Cornel West is a Professor of Religion and African American Studies. 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. His older brother taught at MIT and worked for IBM, and his father was a defense contractor who had a school named after his mother.
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. His doctoral dissertation was titled “Ethics, Historicism and the Marxist Tradition.” In the abstract to that dissertation, West wrote:
“I … critically reconstruct the arguments of three major Marxist thinkers–Engels, Kautsky and Lukacs–who, in their own ways, subscribe to the traditional vision of philosophy. I argue that all three adopt moderate historicism in ethics owing to this subscription, and specifically because of their own particular foundationalist conceptions of epistemology and science. I claim that Engels’ teleological quest resembles a Piercian move to preserve the notion of moral objectivity by holding that it amounts roughly to what moral agents will converge to or agree upon in the long run. I claim that Kautsky’s naturalistic quest is similar, though less sophisticated, to a Deweyian move that tries to translate norms-talk into needs-talk in order to avoid moral relativism. Lastly, I claim that Lukacs’ ontological quest is a sophisticated Hegelian move to overcome traditional, especially modern positivis[m], foundationalism in epistemology and science only to arrive at a new form of foundationalism–in science and ethics–in ontological garb. I try to show that these three quests for moral objectivity fail. I try to show that Marx adopts a radical historicist approach to ethics only after a tortuous philosophic journey which leaves him disenchanted and disillusioned with the vision of philosophy as the quest for certainty and search for foundations. I argue that he makes a crucial metaphilosophical move in order to take seriously historical consciousness and the constructionist conventionalism revealed by his political activism. I try to explain this metaphilosophical move in terms of a complex philosophic-theoretic shift in his approach to ethics. The major objective of this essay is to examine, in its various forms, the historicist approach to ethics.”
After completing his higher education, West 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 “Black Anti-Semitism and the Rhetoric of Resentment,” a 1992 article that West wrote for Michael Lerner’s Tikkun, he blamed black anti-Semitism on, among other things, “the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza” and “the visible conservative Jewish opposition to what is perceived to be a major means to black progress, namely, affirmative action.” “Without some redistribution of wealth and power,” West warned, “downward mobility and debilitating poverty will continue to drive people into desperate channels” that will “produce a cold-hearted and mean-spirited America no longer worth fighting for or living in.”
In addition, West is a close personal friend to Louis Farrakhan, to whom he refers as “my dear brother.” West served as an advisor and organizer for Farrakhan’s 1995 “Million Man March,” and he has passionately defended Farrakhan against the latter’s critics. West once said, for instance:
“‘Farrakhan said Hitler was a great man.’ That’s a lie! He said he’s wickedly great. When he said something about Judaism, he said Judaism can be used as a gutter religion. I’m a Christian, you know that. Can Christianity be used as a gutter religion? Hell yes! Ku Klux Klan, Constantine using Christianity to defend the Empire, Christianity used against women, against gay brothers and lesbian sisters. So first you’ve got to tell the truth about Louis Farrakhan.”
West also laments that Farrakhan has been “so demonized by the mainstream.”
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 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 2005 West collaborated with Michael Lerner, and Sister Joan Chittister to restructure Tikkun magazine’s Tikkun Community as the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an “interfaith educational and social action organization.”
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.”
West has repeatedly and falsely accused Israel of killing “Palestinian babies.” In one 2015 broadcast, for example, he spoke of “500 Palestinian babies killed in 50 days” — a highly unreliable claim that had originated with Hamas and pro-Hamas sources during the 2014 Hamas-Israel war in the Gaza Strip – a war that was started by Hamas aggression. As Camera.org explains: “Beyond the unreliability of the statistics themselves is the fact that Prof. West takes them out of context and distorts them into a claim demonizing Israel as vicious and ruthless baby killers. Even the questionable sources claiming over 500 innocent children killed, acknowledge that the majority (greater than 65 percent) were neither babies nor toddlers, but minors between the ages of 7-17, used by Hamas as pawns or human shields in the terror group’s war against Israel. Yet Professor West repeatedly refers to 500 ‘babies’ being killed (presumably because it stirs more empathy and emotion and serves better as a propaganda claim, no matter that it is false).”
And in an August 12, 2014 interview, he blasted “a right wing government that allows for the killing of 427 precious Palestinian babies.”
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.
On the eve of Venezuela’s presidential election of 2006, West joined Jesse Jackson, Dolores Huerta, and Tom Hayden in writing an open letter to President George W. Bush in which they lauded Chávez’s policy of sharing his “country’s oil wealth with millions of poor Venezuelans.” In a 2010 tweet, West said: “I love that Hugo Chavez has made poverty a major priority. I wish America would make poverty a priority.”
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.
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 2011, West joined Revolutionary Communist Party founder Carl Dix and some other activists in issuing a statement demanding that the New York Police Department’s “Stop and Frisk” crime-fighting program be discontinued—on grounds that it targeted nonwhite minorities in disproportionate numbers. On October 21, 2011, Dix and West were among 30 people arrested for participating in a mass act of civil disobedience at an NYPD Precinct. In October 2014, West and Dix again collaborated in calling for a Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.
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 September 2011, West and Carl Dix issued a Statement accusing police forces nationwide—most notably in New York City—of routinely subjecting blacks and Latinos, merely because of the color of their skin, to violations of “the part of the [C]onstitution protecting people from unreasonable search and seizure.” In an impassioned call to action, West and Dix solicited the support of all those who were “sick and tired of being harassed and jacked up by the cops” and of having their “humanity … routinely violated” for racial reasons. Most notably, the pair objected to the use of “stop-and-frisk” policing practices, which they described as “illegal” and “unconstitutional.” Out of this effort by West and Dix, the Stop Mass Incarceration Network was formed.
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.”
In 2014, as Israel was conducting Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in response to the multitude of rockets and mortars that the terrorist group had been firing from Gaza into southern Israel, West described the operation as “Israeli state terrorism in action and its Jewish racism in motion.” At the same time, West asserted that “[Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal not because he is Jewish but because he has chosen to promote occupation and annihilation.”
In September 2014, West was a guest speaker at “Growing Up Locked Down,” a three-day Juvenile Justice Conference presented at The New School in Manhattan by Justice League NYC. This event featured workshops and panels that addressed subjects ranging from the state of childhood incarceration to the media’s reportage on the issue. Another noteworthy speaker was Harry Belafonte.
In September 2014, West joined Harry Belafonte as a guest speaker at Justice League NYC‘s “Growing Up Locked Down” juvenile-justice conference at The New School in Manhattan. This event featured workshops and panels that addressed subjects ranging from the state of childhood incarceration to the media’s reportage on the issue.
West, who in 2014 wrote that the crimes of the Islamic terror group Hamas “pale in the face of the U.S.-supported Israeli slaughters of innocent civilians,” is a leading advocate of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement. In 2017 he described BDS as “the last nonviolent effort to try to ensure that the moral character and the human values of a settler-colonial enterprise that has involved itself in expansion and extation [sic], and leading toward … a full-fledged apartheid.”
In a June 2015 appearance on CNN television, West criticized President Obama for allowing himself to be too “scared and intimated” to truly confront “white supremacy.” Said West:
“You can’t talk about wealth and inequality, you can’t talk about education, you can’t talk about massive unemployment and under employment and you can’t talk about drones being dropped on people in other parts of the world, without talking about white supremacy and its ways in which it operates. It doesn’t have to be overt. The president is right about that. But too many black people are niggerized. I would say the first black president has become the first niggerized black president….
“A niggerized black person is a black person who is afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy. So when many of us said we have to fight against racism, what were we told? ‘No, he can’t deal with racism because he has other issues, political calculations. He’s the president of all America, not just black America.’ We know he’s president of all America but white supremacy is American as cherry pie.
“We’re talking about moral issues, spiritual issues, emotional issues. White supremacy has nothing to do with just skin pigmentation, it has to be what kind of person you want to be, what kind of nation we want to be. Democrats and Republicans play on both of those parties in terms of running away from the vicious legacy of white supremacy until it hits us hard. Thank God for Ferguson. Thank God for the young folk of all colors. Thank God for Staten Island and fighting there. Thank God in Baltimore, now the precious folk in Charleston.”
West returned to Harvard in November 2016, taking a nontenured position as Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, jointly appointed at the Harvard Divinity School and the Graduate School of African and African-American Studies.
West was a featured speaker at a February 2020 event entitled “Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine,” which called on Harvard University to “disclose direct and indirect investments in companies complicit in human rights abuses towards Palestinians,” and demanded that Harvard “divest all direct and indirect holdings in these companies.” The calls for these divestments were based upon the premises that “Palestinians [in the Middle East] live under apartheid,” and that the “recent ‘peace’ plan proposed by the Trump administration legitimizes [Israel’s] occupation of Palestinian land and restricts 4 million Palestinians to mere slivers of land simply because they are not Jewish.”
In early 2021, West speculated aloud that Harvard University had denied him tenure because of his history of criticizing Israel and supporting the Palestinians. “This is my hypothesis,” West said, “because given the possibilities of why they would not be even interested in initiating a tenure process, what else it could be?”
In the aftermath of the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd — a black man who had died after being abused by a white police officer in Minneapolis — a number of U.S. cities were overrun by violent riots. In a June 1 interview with CNN:
On June 30, 2021, West submitted his letter of resignation from Harvard University’s Divinity School, writing, in part: “How sad it is to see our beloved Harvard Divinity School in such decline and decay. The disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet deferential faculty, and the disorientation of precious students loom large.” He noted that when he had taken an untenured position in 2016, “with a salary less than what I received 15 years earlier,” he had hoped that he would be able to finish out his career “with some semblance of intellectual intensity and personal respect.” “How wrong I was!” West lamented. “With a few glorious and glaring exceptions, the shadow of Jim Crow was cast in its new glittering form expressed in the language of superficial diversity.” “[T]o witness a faculty enthusiastically support a candidate [West] for tenure [and] then timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting,” West wrote. “We all knew the mendacious reasons given had nothing to do with academic standards.” “When my committee recommended a tenure review — also rejected by the Harvard administration — I knew my academic achievements and student teaching meant far less than their political prejudices,” he added.
“When the announcement of the death of my beloved Mother appeared in the regular newsletter, I received two public replies,” West wrote as well. “Any ordinary announcement about a lecture, award or professional advancement receives about twenty replies! This kind of narcissistic academic professionalism, cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration, and indifference to my Mother’s death constitutes an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep depths.”