Cornel West

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To be an intellectual really means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak. That is, it creates a vision of the world that puts into the limelight the social misery that is usually hidden or concealed by the dominant viewpoints of a society.

Cornel Ronald West (born 2 June 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma) is an American philosopher, political activist, social critic, author, and public intellectual. The son of a Baptist minister, West focuses on the role of race, gender, and class in American society and the means by which people act and react to their "radical conditionedness." A radical democratic socialist, West draws intellectual contributions from multiple traditions, including Christianity, the black church, Marxism, neopragmatism, and transcendentalism. Among his most influential books are Race Matters (1994) and Democracy Matters (2004). He is currently running a third-party campaign in the 2024 United States presidential election.


The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people.
I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years "Be successful, be successful, be successful" as opposed to "Be great, be great, be great". There's a qualititative difference.
You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people, if you don't serve the people.
  • I focus on popular culture because I focus on those areas where black humanity is most powerfully expressed, where black people have been able to articulate their sense of the world in a profound manner. And I see this primarily in popular culture. Why not in highbrow culture? Because the access has been so difficult. Why not in more academic forms? Because academic exclusion has been the rule for so long for large numbers of black people that black culture, for me, becomes a search for where black people have left their imprint and fundamentally made a difference in terms of how certain art forms are understood. This is currently in popular culture. And it has been primarily in music, religion, visual arts and fashion.
    • "Cornel West interviewed by bell hooks" in Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1991)
  • In situations of sparse resources along with degraded self-images and depoliticized sensibilities, one avenue for poor people is in existential rebellion and anarchic expression. The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people.
    • "The Role of Law in Progressive Politics" in Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1993)
  • The Enlightenment worldview held by Du Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time. The tragic plight and absurd predicament of Africans here and abroad requires a more profound interpretation of the human condition — one that goes beyond the false dichotomies of expert knowledge vs. mass ignorance, individual autonomy vs. dogmatic authority, and self-mastery vs. intolerant tradition.
  • Analytical philosophy was very interesting. It always struck me as being very interesting and full of tremendous intellectual curiosities. It is wonderful to see the mind at work in such an intense manner, but, for me, it was still too far removed from my own issues.
    • Interview in African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations (1998) edited by George Yancy, p. 35
  • The authority of science … promotes and encourages the activity of observing, comparing, measuring and ordering the physical characteristics of human bodies.… Cartesian epistemology and classical ideals produced forms of rationality, scientificity and objectivity that, though efficacious in the quest for truth and knowledge, prohibited the intelligibility and legitimacy of black equality…. In fact, to "think" such an idea was to be deemed irrational, barbaric or mad.
    • Prophesy Deliverance! (2002)
  • I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years "Be successful, be successful, be successful" as opposed to "Be great, be great, be great". There's a qualitative difference.
    • Speech in San Francisco: Democracy Matters (1 October 2004)
  • 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. … The free-market fundamentalism that prevails in the United States today promotes the pervasive sleepwalking of the populace. People see that the false prophets are handsomely rewarded — with money, status and access to more power. … We are experiencing the sad gangsterization of America — an unbridled grasp at power, wealth and status.
  • To many, our democratic system seems so broken that they have simply lost faith that their participation could really matter. The politics of self-interest and catering to narrow special interests is so dominant that so many ask themselves: Why vote? This disaffection stems both from the all-too-true reality of the corruptions of our system and from a deeper psychic disillusionment and disappointment. The political discourse is so formulaic, so tailored into poll-driven, focus-group-approved slogans that don't really say anything substantive or strike at the core of our lived experience; the lack of authenticity of discourse—and the underlying lack of gravitas, of penetrating insight and wisdom on the part of politicians—is numbing. But we must keep in mind that the disgust so many feel comes from a deep desire to hear more authentic expressions of insights about our lives and more genuine commitment to improving them. Many of us long for expressions of real concern both about the pain of our individual lives and about the common good [...] as opposed to the blatant catering to base interests and to narrow elite constituencies. We long for politics that in not about winning a political game but about producing better lives.
  • You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people, if you don't serve the people.
    • Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom (2008); also on "The Way I See It" Starbucks Coffee Cup #284
  • Justice is what love looks like in public.
    • Brother West (2009), p. 232
  • From whence are these "rights of individuals" derived, and why should we care? Unless we presume the existence of some greater power that determines what is good, isn't it arbitrary to posit that human survival is more important than private property rights, an equally artificially construed concept? Isn't it arbitrary to assume that some sort of equality is preferable to a system where, say, the poor are assumed to have bad karma? If these 'rights of individuals' are derived only from shared humanity, then do 'individuals' (a thoroughly meaningless term, by the way), begin to lose them when they act inhumanely? And isn't it totally arbitrary to grant rights to humans rather than other creatures anyway?
    • Lecture in New Haven, On Constructed Rights (28 February 2013)
  • The rule of Big Money and its attendant culture of cupidity and mendacity has so poisoned our hearts, minds and souls that a dominant self-righteous neoliberal soulcraft of smartness, dollars and bombs thrives with little opposition.
    • "America is spiritually bankrupt. We must fight back together." The Guardian, (14 January 2018)
  • Well, as you know, I was blessed to do over a hundred events for my dear brother [Bernie Sanders]. And this is the first time I’ve had a chance to publicly endorse him again, but yes, indeed. I’ll be in his corner that we’re going to win this time. And it has to do with the Martin Luther King like criteria of assessing a candidate namely the issues of militarism, poverty, materialism, and racism, xenophobia in all of its forms that includes any kind of racism as you know against black people, brown people, yellow people, anybody, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Kashmirians, Tibetans and so forth. So that there’s no doubt that the my dear brother Bernie stands shoulders above any of the other candidates running in the Democratic primary when it comes to that Martin Luther King-like standards or criteria.
  • [Bernie Sanders is] anti-racist in his heart. Two, he’s old-school. He’s like me. He doesn’t know the buzzwords. He doesn’t endorse reparations, one moment in the last 30 years, silent on it. He has the consistency over the years decade after decade and therefore it’s true in his language, in his rhetoric. There are times in which he doesn’t... use the same kind of buzzwords. But when it comes to his fight against racism, going to jail in Chicago as a younger brother and he would go to jail again. He and I would go to jail together again in terms of fighting against police brutality. So in that sense, I would just tell my brothers and sisters, but especially my chocolate ones that they shouldn’t be blinded by certain kinds of words they’re looking for, that in the end, he is a long distance runner in the struggle against white supremacy.
  • Harvard now, I think, suffers from a kind of self-idolatry, that it needs to be critical of itself in order to grow. And again, if you can be in contact with the best of its past, then it’s got a chance. But if it just remains well adjusted to the status quo, generating careerist and opportunist students rather than critically oriented students who have a heart and soul, concerned about suffering here and around the world — then Harvard has a chance. I’m not giving up on Harvard, but I am making my way to New York.
    • Speaking in Too Radical for Harvard? Cornel West on Failed Fight for Tenure, Biden’s First 50 Days & More, Democracy Now!, (10 March 2021)
  • 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... The disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet deferential faculty, and the disorientation of precious students loom large... To witness a faculty enthusiastically support a candidate for tenure then timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting... We all know the mendacious reasons given had nothing to do with academic standards... 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 deaths...
  • We’re at such a low point in the American empire. Its spiritual decay and its immoral decadence are so profound that we have to begin on the foundational level of a spiritual awakening and a moral reckoning. Organized greed. Institutionalized hatred. Routinized indifference to the lives of poor and working people of all colors. We’ve got to get beyond an analysis of the predatory capitalist processes that have saturated every nook and cranny of the culture. We’ve got to get beyond the ways in which the political system has been colonized by corporate wealth and by monied elite. We’ve got to get beyond that sense of impotence of the citizenry. These are all the signs of an empire in decline. The only thing that we have to add is military overreach, and we see that as well.
  • The Democratic Party is beyond redemption at this point when it comes to seriously speaking to the needs of poor and working people… The neofascism that's escalating is predicated on the rottenness of a system in which the Democratic Party facilitates that frustration and desperation because it can't present an alternative… If America is unable to present an alternative to the Democratic Party, then we're going fascist.
  • The Democratic Party is beyond redemption at this point when it comes to seriously speaking to the needs of poor and working people… The neofascism that's escalating is predicated on the rottenness of a system in which the Democratic Party facilitates that frustration and desperation because it can't present an alternative… If America is unable to present an alternative to the Democratic Party, then we're going fascist.

Quotes about Cornel West[edit]

  • Cornel West thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.
  • One of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic and healing voices in America today.
  • The pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.
  • Noted UCLA professor Robin Kelley... wote... “Why Cornel West’s Tenure Fight Matters.” And he says, “Harvard has a problem with outspoken, principled faculty who take public positions that question university policy, challenge authority, or might ruffle the feathers of big donors. And when the faculty in question are scholars of color, their odds of getting through the tenure process are slim to none.”... And... the Harvard Black Law Students Association [wrote].. to the administration, “Harvard’s refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure continues a consistent pattern of practice that undermines and devalues the scholarship of Black professors and professors of color...The refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure raises concerns about the future treatment of Black academics and academics of color in a tenure process that already lacks transparency.”
  • To paraphrase scholar Cornel West, you can't save a country you don't serve, and you can't lead a country you don't love. And there is much to love in this country.
  • Most commonly, the public face even on positive Jewish-African American relations has been inscribed as largely male. Michael Lerner and Cornel West, though they mention gender, do so in booming patriarchal voices. It took years before they invited a woman to join their public conversations, and though their choice of partner-Susannah Heschel, Director of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth and daughter of Rabbi Heschel-is apt, might not the gentlemen have also included an African American woman? What about an African American Jew?
  • Cornel West, the African American philosopher and writer, spoke recently in San Francisco talking about the importance of linkages. For example, he said gay and lesbian rights are an issue in the African American community. They aren’t separate, outside of the community. Just because the issue is not welfare, or racism, or gangs, that doesn’t mean it’s not a Black community issue. I think that’s a very useful and important way to look at things. I know a lot of Latinos wouldn’t agree that gay and lesbian rights are a Latino issue. But we need to work for this understanding and make it clear that the issue is not a problem for a bunch of people outside the Latino community who happen to be gay or lesbian. It’s inside our community. Taking that kind of position is the only way that in fact makes sense.
  • The aim of fiction is to break down stereotypes. Unfortunately, the publishing and academic industries seem to profit more from reinforcing stereotypes. This is what African American intellectuals have to deal with too. That's why I feel I'm on the same wavelength with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, James Alan McPherson. Why should a minority person be made to feel guilty because she believes education leads to both self-improvement and national enlightenment? To me, class is as divisive as race.
    • 1996 interview in Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee Edited by Bradley C. Edwards (2009)
  • Cornel West is not simply a lucid African-American guide equal to the complexities of real multiculturalism, but also an authentic teacher of hope and reason.
  • Famed civil rights activist Cornel West announced he is leaving his post at Harvard University’s Divinity School in a scathing resignation letter — accusing the institution of “spiritual rot” and describing it as in a state of “decay and decline.” In a letter shared to Twitter on Monday night, the professor of African American studies said he had taken an untenured position four years ago with the hope that he could “still end his career with some semblance of intellectual intensity and personal respect.... "How wrong I was!...” wrote West, 68... [He]... had previously been a tenured Harvard professor before he quit in 2002 — said it had become disheartening to see the institution in a state of “decline and decay.” ... The prominent black philosopher also said he received the “lowest increase possible” to his salary every year since he returned to campus. When he was recommended for a tenure review, the university rejected it over his support of Palestine, he said. He then lamented a lack of personal engagement and empathy from colleagues outside of work and academia, including how he only received two replies to news of his mother’s death in a newsletter. West said he was resigning with “precious memories but absolutely no regrets.”
  • Dr. Cornel West, one of the most important philosophers of our time

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