Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Final Essay Post- Addressing "Race Matters" in the United States Of America

In the lecture series “Race Matters”, Harvard professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy of religion, Dr. Cornel West, looks at the major issues that cause issues with race in America. During his lecture Dr. West looks at race matters from the inception of the nation to modern times. Dr. West theorizes that the reason that matters of race have not been eradicated in America is because matters of race have not been addressed in America. There are two specific examples that Dr. West provides in highlighting when race was unavoidably addressed by the entire nation: The 1860’s during the civil war and the 1960’s during the civil rights movement. During these two periods America had no choice but to face, head on, the issues of race in America. According to Dr. West America’s race matters cannot be approached without first discussing White supremacy. The country of America was founded by White people and for White people. In today’s modern society the country is a beautifully diverse, and multi-ethnic, global power that the founding fathers probably did not foresee. During the period of the country’s revolution and founding, Blacks were not considered as people or citizens. Dr. West notes, “it’s no accident the constitution does not refer to slavery, slaves, or negroes.” Once again this is a glaring example of how from the earliest days of America’s existence the subject of race matters has been avoided and ignored.
Dr. West assess that America as a whole needs a deep self-analysis. The first question he feels must be addressed is what does it mean to be human? Once the definition of humanity is decided upon, then the nation can address if Blacks are human. And are they equally intelligent? Equally beautiful? Equally worthy of justice? Blacks under slavery and Jim Crow had no rights and limited liberties. They were often viewed by the White supremacy as unworthy, unequal, and subhuman. Therefore, in order to achieve the goal of having a true multi-racial democracy, America must first find its humanity and then accept the people of brown and black skin as its brothers and sisters. The theory of a multi-racial democracy was discoursed between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Initially, Lincoln felt that a multi-racial democracy, where Whites saw Blacks as equals, was impossible to accomplish. Other great minds in American history and philosophy have come to the same conclusion including Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Alexis De Tocqueville. In his book Democracy in America Tocqueville writes of the three races in America, Blacks, Whites, and Native Americans. When Tocqueville writes of Blacks and Native Americans he declares:
Both occupy an equally inferior position in the country that they inhabit; both suffer the effects of tyranny; and if their miseries are different, they can blame the same authors for them…Oppression deprived the descendants of the Africans at a stroke of nearly all the privileges of humanity. The Negro of the United States has lost even the memory of his country; he no longer hears the language spoken by his fathers; he has renounced their religion and forgotten their mores. While thus ceasing to belong to Africa, however, he has acquired no right to the good things of Europe; but he has stopped between the two societies; he has remained isolated between the two peoples; sold by the one and re-pudiated by the other; finding in the whole world only the home of his master to offer him the incomplete picture of a native land” (Tocqueville 1840).
This assertion by Tocqueville that Blacks were deprived of humanity echoes Dr. West’s sentiments that an examination of humanity must be at the forefront of any serious charge to eradicate race matters in America. The connectivity and brotherhood of us as humans should be enough to motivate White America against injustices carried out on Black and Brown people, according to Dr. West.
Dr. West also finds a connection between race matters and American economics. On issues of race in America Dr. West urges the poor working class White citizen to confront the larger power structure that has demobilized them and not confront their Black working class neighbor. The negative energy and frustration that the poor, working class White citizen has is shared by their Black working class neighbor. Dr. Martin Luther King knew this as well and that is why toward the end of his life he shifted his sole focus from the civil rights movement for Black people, to the poor people’s campaign. Socio-economics is another barrier that divides the races and inhibits the true systemic change in regards to matters of race.
Additionally, I wanted to make mention of the previously posed question during the Darwinian conversation on the ability to pass on traits. The question of, “can life be shaped by books, songs, works of art, etc.?” was a profound question that I gave a resounding YES! I found it interesting that during his lecture Dr. West made mention of at least a dozen musicians from different eras and different genres. Dr. West noted Common, Billie Holliday, Lauryn Hill, John Coltrane, and even Socrates as musicians that took their energy, thoughts, and theories, and poured them into music. Some of this music lives on for coming generations to enjoy and be energized by as well. Thus, art has a special place in the pantheon of change. This is the reason that songs like “Strange Fruit”, “Young, Gifted, & Black”, and “Say It Loud (I’m Black & I’m Proud) will echo for generations to come for children of color around the world. 

Finally, in my assessment of Dr. West’s synopsis on race relations in America I agree with the vast majority of his philosophies. I think that America does need to look at itself and do some self-analysis. The problem of race in America will never magically go away. It will take effort, determination, and a combined effort…the same things it took to create the race problem in America. However, Dr. West is hopeful that a positive conclusion will come as a result of the self-analysis. I am doubtful that any true self-analysis under the White supremacy of America will ever come to fruition because those in power have too much to lose and too little to gain by creating a multi-racial democracy. Dr. West points out major conflicts in American history, such as the Civil War where an estimated 620,000 Americans died in a conflict where race matters were the center piece. The death that accompanied the Civil War did not eliminate race matters and honestly did little to deter racism in America. Maybe this skeptical, pessimistic, empiricist outlook harkens back to William James’ theory of the tough minded individuals in society. I am aligned with the tough minded and find very little evidence in the history of White supremacy and American history that leads me to be hopeful for a positive solution to race matters in this country. This does not mean however that there are not good White people that seek equality and justice in America. Blacks in America need the solidarity of their White brothers and sisters to make any progress at all inside this nation. There were White Quakers that helped the abolitionists and runaway slaves, there were White Freedom Riders that rode into the deep South and were abused alongside their Black counterparts during the Civil Rights Movement, and there are White activists today marching and protesting alongside Black Lives Matter activists each time an unarmed person of color is gunned down by a law officer. These though are the minority. These are the non-conformists. These are the people that society saw (and still sees) as the troublemakers. J.S. Mill addressed the power in originality and theorized the non-value of those members of society who do not conform. This theory was true of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King was a non-conformist who, Dr. West makes note of in his lecture, was not the beloved figure we know and celebrate today. Dr. King was a non-conformist who agitated Whites and Blacks alike.  Non-conformists are usually those that read between the lines and can see truth in the face of danger. The non-conformist applies intellect to rationalize against injustice and stands strong against the masses of conformists. America as a nation does not like that. These are the troublemakers. Richard Hofstadter in his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life provokes the notion that America praises intelligence, but fears intellect. I agree with Hofstadter’s position. The fear I have of America never reaching its true potential as a multi-racial democracy lies in the fact that we are a nation of conformists. We preach independence and individuality, but we practice conformity and submission. Until we praise equality and tolerance the way we praise capitalism and ambition, we will never be the nation we have the potential to be. 
**And I had 7 runs this semester...not counting the upcoming conversations on the final posts**


  1. Hofstadter's book, decades old now but still so relevant, quotes one of my favorite philosophers in a playful/ironic moment: "Let us admit the case of the conservative," John Dewey once wrote. "If we once start thinking no one can guarantee what will be the outcome..." Or as Kant said, "Sapere Aude!"-have the courage to think. Bertrand Russell said most would rather die than think, and in fact most do.

    But Cornel West is more hopeful (isn't he?) in thinking that the roots of the American intellectual tradition (running through Dewey back to the transcendentalists and beyond) offer the possibility that just enough of us will prefer thinking to dying. Barack Obama always reminded us that there had been remarkable progress in this country, culminating in the two-time election of an African-American president. True, we're currently living through a time of regress in that regard. But the audacity of hope still shimmers for those who won't stop thinking - in the tradition of the best American philosophy - about tomorrow. Keep hope alive!

    And, may I recommend, read Cornel West's great book "The American Evasion of Philosophy." West says "“I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.” He also says “I have tried to be a man of letters in love with ideas in order to be a wiser and more loving person, hoping to leave the world just a little better than I found it.” So, not an optimist but - also in the best tradition of American philosophy - a meliorist. Take a sad world, make it just a little better. Next generation repeat... Eventually we'll get to the promised land.

  2. Amazing! Great read Vega! I have a lot of admiration for Cornel West, but did his critique of President Obama go to far?

  3. Vega,

    I want to wish you well at PSU law school and I believe that you have already made a difference and will continue to do so. Before I read your essay, I found a book entitled, The American Prejudice Against Color. It's a short book and if you can grab an hour before you head to PA, it is an interesting read. It was written in 1853 by William G. Allen. I won't spoil his experience or perspective, but it clearly still relates to today. His wife demonstrated how important love is. You can google about his life and the book's call number is 301.422 Al54a 1969. I'll return it to MTSU library, but they may not have time or resources to shelve it. As I read it and thought of the pain they went through just because of the color of their skins, I was reminded of something that you may have heard me say, that we are often blinded by our own sight. The long-term solution is to get people to be the other person not just for a moment, but as part of a life changing experience, then our perspective can change. No matter what side of an issue one is on. I once read about a KKK member who discovered that one of his ancestors was black, for him it was a life changing experience, he left the KKK and became a supporter for civil rights. Wouldn't it be nice if we all could experience that.

    Take care and best to you,
    P.S. If you think about it, send me your email so we can keep in touch.