Dr. Cornell West, Civil Rights Leader   1 comment

Cornel Ronald West (born June 2, 1953) is an American philosopher, author, critic, actor, civil rights activist and prominent member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

West is a 1973 graduate of Harvard University and starting 2012 will be a Professor at Union Theological Seminary,[1] where he will teach Religious Philosophy and Christian Practice. He currently teaches at Princeton University. West is known for his combination of political and moral insight and criticism and his contribution to the post-1960s civil rights movement. The bulk of his work focuses on the role of race, gender, and class in American society and the means by which people act and react to their “radical conditionedness.” West draws intellectual contributions from such diverse traditions as the African American Baptist Church, pragmatism and transcendentalism.[2][3][4][5]

Early life

West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma,[6] and grew up in Sacramento, California, where his father was a general contractor for the Defense Department and his mother was a teacher and a principal. Irene B. West Elementary School, Elk Grove, California, is named for her.[7] As a young man, West marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests demanding black studies courses at his high school, where he was class president. He later wrote that, in his youth, he admired “the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party […] and the livid black theology of James Cone.”[8] In 1970, after graduating from John F. Kennedy High School, he enrolled at Harvard University and took classes from philosophers Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell. In 1973, he graduated magna cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization. “Owing to my family, church, and the black social movements of the 1960s”, he says, “I arrived at Harvard unashamed of my African, Christian, and militant de-colonized outlooks. More pointedly, I acknowledged and accented the empowerment of my black styles, mannerisms, and viewpoints, my Christian values of service, love, humility, and struggle, and my anti-colonial sense of self-determination for oppressed people and nations around the world.”[9]


Academic appointments

In 1980, West earned a Ph.D. from Princeton, where he was influenced by Richard Rorty‘s pragmatism.[10] The title of his dissertation was Ethics, historicism and the Marxist tradition,[11] which was later revised and published under the title The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.[10]

In his mid-20s, he returned to Harvard as a W. E. B. Du Bois Fellow before becoming an Assistant Professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. In 1984, he went to Yale Divinity School in what eventually became a joint appointment in American Studies. While at Yale, he participated in campus protests for a clerical labor union and divestment from apartheid South Africa. One of the protests resulted in him being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the University administration canceled his leave for Spring 1987, leading him to commute from Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was teaching two classes, across the Atlantic Ocean to the University of Paris.[12]

He then returned to Union for one year before going to Princeton to become a Professor of Religion and Director of the Program in African-American Studies (1988–94).[12]

He then accepted an appointment as Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School.[13] West taught one of the University’s most popular courses, an introductory class on African-American Studies.[14] In 1998, he was appointed the first Alphonse Fletcher University Professor.[15] West used this freedom to teach not only in African-American studies, but in Divinity, Religion, and Philosophy.[13] West returned to Princeton in 2001.[16] In 2011, he announced his return to the seminary where he had started his teaching career.[17]

The recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees and an American Book Award,[2] West is a long-time member of the Democratic Socialists of America, for which he now serves as Honorary Chair.[12] He is also a co-founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.[18] West is on the Advisory Board of the International Bridges to Justice.[19]

West is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He is a member of the fraternity’s World Policy Council, a think tank whose purpose is to expand Alpha Phi Alpha’s involvement in politics and social and current policy to encompass international concerns.[20]

Critics, most notably The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, have charged him with opportunism, crass showmanship, and lack of scholarly seriousness.[21]

West remains a widely cited scholar in the popular press.[22]

 Entertainment career

West appears in both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions,[23] playing Councilor West, who serves on the council of Zion. West’s character advises that “comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation.”[23] In addition, West provides philosophical commentary on all three Matrix films in The Ultimate Matrix Collection, along with integral theorist Ken Wilber.[24]

Cornel West has also made several appearances in documentary films, such as the 2008 film Examined Life, a documentary featuring several academics discussing philosophy in real-world contexts. West, “driving through Manhattan, . . . compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be.”[25] He also appears in conversation with Bill Withers in the Bill Withers documentary, Still Bill. West also makes frequent appearances on the political talk show Real Time with Bill Maher.[26][27][28][29][30]

A character based on West and events in his career appeared in the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode Anti-Thesis, significant for introducing the recurring villain character Nicole Wallace.[31]

On the musical front, West recorded a recitation of John Mellencamp‘s song “Jim Crow” for inclusion on the singer’s box set On the Rural Route 7609 in 2009.[32] In 2010, he completed recording with the Cornel West Theory, a Hip Hop band endorsed by West.[32] He has also released two hip-hop/soul/spoken word albums, one under “Cornel West” (entitled Street Knowledge), the other under “Cornel West & BMWMB (Black Men Who Mean Business)” (entitled Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations).[33]

 Dispute with Lawrence Summers

In 2000, economist and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers became president of Harvard. In a private meeting with West, Summers allegedly rebuked West for missing too many classes, contributing to grade inflation, neglecting serious scholarship, and spending too much time on his economically profitable projects.[34] Summers allegedly suggested that West produce an academic book befitting his professorial position. West had written several books, some of them widely cited, but his recent output consisted primarily of co-written and edited volumes. According to some reports, Summers also objected to West’s production of a CD, the critically panned Sketches of My Culture, and to his political campaigning.[35] According to West’s book Democracy Matters, Summers wrongly accused him of canceling classes for three straight weeks during 2000 to promote Bill Bradley‘s presidential campaign. West contends that he had missed one class during his tenure at Harvard “in order to give a keynote address at a Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS.” Summers also allegedly suggested that since West held the rank of Harvard University Professor and thus reported directly to the President, he should meet with Summers regularly to discuss the progress of his academic production.[36]

West contends that popular coverage of the controversy obscured the true issues at stake in his dispute with Summers. West argues that Summers’s vision of academia is corrosive to a deep democratic commitment that strives to connect the academy with society at large, so as to fulfill its calling to educate the public. He contends that the controversy with Summers was indicative of the fact that “a market-driven technocratic culture has infiltrated university life, with the narrow pursuit of academic trophies and the business of generating income from grants and business partnerships taking precedence over the fundamental responsibility of nurturing young minds.” [37] According to West, during the controversy he was highly regarded in the academic community, “had more academic references than fourteen of the other seventeen Harvard University Professors”, and “had nearly twice as many such references as Summers himself.”[37] At the time, West had been focused on reaching wider audiences as part of his effort to encourage civic engagement—especially amongst youth—in the hope of revitalizing what he calls a deep democratic commitment that would counteract the encroaching political nihilism that he argues threatens the future of American democracy. While West doesn’t deny the importance of academics engaging the more specialized concerns of their fields, he strongly opposes the sentiment that academia must limit itself to those rarefied interests. Academia and academics, he contends, have an important role to play in promoting public discourse that cannot be achieved if professors lock themselves in their ivory towers instead of engaging society-at-large and the salient issues of the day. Ultimately, this was the root of the quarrel, according to West.[37]

Summers refused to comment on the details of his conversation with West, except to express hope that West would remain at Harvard. Soon after, West was hospitalized for prostate cancer. West complained that Summers failed to send him get-well wishes until weeks after his surgery, whereas newly installed Princeton president Shirley Tilghman had contacted him frequently before and after his treatment.[36] In 2002 West left Harvard University to return to Princeton. West lashed out at Summers in public interviews, calling him “the Ariel Sharon of higher education” on NPR’s Tavis Smiley Show.[38] In response to these remarks, five Princeton faculty members, led by professor of molecular biology Jacques Robert Fresco, said they looked with “strong disfavor upon his characterization” of Summers and that “such an analogy carries innuendoes and implications… that many on the Princeton faculty find highly inappropriate, indeed repugnant and intolerable.”[39]

Harvard University‘s undergraduate student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, suggested in October 2002 that the premise of Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode “Anti-Thesis” was based on West’s conflicts with Summers.[40]


Views on race in the United States

West has called the U.S. a “racist patriarchal” nation where “white supremacy” continues to define everyday life. “White America,” he writes, “has been historically weak-willed in ensuring racial justice and has continued to resist fully accepting the humanity of blacks.” This has resulted, he claims, in the creation of many “degraded and oppressed people hungry for identity, meaning, and self-worth.” Professor West attributes most of the black community’s problems to “existential angst derive[d] from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating U.S. society and culture.”[41]

In West’s view, the September 11, 2001 attacks gave white Americans a glimpse of what it means to be a black person in the United States—feeling “unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hatred” for who they are.[42] “The ugly terrorist attacks on innocent civilians on 9/11,” he said, “plunged the whole country into the blues.”[42]


West has described himself as a “non-Marxist socialist” (partly because he cannot reconcile Marxism with Christianity)[43] and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as “the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join”.[12] He also described himself as a “radical democrat, suspicious of all forms of authority” on the Matrix-themed documentary The Burly Man Chronicles.[44]

West believes that “the overthrow of Saddam Hussein‘s ugly totalitarian regime was desirable,”[45] but that the war in Iraq was the result of “dishonest manipulation” on the part of the Bush administration.[46] He asserts that Bush Administration hawks “are not simply conservative elites and right-wing ideologues”, but rather are “evangelical nihilists — drunk with power and driven by grand delusions of American domination of the world”. He adds, “We are [now] experiencing the sad gangsterization of America, an unbridled grasp at power, wealth, and status.” Viewing capitalism as the root cause of these alleged American lusts, West warns, “Free-market fundamentalism trivializes the concern for public interest. It puts fear and insecurity in the hearts of anxiety-ridden workers. It also makes money-driven, poll-obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit — often at the cost of the common good.”[47]

West has been involved with such projects as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons‘s Hip-Hop Summit, and worked with such public figures as Louis Farrakhan[6] and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.[48]

In 2000, West worked as a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. When Bradley lost in the primaries, West became a prominent endorser of Ralph Nader, even speaking at some Nader rallies. Some Greens sought to draft West to run as a presidential candidate in 2004. West declined, citing his active participation in the Al Sharpton campaign. West, along with other prominent Nader 2000 supporters, signed the “Vote to Stop Bush” statement urging progressive voters in swing states to vote for John Kerry, despite strong disagreements with many of Kerry’s policies.[49]

In April 2002 West and Rabbi Michael Lerner performed civil disobedience by sitting in the street in front of the U.S. State Department “in solidarity with suffering Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters.” West said, “We must keep in touch with the humanity of both sides.”[50][51] In May 2007 West joined a demonstration against “injustices faced by the Palestinian people resulting from the Israeli occupation” and “to bring attention to this 40 year travesty of justice”. In 2011, West called on the University of Arizona to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories.[52]

West also serves as co-chair of the Tikkun Community. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization’s Task Force on Parent Empowerment and participated in President Clinton‘s National Conversation on Race. He has publicly endorsed In These Times magazine by calling it: “The most creative and challenging news magazine of the American left”. He is also a contributing editor for Sojourners Magazine.

West supports People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in its Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign, aimed at eliminating what PETA describes as KFC‘s inhumane treatment of chickens. West is quoted on PETA flyers: “Although most people don’t know chickens as well as they know cats and dogs, chickens are interesting individuals with personalities and interests every bit as developed as the dogs and cats with whom many of us share our lives.”

In 2008, West contributed his insights on the current global issue of modernized slavery and human trafficking in the rockumentary Call+Response.[53] West is a member of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.

In 2011, West addressed his frustration about some critics of the Occupy Wall Street, who remark about the movement’s lack of a clear and unified message. West replied by saying:

It’s impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand, or two demands. We’re talking about a democratic awakening…you’re talking about raising political consciousness so it spills over all parts of the country, so people can begin to see what’s going on through a set of different lens, and then you begin to highlight what the more detailed demands would be. Because in the end we’re really talking about what Martin King would call a revolution: A transfer of power from oligarchs to everyday people of all colors. And that is a step by step process.[54]

On October 16, 2011, West was in Washington, D.C. participating in the “Occupy D.C.” protests on the steps of the Supreme Court, holding a sign reading “Poverty is the Greatest Violence of All”. He was subsequently arrested for violating a law against protest signs on the Supreme Court steps.[55]

Five days later, on October 21, 2011, West was arrested during a protest in Harlem against the New York Police Department’s policy of stopping and frisking.[56]

On October 26, 2011, West was participating in Occupy Norfolk in Norfolk, VA.

Support and Criticism of Obama

Cornel West publicly supported 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate then US Senator Barack Obama. He spoke to over 1,000 of his supporters at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, N.Y.C. on November 29, 2007.[57]

West criticized President Obama when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, saying that it would be difficult for Obama to be “a war president with a peace prize.”[58] West further retracted his support for Obama in an April 2011 interview, stating that Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”[59][60]

 Published works

  • Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979)
  • Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982)
  • Prophetic Fragments (1988)
  • The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989)
  • Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with bell hooks, 1991)
  • The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991)
  • Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism (1993)
  • Race Matters (1993)
  • Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1994)
  • Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America (with rabbi Michael Lerner, 1995)
  • The Future of the Race (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1996)
  • Restoring Hope: Conversations on the Future of Black America (1997)
  • The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 1998)
  • The Future of American Progressivism (with Roberto Unger, 1998)
  • The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 2000)
  • Cornel West: A Critical Reader (George Yancy, editor) (2001)
  • Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004)
  • Commentary on The Matrix, Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions; see The Ultimate Matrix Collection (with Ken Wilber, 2004).
  • Post-Analytic Philosophy, edited with John Rajchman.
  • Hope On a Tightrope: Words & Wisdom (2008).
  • Brother West: Living & Loving Out Loud (2009).

Posted February 19, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Civil Rights, Novelist / Poet

One response to “Dr. Cornell West, Civil Rights Leader

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  1. Alas! we see that the small have always suffered for the follies of the great.

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