Review of “Race Matters” by Cornel West
As a foreign student in the United States my entry into the racism debate is recent. I had a psychological conversion 4 years ago when, through the experience of a black class mate, I became aware of my participation in white privilege even though I am not an American citizen. I have come to realize that the litmus test for any worldview or ethics, and especially any expression of Christian spirituality, is its stance on racism in the US and its willingness to make it the prime focus of action and reflection. Racism is not just one of the many issues the US is facing. It points to THE moral flaw of the US at its core and thus its challenge.
So it is upon me to read the classics. And as part of this program I have just finished “Race Matters” by Cornel West. Reading this 22 year old book, one might be tempted to think it is dated. However, nothing is less true. While West points to a few events taht are now outdated, the problem of racism as he describes it is alove and well and his analysis remains urgently relevant. This book is an absolute must read. For Christians wanting to make an impact for the sake of Christ in the West, this book provides an essential analysis of the racism problem and how racism intersects with other processes and phenomena.
The basic stance of West is that racism is never a problem on its own, but that it is exacerbated by and intersects with the destabilizing and exploitative fruits of big corporate America. West succumbs to neither a conservative nor to a liberal standpoint. Liberals want to change the world by initiating programs of affirmative action for improvement of the situation of black people. While identifying affirmative action as necessary in order to avoid black poor from descending into further poverty and nihilism, and while approving of the structuralist concern of the liberal, West refuses to reduce reality to the political and the economic. Black nihilism needs to be attacked at its core. Issues of value and meaning must be addressed, which are deeper than programs and legal compromise.
But West is no conservative either. The conservative reductive emphasis on character formation alone and its concomittant illusion that all have equal opportunity is met with an equally balanced attitude by West. He doesn’t shy away from calling black people to act responsibly, but make short thrift of the attempt to use this call to remain impervious to the structural and systemic elements that force black people into despair and poverty.
West calls for a third way, a politics of conversion, in which responsiblity and systemic awareness are combined with an analysis of the economic situation. West envisions a grass-roots movement that gives black people their self-worth back through self-affirmation. Black people will have to join hands with others who want to change the economic status quo in which big corporations operate virtually unchecked out of greed and in engedering greed through the mass media.
West treats more topics in his book. He touches on black sexuality, the Jewish-black relationship in the US, the black rage of Malcom X, the crisis in current black leadership, black conservativism, and racial reasoning. To get a grip on what is important in the racism debate and to understand these topics from a well-informed, prophetic, and intellectually superior perspective, “Race Matters” by Cornel West is (still) the book to read.