One-on-One with Dr. Cornel West on race relations in American universities


Cornel West, a provocative civil rights activist and professor of philosophy and Christian practice at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, is one of America’s most outspoken critics of race relations in the United States. Dr West, a former professor of African-American studies at Harvard and Princeton universities, has condemned America’s legacy of white supremacy, including slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws.

He is currently a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, a campaign to end police brutality against African-Americans. Last year alone, US police killed more than 100 unarmed black people.

In 2013, Black Lives Matter emerged in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watchman in Florida who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager. The movement gained steam in 2014 following the death of another unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

The shooting reignited the debate over race in America as Black Lives Matter protests sprung up in universities and cities across the country.

Here, Brennan Weiss speaks to Dr West for University World Newsabout the state of race relations in US higher education, the Black Lives Matter movement and how universities can inspire students to care about important issues like race.

UWN: What can institutions of higher education do to bridge racial divisions?

West: We’ve got to engage in a candid question for truth and knowledge. Understanding that when you talk about issues of racism and white supremacy, just like male supremacy, just like wealth inequality and just like homophobia, it is part and parcel of the quest for truth and knowledge. It’s not some ghettoized, marginalised issue that you have afterthoughts about. The most fundamental questions – What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be modern? What does it mean to be American? – all connect to how we come to terms with racism, sexism, anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Muslim hatred or anti any kind of hatred. So in that sense, curriculums have to reflect that kind of perspective.

UWN: You have said that higher education has become “commoditised and bureaucratised” and that students nowadays focus too much on “raw ambition and careerism”. How do you get students in that type of academic culture to care about race?

West: Sooner or later they’re going to have to come to terms with it because they’re living in America and there’s no escape. But this is a tough question in terms of how you get people to be as much concerned with their callings as with their careers or as much with their day jobs as with their life tasks. I think it has something to do with a moral and spiritual awakening among the younger generation. Part of what [the Ferguson protests] are about is not just a struggle against police brutality, but it’s a moral and spiritual awakening and people are beginning to say, “I should care. I should be concerned about these issues. I should actually be participating in various kinds of ways of thinking and doing that make a difference in the world.”

UWN: You’ve been a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter. You were even arrested last August in St Louis, Missouri, on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. What would you say to students who view Black Lives Matter as an exclusively black issue?

West: It’s not at all. It’s a human issue. We’ve got a lot of vanilla brothers and sisters from all around the country that are part of Black Lives Matter. There have always been courageous white brothers and sisters who have been integral parts of the struggle for black freedom. It goes all the way back to John Brown. The problem has been that for too long when we’ve said “all lives matter”, we’ve often not acknowledged the degree to which red lives and brown lives and black lives have not mattered as much as white lives. That’s what racism is. In that sense, the slogan itself may give one the sense that it’s narrow. But it’s not narrow at all. It’s part of a universal moral and spiritual movement concerned about those who have been catching a lot of hell.

UWN: How can white students, who have lived none of the experiences of their black counterparts, be credible activists in the Black Lives Matter movement?

West: It has to do with the quality of one’s commitment and it has to do with the authenticity of one’s witness. One earns one’s moral and spiritual status in a movement by the work that one does for that cause. You see white brothers and sisters constantly there in the demonstrations, constantly supporting the issues, constantly raising the questions in whatever context they are. It’s clear that they’re committed. That cannot be denied.

UWN: How can a university with such a racially imbalanced student population still be a racially conscious school?

West: It has to do with the quality of the students themselves.

UWN: So it comes down to having an innate ability to be tolerant?

West: No, no, it’s not an ability. It’s a capacity that is cultivated. It’s showing a care, a concern, a focus and a priority.

UWN: You’ve endorsed US Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Party candidate running for president in the 2016 national election. In August, Black Lives Matter activists criticised the contender for not doing enough to address racial inequality and they subsequently interrupted one of his public speeches by overtaking his stage. You described Sanders as a “long-distance runner with integrity in the struggle for justice for over 50 years”. What do you think Sanders can do to improve race relations in higher education?

West: If he’s able to push through his tuition-free, public college and public university plan, it means then that, very much like the army, you would have a multi-racial group of students who are there to learn, who don’t have to worry about money, who don’t have to worry about jobs and who don’t have to worry about debt loans. Then, of course, the university, the faculty and the administration have to do their work. Sanders can’t do that. They’ve got to make sure that they’re offering a curriculum that is intellectually alive and socially engaging. But the fact that these precious young folk could have access to the colleges and universities is almost revolutionary given where we’ve been in the last 20 to 30 years.

UWN: University students are often criticised for being disengaged with their communities, the country and the world. In a speech in 2012, you called for more Socratic discourse in US society. How can colleges bring Socratic discourse to their campuses?

West: It’s got to be by example. People have to be able to see it, get excited by it, find it attractive, find it appealing and feel as if they want to be a part of it. You start small and it becomes contagious. It can grow.

* This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.