Reflections on Race, Education, and Economic Equality: A Conversation with Dr. Cornel West

Dr. Cornel West, professor emeritus of Princeton University and author of over 30 books, is one of the most prolific political activists in the African American community today. An advocate for social justice, the labor movement, and bridging the achievement gap, he is an outspoken advocate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Dr. West sat down with junior editor Matthew J. Santucci after giving a talk at Fordham University with Adolph Reed Jr. about the state of higher education, race relations, and the 2016 presidential election.

So first I would like to start off by saying thank you for meeting with us today. It is such a pleasure to talk with you today. You are such a prolific figure in the African American community as well as in general American society. So, thank you very much.

Very kind my brother. I’m so blessed to be in conversation with you.

Thank you. So, the first question I have: obviously, you have these convictions that you tenaciously hold. When did you start to form them? Was it in your undergraduate years, was it growing up, was in our postgraduate education, or even when you were a professor at Princeton?

No, it was actually growing up in the West family, at Shiloh Baptist Church, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and the question is how do you muster the courage to tell the truth and bear witness and try to sustain some hope in a world of such enormous suffering — so many structures of domination in the form of oppression. So I was a teenager, after the death of Martin that had an impact on me. What I needed was tools of analysis. I could get that with my own black contacts. I could get that, at Harvard or Princeton, at Yale, at Union Seminary. I could get that in the library reading on my own. I could actually get that listening to some music.

Really? You said that you like jazz music?

Jazz, rhythm and blues, very much so, and hip hop too. We mentioned Kendrick [Lamar] a little bit today. Various ways in which people are able to preserve their sanity and their dignity in the face of so much evil; that’s really what we’re talking about. That’s a human thing.

Going back before to what you talked about virtues — integrity, courage, compassion. How are those alive — are they alive? — in the African American community today? How are they manifested? How can one come to recognize them?

Well, they’re certainly alive, but they’re not as much alive as they should be. This is true for the culture as a whole. They’re manifest in people who are willing to tell the truth when they have to pay a real consequence, as people who are trying to bear witness, organize, mobilize, push through policies that help people who are suffering, no matter what color. Ands it’s manifest in how people relate person-to-person, whether they’re tender, whether they’re sweet, whether they’re kind, whether they’re gentle. All of these are manifestations of certain kinds of love and commitment to the welfare by the people.

Now, do you think, because I know in 2008 when the then-Sen. Barack Obama ran for president, he predicated his campaign upon this ideology to lift the African American people out of the grips of this social injustice. It really mobilized a whole force of our nation that never got out and voted before; it was the first time they exercised their right to vote.

I know, I know, it’s true.

And yet, many of them feel disappointed because after eight years, you made note to this earlier, more African American children are in poverty now than they were eight years ago. And in fact one can make the case that race relations are worse now than they were eight years ago.


So how has this culminated in Obama’s presidency, and where has he fallen short in trying to assure that African Americans are lifting themselves out of this situation? Something that’s systematic, institutionalized, I guess you can say.

I think the problem was that when he bailed out Wall Street rather than Main Street, it was a sign that he was not going to put a priority on helping the most weak and vulnerable. How many speeches has he given on poverty? None at all. How many has he given on child poverty, not even just on black child poverty, because they are many precious white children who are poor —  brown, yellow, too.

That’s not been his priority. His priority is not being what Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for. His priority has been that of a neoliberal politician. That’s what he is. He’s tied to Wall Street, he’s tied to big corporations, he’s given some service to the labor movement, but he didn’t even fight for the Employee Free Choice Act, which he promised to. And we can go on and on and on: the military industrial complex, he’s expanded it. And of course I have libertarian sensibilities too. I am fundamentally committed to the rights and liberties of all of us, no matter what.

And you can’t assassinate American citizens with no due process — that’s a violation of the constitution. I don’t believe an American president can kill a member of the Ku Klux Klan just because you disagree with him. I am anti-Klan, but you don’t have a right to kill him without due process. In that sense, I am very concerned on the authoritarian dimension of what he has promoted. Now he built on [President George W.] Bush, but he expanded Bush in that way. So I think all of those issues are issues of the clash of the legacy of Martin Luther king with the Obama administration’s policies.

And there is a bit of dissonance there because they don’t work.

He falls far short, absolutely.

Let me ask you this question. This campaign cycle has been very contentious between Secretary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Now, I think I can say that Secretary Clinton has tried to impugn Bernie’s record. He marched with Martin Luther King, whereas she has been tepid, if not fickle, on some race issues.

Yes she has.

And yet, the African American community is very quick to run to her defense rather than to Bernie’s. Can you try to elaborate on or explain this?  

I think the Black community is fearful of the Republican Party, and especially [Donald J.] Trump. And they know Hillary Clinton; they have a tie to the familiar. They don’t really know Brother Bernie. He was not that well known in the country; he was not that well known in black America. Once they get to know him and have a sense of what he stands for, you see the numbers going up. Not fast, because it takes a while to know somebody. But you see the numbers going up, and that’s a very positive thing. But the other side is that there is a black neoliberal political class — Congressional Caucus, black elected officials. They’re on the gravy train, not the freedom train. The gravy train of the Clinton machine, who’s got big money. They want to have access to power because they thought she was going to be the inevitable winner, and all of a sudden now . . .

This Bernie momentum comes out of nowhere, and they’re getting a bit worried.

That’s right, they’re getting worried! Believe me, when Bernie starts beating her, they’ll want to jump on his gravy train. And you know what? This is a freedom train, this is no gravy train. This is a freedom train, this is not about money. He has integrity!

You mentioned neoliberalism, and I think you can make the case that it has permeated into the university systems today.

Oh, absolutely.

And you talked about Paideia, this deep, rich, educational experience, which I think is absent because we are so focused on upward social mobility that we forsake any kind of true understating of what education should be. So when we try to lift African Americans out of poverty, whether through affirmative action policies or diversity quotas, is that doing them a disservice and is that misconstruing the meaning of what an education should be not only in the 21st century but at its foundation?

I think at a sheer economic level, the cheap schooling can still provide some upward mobility, and you want whatever weapons you can use. But just don’t confuse the cheap schooling with deep education — that’s what I was trying to say. They need a skill? Fine, get a skill, but don’t think that this is education. This is something different. Education is about the transformation that goes on with critical reflection and critical consciousness emerging, and we need that for every young person, for every person actually. It’s just a matter of being honest and truthful about what deep education is about.

Wonderful. Thank you very much.

Thank you. You stay strong, my brother.