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July 15, 2024

Race Matters: Book Review

By Bernie Pilarski

Race Matters, by Cornel West.

It is said that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but speaking as an old dog, I respectfully disagree. There may be tricks that an old dog doesn't want to learn, tricks that just aren't appropriate for old dogs, and of course I would agree that you can't teach an old dead dog new tricks, but as long as the dog is breathing, it can learn. I would also argue that new tricks are not the only tricks worth learning. That pretty much is my understanding of retirement -- as long as you're breathing, you can learn something, and you should be open to new perspectives.

With that in mind, I was led recently to pick up a copy of Cornel West's book Race Matters. It was first published in 1993, but the copy I got was the 2001 printing that includes a new preface. Cornel West, according to his website, "is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He has written 19 books and edited 13 books." He appears frequently on network news shows as a commentator, and has appeared in movies (The Matrix Reloaded, for example), and has even done some recordings. He gets around. He caught my attention when I read a news story in which he said President Obama "posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln, and we ended up with a brown-faced Clinton."

Race Matters is a collection of eight essays on matters ranging from the sad state of leadership in this country to the taboos of black sexuality, from a numbing detachment of youth that manifests itself in a self-destructive disposition toward the world to Malcolm X and Black Rage. West writes colorfully and passionately about both his observations and his personal experience.

"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.'" - From Race Matters - Preface 1993

While this book talks at length about the experience of being black in this country, it is not primarily about "black issues." From the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of the few, to the economic stagnation of the middleclass, from the obsessive pursuit of pleasure to the erosion of positive values, West maintains there is a crisis of American democracy that has dire consequences for our future: our culture is being shaped by a market morality that is based on the provision, expansion, and intensification of pleasure.

"In the American way of life pleasure involves comfort, convenience, and sexual stimulation. Pleasure, so defined, has little to do with the past and views the future as no more than a repetition of a hedonistically driven present. This market morality stigmatizes others as objects for personal pleasure or bodily stimulation. Conservative behaviorists have alleged that traditional morality has been undermined by radical feminists and the cultural radicals of the sixties. But it is clear that the corporate market institutions have greatly contributed to undermining traditional morality in order to stay in business and make a profit. The reduction of individuals to objects of pleasure is especially evident in the culture industries -- television, radio, video, music -- in which gestures of sexual foreplay and orgiastic pleasure flood the market-place.

Like all Americans, African Americans are influenced greatly by the images of comfort, convenience, machismo, femininity, violence, and sexual stimulation that bombard consumers. These seductive images contribute to the predominance of the market-inspired way of life over all others and thereby edge out non-market values -- love, care, service to others -- handed down by preceding generations." - From Race Matters - "Nihilism in Black America"

To be sure, there have been unprecedented changes in the black community since the days of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. If income is a measure of advancement, it can be said that there has been tremendous advancement in the past fifty years -- over forty-seven percent of black families now have incomes that can be described as middle-class or above (over $35,000/year, according to BlackDemographics.com) And yet, Dr. West maintains there is another, darker side of this progress.

"Post-modern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities and self-destructive wantoness. This culture engulfs all of us -- yet its impact on the disadvantaged is devastating, resulting in extreme violence in everyday life. Sexual violence against women and homicidal assaults by young black men on one another are only the most obvious signs of this empty quest for pleasure, property, and power." - From Race Matters - Introduction

In a style reminiscent as much of a Sunday sermon as an academic journal article, Dr. West calls the reader to look at our culture and see the dangers that are present. In the public debate about what is happening to us and where we are headed, race still matters, perhaps now more than ever, and while the topics covered in this book can be difficult, embarrassing or enraging, Dr. West presents a well reasoned call us to see and go beyond the obvious.

In the discussion of black sexuality, Dr. West says something that to me that was insightful:

"White supremacist ideology is based first and foremost on the degradation of black bodies in order to control them. One of the best ways to instill fear in people is to terrorize them. Yet this fear is best sustained by convincing them that their bodies are ugly, their intellect is inherently underdeveloped, their culture is less civilized, and their future warrants less concern than that of other people." - From Race Matters - "Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject"

That kind of behavior exists in every walk of life, from classrooms to neighborhoods to the workplace, and now even to the social media websites -- it's called bullying, but somehow that name is too tame. I know people that have been scarred for life by the callous treatment of the "in crowd," whether that distinction is based on race, or sexual orientation or the spelling of a last name. Supremacism, no matter what form it takes, is ugly.

Twenty-some years ago, in response to the Bishops' Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All, one of the bishops asked that for one year, every meeting in his diocese begin with a brief discussion of what effect the group's action might have on the poor. I do not know how well that went for them, although I do remember broaching the idea to a meeting at my own parish, only to be met with silence broken only when the group leader politely said something to the effect of "Well, that would be interesting." In a similar manner, Dr. West is calling on us to frank and open discussions of the challenges that confront our society.

"Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia, despair and distrust. In short, a candid examination of race matters takes us to the core of the crisis of American democracy. And the degree to which race matters in the plight and predicament of fellow citizens is a crucial measure of whether we can keep alive the best of this democratic experiment we call America." - From Race Matters - Epilogue

Race Matters is well written, provocative, and challenging. It may have been written more than twenty years ago, but it is every bit as relevant today.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-01-19
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