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West speaks on race matters
Stephanie Gross
Cornel West

By Adam Bronstein

Just the presence of African-American studies scholar Cornel West striding on-stage in Old Cabell Hall Oct. 6 brought the overflow crowd to its feet. The author of Race Matters, West was the third speaker in a series dedicated to improving minority health and sponsored by the U.Va. Cancer Center, the Humanities in Medicine program and other health, academic and student groups.

West, the Alphonse Fletcher Jr. Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy of Religion at Harvard University, covered health as one of several concrete examples that allow people to hear "the blue note of dissonance and divide" and to explore the topic of race in America. Only through something tangible, like inequities within the health care system, can we truly gain compassion and empathy for others. Only then, West asserted, "can you get in the skin of others."

He admitted that he was particularly fond of the blues, since it contains the dissonance so prevalent in American society. For him, music like George Clinton's "Funk" helps to understand other people.

West rejected the notion that race is exclusive to the dissonance that is found between blacks and whites. Indeed "any serious discussion of race," he said, "has to discuss the lives of indigenous people [in the U.S.]." He asserted that it is immature if we do not confront the "night side" or "underside" of our human predicament.

He then spoke of the injustices of the original 13 colonies as well as the statutes of exclusion in the country's history. We need to "confront the past as a springboard to our future," he said. To achieve this, he challenged students to get serious -- to perform hard academic labor in the process of their own intellectual metamorphosis.

This confrontation of our past, he believes, is part of what maintains democracy. Currently, however, he suggested "there is hemorrhaging in the American democratic process, the main culprit being the economic system. In America, we keep track of "the green note," he said.

"The major obstacle in American democracy is the way the market has become a fetish." He reminded the audience that the market is just a human construct, yet we ascribe magical powers to it.

For West, the ideal of justice has to be functioning within our democracy to regulate the market. He specifically noted the growing wealth and income inequalities in the United States. In an implicit reference to Bill Gates, he questioned how it is that one individual in America can have more wealth than 120 million Americans. "America is about economic growth by corporate priorities," West said.

But he also warned that this obsession with the market is not exclusive to the rich and to corporations. He claimed that "there is corporate greed that allow working people to revel in their profits." He described our society as a "market culture, obsessed with buying and selling, making and mending." Meanwhile, he pointed out, there are growing numbers of 6- and 7 year-olds wrestling with depression.

These market forces have led to a more balkanized society and the shattering of family and community. Even religion in the U.S. is now market-driven, since it no longer calls the market into question.

Ultimately, he said he'd like people to address the blue notes of dissonance, to risk being unpopular and non-conformist. He also recognized the many people who do attend to the "underside" of American society, but often feel impotent when doing so. More of us should strive to create the best of democracy, he said, because "democratic traditions are fragile and can become very weak." In the end, West emphasized that we must invest in this effort collectively.


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