Cornel West *80, the Class of 1943 University Professor in African American Studies, describes himself as a “scholar-bluesman,” and an interview with him is reminiscent of some elements of the blues — especially an improvisational virtuosity. In the midst of a book tour promoting his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, West sat down in his book-lined office at Stanhope Hall (he’s pictured in front of a Trenton mural with his image) for a conversation that touched on race, politics, and religion.
President Obama is being criticized by some supporters for being too cautious. You’ve said they need to push him harder — why?
I wish President Obama would listen to my dear brother Paul Krugman more attentively. Krugman has written that Obama is getting so much advice from lobbyists and his own advisers with regard to health care, the war, and the stimulus bill, and none of that advice puts poor or working people at the center. When I say we need to push Obama harder, it is because the other forces already are impinging upon him so intensely. With that kind of counterpressure, we need stronger pressure.
How is President Obama doing?
I’d give him an A for changing the image of America. I’d give him a B in terms of green policy. I’d give him a C for the economy, because he is too mesmerized by the braininess of economists who are closely tied to Wall Street. We shall see in regard to the war in Afghanistan.
What is the role of black politics when we have an African-American president?
There was such euphoria over Obama’s victory that it was hard for any critical voices to emerge. Black politics became subordinate to Obama winning at any cost. Now the euphoria is waning.
And by black politics, what do we mean? We mean a conception of the public interest that has an intimate link to the forms of black suffering — the disproportionate black presence in the prison-industrial complex, decrepit housing, disgraceful school systems, unemployment, and the lack of health care. Black politics has to be American politics tied to the disproportionate presence of black suffering. The Obama administration does not believe in accenting this disproportionate presence. So if you ask Obama a question about, say, black unemployment, he’ll say something like, “If we get the unemployment rate down for all people, it would be good for black people.” He’s absolutely right. That’s not the point. The point is, there’s a specificity to that problem as it concerns blacks. But the administration won’t go there.
Is the salience of race becoming less important for this generation?
I think the old forms of race are less salient, but there are new forms of it having to do with brown and yellow and black and red and the ways in which they interact so easily and smoothly. Now the fact that they are interacting that way doesn’t mean that race disappears, it just takes on very new and distinctive forms. You see it in social life. There are new forms of mixture, and that makes it harder for the older forms. Certainly postracialism is a way of showing that we need ways of talking about these new realities of racial and multiracial practice.
Do you find it challenging to communicate with the younger generation of black students?
I listen closely. I’ve got a lot to learn from them. That’s why I listen to their music, too. I try to stay in contact with younger students, but I also try to let them know that I am part of an intellectual tradition that goes back thousands of years, from which they have much to learn.
How do you engage those on the right?
Well, for one thing, you can’t do it in a self-righteous, arrogant way. You have to recognize that people do have reasons, even though you may disagree with their conclusions. You try to make your case and convince them that there are other ways of looking at the world, but you also have to be willing to listen to what they have to say. I can learn from Rush Limbaugh. It’s just that we need the right spirit of exchange, and we need to get our facts right. If he thinks that Sarah Palin’s book is the best book ever written on public policy, then he needs to read some books by my colleagues here at Princeton.
The religious denominations that are growing fastest seem to be the most conservative. Is there something that progressive theology is not providing?
During the age of Reagan, when greed was good, it was no accident that you would get a brand of religiosity that was sometimes evangelical, sometimes fundamentalist, but deeply conservative. In the age of Obama, the evangelicals are in a kind of crisis. They really have to talk about fairness now in some way. So we see Pastor Rick Warren and others begin to accent philanthropy and charity and talk about AIDS and the poor in Africa. Well, that’s beautiful. The next move is going to be from philanthropy and charity to justice. Amos didn’t say, “Let philanthropy roll on like a river.” He said, “Let justice roll on like a river.” That’s a different thing! That’s not just a matter of the well-to-do giving to the poor. Justice has to come from a transformation of the institutional arrangements.
Can justice come from within the institutions of power?
We’ve seen it with Lincoln. We’ve seen it with F.D.R. We saw it with L.B.J. on the domestic front. Presidents who are courageous and visionary can really make a fundamental difference toward justice. But usually they are pushed. There would have been no Lincoln without the abolitionist movement — at least not the great Lincoln. L.B.J. was made great by Martin Luther King putting pressure on him. And, of course, F.D.R. responded to the labor movement.
Which modern philosophers and theologians do you admire?
In terms of sheer intellectual power, there is nobody close to David Hume. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is the most profound critique of any religious faith, including my own Christian faith. I can’t be thoroughly convinced of Hume, or else I wouldn’t be a Christian, but I have to read it every year because it makes me stronger. Søren Kierkegaard is the most profound thinker in terms of what it means to become a Christian. These days, Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, combines Calvinism and liberation theology in a way that is quite powerful. I would rather read poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins or T.S. Eliot than most contemporary theologians. Shelley says that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And by poets he does not just mean versifiers. He means all those who deploy imagination and empathy to help us deal with this world by generating a vision of another world. So when Beethoven called himself a poet, he was a poet of sounds. John Coltrane is a poet in that sense.
Do you ever think about slowing down?
Interview conducted and condensed by Mark F. Bernstein '83.