speaks on race matters
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.
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."
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
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.
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
confrontation of our past, he believes, is part of what maintains
democracy. Currently, however, he suggested "there is hemorrhaging
in the American democratic process,² the main culprit being the
economic system. In America, we keep track of "the green
note," he said.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.