Race Matters by Cornel West
(Beacon Press, 1993, 105 pages)
I picked up Race Matters after reading Michael Eric Dyson’s recent essay on Cornel West in the New Republic. Dyson is extremely critical of West and the books he has produced in recent years. However, he points to Race Matters as the most important of West’s books. It is hard to image another book on current affairs that remains as relevant over twenty years since its publication. The introduction begins with an allusion to the Los Angeles riots of 1992. West claims that while race was the “visible catalyst” for these riots, they were more broadly “the consequence of a lethal linkage of economic decline, cultural decay, and political lethargy in American life” (1). Many of the same issues are at play in Ferguson or any of the other cities around the country that are experiencing (ostensibly) racial conflict.
For West, discussions of America’s history of racism and of the current “predicaments of black people,” are issues of the public good, not the problems of a particular group of people. Love is the foundation of his social vision; it is the precondition for the flourishing of public life, whether we are talking about race relations or public infrastructure. As West states it, “The vitality of any public square ultimately depends on how much we care about the quality of our lives together” (6). This basic concern runs through the diverse concerns that are dealt with in the book. West discusses black conservatism, affirmative action, the legacy of Malcolm X, and a number of other subjects pertaining to race and public life.
Some of the chapters definitely show their age. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings are a frequent point of reference, and West’s discussion of the “crisis of black leadership” very much pertains to the political and academic landscape of the early 1990s. However, the number of such cultural landmarks that could simply be exchanged for more contemporary examples is alarming. Even where the references are dated, the basic issues remain pressing. West’s overarching concern is the condition of “nihilism” in black America. This is a condition that is tied up with historical and structural racism, yet eschews simplistic analysis from both right and left. Once again, West’s themes of love and mutual concern come through: “Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care” (19). As race continues to play an increasingly important and contentious role in our public life, it is hard to imagine a better stance from which to work.