Book Review: Race Matters

Click for a larger image of Race Matters

Book Reviewed by Kirby Roy III

Reading and evaluating the overriding themes in Cornel West’s Race Matters, which was published in 1993, given the context of events that have occurred since September 2001, was almost like leafing through the yellowing pages of an old letter written by a life-long friend. The fact that the letter has been stashed away as the years have progressed, does not make the note any less important to the reader when it is re-read. In fact, a second reading could give the reader a fresh context on which to view current situations.

To be sure several events which serve as poignant references in the book - the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the 1991 racial disturbances in Crown Heights, Brooklyn - all seem like distant memories from a bygone era. It should also be noted that the book was written in the context of the end of the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, and the beginning of the Clinton Administration.

West uses the events surrounding the L.A. Riots as an introduction for his explanation of several social trends, which by chapter include the threat of nihilism in the black community, the expanding vacuum of strong black leadership, political attacks against affirmative action, and the fraying of the special relationship between the African-American and Jewish communities.

West’s thoughts on the threat of nihilism in the black community during the late 1980s and early 1990s, near the peak of the crack-cocaine drug wave, were especially interesting. "The major enemy of black survival in America has been and is neither oppression nor exploitation but rather the nihilistic threat - that is, loss of hope and absence of meaning."

Several strong trends during that time which were widely acknowledged as symptoms of this community depression included: a widespread breakdown of traditional family structures, the rise in chemical dependency, a short-term decline in life expectancy, the surge in black incarceration rates, the exploding homicide rates among youth, and increases in suicide rates.

West mainly attributed the rise in nihilism in the community to the ferocious unleashing of market forces during the deregulatory climate in the 1980s. "Black people have always been in America’s wilderness in search of a promised land. Yet many black folk now reside in a jungle ruled by cutthroat market morality devoid of any faith in deliverance or hope for freedom." He also noted the shrinking influence of black institutions and leadership, which has traditionally nurtured individuals in the community, as another major factor for the rise of this threat.

Later in the book, West focuses on what he terms as a "crisis" in black leadership. He contends that vast majority of contemporary political leaders in the community are limited to being race-effacing managers (i.e., mainstream business leaders or politicians) or race-identity protestors (or, grassroots protest organizers). He claims that both styles are self-aggrandizing, with mainstreamers directly grabbing for monetary gain and protesters confining themselves to being Kingfishes within a black turf.

West contends a third, more positive style is exhibited by what he calls "race-transcending prophetic leaders". These would be leaders who demonstrated a rare mix of "personal integrity and political savvy, moral vision and prudential judgment, courageous defiance and organizational patience."
At the time the book was published, West was stridently pessimistic over the ability of the contemporary crop of leaders to simultaneously exemplify these positive qualities, and provide inspiration to the community. "The present generation has yet to produce such a figure. We have neither an Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., nor a Ronald Dellums. This void sits like a festering sore at the center of black leadership - and the predicament of the disadvantaged in the United States and abroad worsens."

It is interesting that at the time of the book that West only points to the late Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, and Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Presidential Campaign as the closest examples of "race-transcending, prophetic" leadership. Indeed, West’s comments about Jackson’s waning leadership position within the black community were especially prophetic, given the personal experiences Jackson has had over the past year. "Jackson’s televisual style resists grass-roots organizing and, most important, democratic accountability. His brilliance, energy and charisma sustains his public visibility - but at the expense of programmatic follow-through. We are approaching the moment in which this style exhausts its progressive potential."

In view of Jackson’s most recent efforts to assist West and other African-American Studies professors’ efforts to force an apology from new Harvard University President, Lawrence Summers for the lack of convicting statements supporting affirmative action, it would be interesting to get a more recent appraisal of Jackson’s leadership abilities.

In his thoughts on the rise of black conservatives in the mainstream media, West indicates that while he does not agree with most of their premises, these media-created voices could lead to "a more principled and passionate political discourse" within the black community. "The few valuable insights of the new black conservatives can be incorporated into a broader progressive perspective that utterly rejects their unwarranted conclusions and repugnant policies."

West calls for continued public support for affirmative action efforts, proposes aggressive efforts within the black community to "transcend" anti-Semitic and xenophobic impulses, and urges increased candor within the community to address stereotypes regarding black sexuality and aesthetics.

West illustrates foresight in attempting to address the abiding infatuation younger blacks had with the image of Malcolm X during the late 1980s and early 1990s - witness the ’X’ caps, dubbing of his speeches in raps performed by Public Enemy and others, and Spike Lee’s making of ’X’. Ironically, the renewed interest in Malcolm X at the time probably also fueled the growing popularity of Minister Lewis Farrakhan.

However, West fails to fully hit home in his observations regarding the renewal of Malcolm X’s image. While Malcolm X’s charisma, the searing impact of his personal conversions, and the timeliness of his political stances all partially explain his re-emergence, West does not cite the black leadership vacuum as a compelling factor. The re-celebration of Malcolm X was probably the most powerful testament of the lack of inspiring leadership in the community, and the need of younger blacks to fill the void with the image of a powerful man who was killed a quarter-century earlier.

In light of the events that have happened since the early 1990s - the Million Man March, the reported drop in crime and violence in African-American communities, the economic growth of the late 1990s, the controversial Presidential Election of 2000, and the September 11 terrorist attacks - Race Matters still effectively illustrates contemporary trends that continue to effect the African-American community.

Read Vintage’s description of Race Matters.

More AALBC Book Reviews ▶