Cornel West is a Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. The recipient of more than twenty honorary degrees and a National Book Award, he is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America, for which he currently serves as Honorary Chair. He is also a co-chair of Michael Lerner's Tikkun Community.
West was born in 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From a young age, he proclaimed that he admired “the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party ... and the livid black [liberation] theology of James Cone.”
Growing up in the radical 1960s, West became a black militant activist and president of his senior class in high school. At seventeen he was recruited to Harvard, where, as he describes it, he was determined to press the university and its intellectual traditions into the service of his political agendas.
“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.”
West earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1973, his master's degree from Princeton in 1975, and his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1980. After completing his higher education, he went on to become a professor of theology and African American studies at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Paris. Today his books are required texts in college curricula across the United States. His work has elicited White House invitations and more requests as a speaker, blurb writer, and distinguished guest than any individual could possibly fill.
In a market in which it is increasingly difficult for genuine scholars to get an academic monograph in print, West has written or edited more than twenty books published by commercial publishers. Except for a thin 1993 volume of opinions on issues of the day called Race Matters, which sold some 400,000 copies, none of his books sell sufficiently to justify the commercial support his work has received. They are put into print (according to one of his publishers) as “prestige” publications to bring credit to the house.
West's first effort was titled Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982). This book advocates a “socially concerned African American Christianity“ that draws from Marxism. Then followed, among others, Prophetic Fragments (1988); The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989); The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991); Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times (1993); Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America (1993); Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1994); and Restoring Hope (1999).
In his book Prophetic Fragments, West writes that his "principal aim" is "to examine and explore, delineate and demystify, counter and contest the widespread accommodation of American religion to the political and cultural status quo."
West also co-authored several books, including Breaking Bread (with bell hooks, 1991); Jews and Blacks (with Michael Lerner, 1995 ); The Future of the Race (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1996); The Future of American Progressivism (with Roberto Unger, 1998); The War Against Parents (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 1998); and The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 2000).
One of the early catalysts for West's rise into the cultural stratosphere was his plea for racial harmony. As a Marxist black radical he was almost unique in saying that it was not appropriate for other black militants to hate all whites and Jews. Yet he has endorsed the radicals grouped around the magazine Race Traitor, which calls for the “abolition of whiteness.”
In addition, West is a close personal friend to Louis Farrakhan, among the most influential anti-Semites in America. West served as an advisor to Farrakhan's 1995 "Million Man March."
In 1999, in his role as then-presidential candidate Bill Bradley's advisor on blacks, West encouraged Bradley to meet with Al Sharpton (whose own campaign for a U.S. Senate seat West had supported in 1994).
West calls himself a “progressive socialist” and has written that “Marxist thought is an indispensable tradition for freedom fighters.” In the 1990s he was a supporter of the New Party.
West taught at Princeton from 1988 to 1993, at which point he took a professor's position at Harvard, where in 1998 he would receive the prestigious appointment of University Professor.
In 2001 former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers took over Harvard's presidency and, in a private meeting with West, told him that he (West) was giving out far too many A's and A-plusses in his introductory class in African-American studies. Summers also exhorted West to devote his energies to writing a serious academic book, rather to the production of rap-like CDs such as the one he recently had released. Moreover, Summers expressed concern that West had taken too much time away from his academic responsibilities by campaigning for presidential hopeful Bill Bradley in 2000.
West reacted angrily to Summers' comments, telling the media that Harvard's President had “attacked and insulted” him with great “disrespect.” In 2002 West left Harvard and returned to Princeton.
The “disrespect” that West perceived was, in his view, part and parcel of the extreme irreverence that whites nationwide were wont to direct at blacks. West deems the United States a nation rife with bigotry that finds its expression in an endless flow of affronts and assaults aimed against the black community. He has branded 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 [who are] hungry for identity, meaning, and self-worth.”
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.” He explains that “the accumulated effect of the black wounds and scars suffered in a white-dominated society is a deep-seated anger, a boiling sense of rage, and a passionate pessimism regarding America's will to justice.” “It goes without saying,” he adds, “that a profound hatred of African people . . . sits at the center of American civilization.”
In West's view, the 9/11 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 hated for who they are.” “Since 9/11,” he said, “the whole nation has the blues, when before it was just black people.”
A vocal opponent of the War in Iraq, West asserted that the Bush administration was peopled with “hawks” who “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.” “We are experiencing the sad gangsterization of America,” he added, “an unbridled grasp at power, wealth and status.”
Viewing capitalism as the root cause of these alleged American lusts, the Marxist 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.”
As noted above, West is a proponent of black liberation theology -- a variation of liberation theology, which teaches that the New Testament gospels can be understood only as calls for social activism, class struggle, and revolution aimed at overturning the existing capitalist order and installing, in its stead, a socialist utopia where today's poor will unseat their “oppressors” and become liberated from their material (and, consequently, their spiritual) deprivations. Black liberation theology seeks to foment a similar Marxist revolutionary fervor founded on racial rather than class solidarity. The Christian notion of “salvation” in the afterlife is superseded by “liberation” on earth, courtesy of the aforementioned socialist utopia.
Anthony Bradley, assistant professor of theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, writes:
“West sees a strong correlation between black theology and Marxist thought because 'both focus on the plight of the exploited, oppressed and degraded peoples of the world, their relative powerlessness and possible empowerment.' This common focus prompts West to call for 'a serious dialogue between Black theologians and Marxist thinkers' -- a dialogue that centers on the possibility of 'mutually arrived-at political action.' ... West ... appreciates Marxism for its 'notions of class struggle, social contradictions, historical specificity, and dialectical developments in history' that explain the role of power and wealth in bourgeois capitalist societies....”
In 1995 West was a signatory to a New York Times ad voicing support for cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther. Other notable leftists who signed the letter included Noam Chomsky, Roger Ebert, Mike Farrell, Danny Glover, bell hooks, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Charles Rangel, Susan Sarandon, and Gloria Steinem.
In 1998 West was a signatory to a public letter addressed to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, declaring that “the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.” Other signers included Tammy Baldwin, Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Morton H. Halperin, Kweisi Mfume, and George Soros.
On September 20, 2001, West was a guest speaker at a New York City gathering to honor the work of Richard Cloward (co-creator of the Cloward-Piven Strategy), who had died a month earlier. Other speakers included such notables as Barbara Ehrenreich, June Jordan, Gus Newport, Frances Fox Piven, Miles Rappaport, Joel Rogers, Tim Sampson, and Howard Zinn.
In 2002 West lent his name to the “Statement of Conscience” crafted by Not In Our Name, a project of C. Clark Kissinger’s Revolutionary Communist Party. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
West also endorsed World Can’t Wait (WCW), another Revolutionary Communist Party project that sought to organize “people living in the United States to take responsibility to stop the whole disastrous course led by the Bush administration.”
West had been a steadfast supporter of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. But after seeing how Nader siphoned votes away from Democrat Al Gore and perhaps cost Gore that election, West in 2004 signed a petition urging voters to back Democrat John Kerry, who stood a reasonably good chance of defeating Bush, instead of Nader, who stood no chance. Other signatories included Noam Chomsky, Phil Donahue, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bonnie Raitt, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Kevin Zeese, and Howard Zinn.
In May 2007 West, along with Marxist professor Manning Marable, signed a letter drafted by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The letter called for "Black America" to participate in a rally protesting the 40th anniversary of Israel's "illegal occupation" of the West Bank, and to help "build our country’s support for Palestinian human rights."
In 2006 West visited Venezuela, which President Hugo Chavez was transforming into a socialist state. Praising the Venezuelan government -- which had nationalized industries, imprisoned or killed its opponents, and openly threatened the United States -- West explained that he had made the trip in order “to see the democratic awakening taking place” under Chavez.
In July 2008 West was a signatory to an open letter addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice protesting the proposed installation of a U.S. military base in the Czech Republic. The letter trivialized the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and accused the U.S. of fomenting a new Cold War with Russia. Other signers included Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
Over the years, West has given money to political causes only twice -- once to the Democratic National Committee and once to Democrat Major Owens.
In 2008 Senator Barack Obama named West to his presidential campaign's Black Advisory Council. West is a great admirer of Obama's former pastor and longtime spiritual mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In March 2010, West spoke at a Young Democratic Socialists of America conference entitled "Real Change for a Change," which was billed as a "snapshot of the current socialist movement in the United States." During his lengthy address, West declared that "socialism has a future." He added: "We are at a very crucial historical moment. My dear friend [President] Barack Obama, he needs help. He needs deep help. He needs pressure. Organized, mobilized pressure." Exhorting the crowd not to rely on "messiahs" or "leaders" to lead the way toward America's transformation into a socialist country, West said the responsibility for that task "falls onto us."
In August 2011, during which time violent riots were taking place in Britain, West warned that similar unrest was likely to strike in the U.S.
“If you don’t treat poor and working people with dignity now, chickens are going to come home to roost later. And it won’t be about love and justice. It will be about revenge, hatred, and then we all go under.”
In October 2011, West said the following about Herman Cain, a black conservative who was seeking the Republican Party's presidential nomination, and who had said that racism was no longer an impediment to success for African Americans: “I think he needs to get off the symbolic crack pipe and acknowledge that the evidence [of racism] is overwhelming.’’
On September 11, 2013, West was in Washington to speak at an American Muslim Political Action Committee rally organized to condemn "the lack of transparency and questions plaguing 9/11, steady erosion of domestic civil liberties, drone policy and the very dire effect of these on of plight of American Muslims here at home, and Muslim communities globally in the scope of U.S. imperialism, and the modern face of resistance to unmanned aerial surveillance and warfare." One speaker after another at this event promoted conspiracy theories suggesting that the World Trade Center towers had collapsed due to controlled explosions and doubting that an airplane had actually crashed into the Pentagon. When West was asked to give his views on the matter, he replied:
“I just don’t know. My hunch is that I think that bin Laden certainly had something to do with it, and so I try to listen and raise questions and allow them to engage in their investigation, but I haven’t spent as much time as they have. But at this point, I’m still uncertain.
“I think there might be a possibility, but my hunch is that [with] bin Laden’s…definitive investment he must have had something to do with it. But the thing is, what they express is a profound distrust in the government and a profound distrust in the government’s intelligence, and I have that distrust, too, so I’ve got to be open-minded.”
West is a co-chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, along with Joan Chittister, and Michael Lerner (the group's founder).