, loving, and self-respecting behind the walls of American apartheid. The market invasion, including the ugly drug invasion, has transformed too many black neighborhoods into hoods, black civic communities into black uncivil combat zones. This transformation results from the double impact of strong market forces and vicious white supremacist (and male supremacist, heterosexist) stereotypes that disproportionately shape black perceptions and practice. Needless to say, this holds for American society as a whole. But for a hated and hunted people whose prize possessions have been subversive memory, personal integrity, and self-respect, to become captive to historical amnesia, materialistic obsessions, and personal accommodation for acceptance at any costs yields black nihilism and collective suicide.
The major tragedy of black America in the past decade or so is the low quality of black leadership and the relative inattention to the deep crisis of black youth. To put it bluntly, we simply do not have enough black leaders who love and respect black people enough to tell them the truthâand trust them with the truth. We have too many black leaders who give in too quickly and sell out too easily. And, like Wednesday night at the Apollo Theater, most black folk know who is
for real, committed,
and who is not. But too often, the choice for high-quality leadership is limited. And we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.
This is especially so in regard to black youth. With roughly 40 percent of black children living in poverty and almost 10 percent of all black young adult men in prison, we face a crisis of enormous proportions. Yet this crisis is not even a blip on the national radar screen of American politics. This is a shame and a disgraceâand black leaders must bear some of the responsibility. How can black youth respect black leaders when their plight and predicament is so flagrantly ignored by the mainstreamâa mainstream that black leaders speak to and influence? With few exceptionsâAl Sharpton, Marian Wright Edelman, the Black Radical Congress, the NAACP's ACT-SO programs for young people, and a few othersâblack leadership tends to downplay the black youth realities at the expense of black professional advancement. Again, this priority is an issue of class and gender in black America. And it is now coming back to haunt black leaders.
As we enter the twenty-first century, we must connect the urgent black domestic issues to pressing class and gender issues in the corporate globalization around the world. As Danny Glover constantly reminds us, environmental, consumers', and workers' protections in our increasingly interdependent world of capitalist markets are crucial if race matters are to be enhanced. If pro-democracy movements weakenâand citizens and workers become more feebleârace matters will explode. And we know the ugly cycle this will yield. We must do betterâbut only if we muster the vision, courage, and will to do so.
For the sake of one's children, in order to minimize the bill
must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusionâand the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion. I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demandâand one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.
â¦ And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If weâand now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the othersâdo not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:
GOD GAVE NOAH THE RAINBOW SIGN, NO MORE WATER, THE FIRE NEXT TIME!
The Fire Next Time
past September my wife, Elleni, and I made our biweekly trek to New York City from Princeton. I was in good spirits. My morning lecture on the first half of Plato's
in my European Cultural Studies course had gone well. And my afternoon lecture on W. E. B. Du Bois's
The Souls of Black Folk
in my Afro-American Cultural Studies course had left me exhausted yet exhilarated. Plato's powerful symbolism of Socrates' descent to the great port of Piraeusâthe multicultural center of Greek trade and commerce and the stronghold of Athenian democracyâstill rang in my ears. And Du Bois's prescient pronouncementâ“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”âhaunted me. In a mysterious way, this classic twosome posed the most fundamental challenges to my basic aim in life: to speak the truth to power with love so that the quality of everyday life for ordinary people is enhanced and white supremacy is stripped of its authority and legitimacy. Plato's profoundâyet unpersuasiveâcritique of Athenian democracy as inevitably corrupted by the ignorance and passions of the masses posed one challenge, and Du Bois's deep analysis of the intransigence of white supremacy in the American democratic experiment posed another.
As we approached Manhattan, my temperature rose, as it always does when I'm in a hurry near the Lincoln Tunnel. How rare it is that I miss the grinding gridlockâno matter the day or hour. But this time I drove right through and attributed my good luck to Elleni. As we entered the city, we pondered whether we would have enough time to stop at Sweetwater's (our favorite place to relax) after our appointments. I dropped my wife off for an appointment on 60th Street between Lexington and Park avenues. I left my carâa rather elegant oneâin a safe parking lot and stood on the corner of 60th Street and Park Avenue to catch a taxi. I felt quite relaxed since I had an hour until my next engagement. At 5:00
I had to meet a photographer who would take the picture for the cover of this book on the roof of an apartment building in East Harlem on 115th Street and 1st Avenue. I waited and waited and waited. After the ninth taxi refused me, my blood began to boil. The tenth taxi refused me and stopped for a kind, well-dressed smiling female fellow citizen of European descent. As she stepped in the cab, she said, “This is really ridiculous, is it not?”
Ugly racial memories of the past flashed through my mind. Years ago, while driving from New York to teach at Williams College, I was stopped on fake charges of trafficking cocaine. When I told the police officer I was a professor of religion, he replied “Yeh, and I'm the Flying Nun. Let's go, nigger!” I was stopped three times in my first ten days in Princeton for driving too slowly on a residential street with a speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour. (And my son, Clifton, already has similar memories at the tender age of fifteen.) Needless to say, these incidents are dwarfed by those like Rodney King's beating or the abuse of black targets of the FBI's COINTEL-PRO efforts in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the memories cut like a merciless knife at my soul as I waited on that godforsaken corner. Finally I decided to take the subway. I walked three long avenues, arrived late, and had to catch my moral breath as I approached the white male photographer and white female cover designer. I chose not to dwell on this everyday experience of black New Yorkers. And we had a good time talking, posing, and taking pictures.
When I picked up Elleni, I told her of my hour spent on the corner, my tardy arrival, and the expertise and enthusiasm of the photographer and designer. We talked about our fantasy of moving to Addis Ababa, Ethiopiaâher home and the site of the most pleasant event of my life. I toyed with the idea of attending the last day of the revival led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago at Rev. Wyatt T. Walker's Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. But we settled for Sweetwater's. And the ugly memories faded in the face of soulful music, soulful food, and soulful folk.
As we rode back to Princeton, above the soothing black music of Van Harper's Quiet Storm on WBLS, 107.5 on the radio dial, we talked about what
matters have meant to the American past and of how much race
in the American present. And I vowed to be more vigilant and virtuous in my efforts to meet the formidable challenges posed by Plato and Du Bois. For me, it is an urgent question of power and morality; for others, it is an everyday matter of life and death.