A Short Review of West’s Race Matters

Race Matters is Princeton professor Cornel West’s influential analysis of race in the United States.   RaceMattersThe book is more a collection of loosely connected essays on everything from black culture to the activism of Malcolm X than a single, extended argument.

Pros:

– West is an engaging, affable writer.  I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book immensely.  I now understand how West is able to maintain a cordial friendship with fellow professor and conservative stalwart Robert George, despite their significant political differences.  I would love to sit in on the class on Great Books that they co-teach at Princeton.

– West shows a refreshing willingness to confront sensitive subjects.  His first chapter discusses cultural nihilism, the “profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair” (p. 20), which he regards as “the most basic issue now facing black America” (p. 19). On this particular issue, he charts a middle course, arguing against both “liberal structuralism” which focuses “almost exclusively [on] the economy and politics” (p. 20) and “conservative behaviorists” who blame black culture for its pathologies, but ignore the structural and historical contributors to these pathologies (p. 21-22). He also tackles black political leadership (Chapter 3), affirmative action (Chapter 5), and black sexuality (Chapter 7).

– I was surprised by West’s emphasis on local leadership and individual transformation. Despite being a self-identified progressive, he insists that top-down government solutions or a single, strong leader will never truly solve America’s race problems.  A “politics of conversion” is needed, which will overcome nihilism not “by arguments or analyses [but] by love and care… a love ethic must be at the center of a politics of conversion [which] proceeds principally on the local level ” (p. 29).

Cons:

– The book deeply anchored to the historical context of the early 1990s, when it was first published.  West devotes dozens of pages of analysis to the Clarence Thomas hearings, the L.A. riots, and the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, without giving any background.  His assumption that readers will have a detailed knowledge of these events makes it difficult to weigh his analysis.

– The book lacked even a single citation.  This problem (which West’s work shares with Delgado’s Critical Race Theory) became so frustrating that it quickly extinguished my initial enthusiasm.  Throughout, West analyzes exceptionally complex problems and critiques scholars on both the right and the left for providing incomplete answers.  Yet he cites no empirical evidence to support his claims.

– For example, West criticizes black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Greg Loury who believe that “without affirmative action programs, white Americans will make choices on merit rather than on race” (p. 78). In a later chapter, West says that “given the history of this country, it is a virtual certainty that without affirmative action, racial and sexual discrimination would return with a vengeance” (p. 95).  But does he have any evidence to support this conclusion? In fact, I know of one study that suggests that modern cultural sensibilities actually give preference to minority candidates in the absence of the directives of affirmative action.  So how can West speak with such certainty?

– West’s failure to support his claims with empirical evidence is most glaring in the statements he makes about people’s deep, often negative, psychological motivations.  For example, “well-to-do black parents no longer sent their children to Howard, Morehouse, and Fisk to ‘serve the race’ (though often for indirect self-serving ends), but rather Harvard, Yale, and Princeton ‘to get a high-paying job’ (for direct selfish reasons)” (p. 55), “The need of black conservatives to gain the respect of their white peers deeply shapes certain elements of their conservatism” (p. 78), “Americans are obsessed with sex and fearful of black sexuality… the fear is rooted in visceral feelings about black bodies and fueled by sexual myths about black women and men” (p. 119), “Michael Jackson’s example is but the more honest and visible instance of a rather pervasive self-loathing among many of the black professional class” (p. 137), etc…

– The chapter on black sexuality, in particular, left me utterly bewildered.  Granted, I am not white and so I can’t say for certain whether whites are indeed “fearful of black sexuality” or whether they really do see blacks as “threatening creatures who have the potential for sexual power over whites, or as harmless, desexed underlings of a white culture” (p. 119).  Would whites agree that they believe such myths?  And if they vigorously denied these claims (as I imagine they would), would West still insist -despite their protests to the contrary- that these ideas govern their behavior subconsciously? This chapter reminded of the claims in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, to which I had a similar reaction.  Are these ideas based on evidence? Or are they mere conjecture?

Summary:

West’s enjoyable book is full of thought-provoking ideas and analysis, from a scholar trying to find a single, coherent framework for understanding a very complex issue.  However, the absence of any empirical data makes West’s heavy reliance on psychological and sociological models to explain cultural phenomena entirely speculative.


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