This book is difficult to review for the exact reasons it necessitates reading. By and large, white United States citizens (I try to avoid calling them American’s because, well, there’s still 1.6 times more America covered that isn’t ‘American’ than is.) can’t stand thinking about race and how essential it’s existence is to the world we live in, good or bad. As it turns out, on any deeper and serious level, neither can the black community.
Cornel West, a professor at both Princeton and Harvard University, is a serious, inspired voice looking into how race plays into the society of the United States and why, even when we can’t acknowledge it, Race Matters.
I’m to start up front by saying that I probably can’t fully understand or appreciate West’s point of view. I’m not black. However, I can tell you that I’ve witnessed his perspective through those I know personally, even those on my own economic and social levels.
The really awkward part about this book is definitely addressed head on within the pages. That is discussing the racial question. Many times this point cannot be brought with any hope of serious discussion because too often it is dismissed as either ‘being racist’ by those who it affects the most or as not being a big deal, by those who don’t understand. In many cases, these people exist simultaneously in both groups.
I know, I’m not here to make a political statement. That’s fair. But that same awkwardness that applies to approaching the subject matter is relevant when trying to decide if the discussion about said matter has an substantive contributions to make.
West makes a point of not being political. That is, he neither assigns his beliefs to liberal or conservative themes. In fact, he distinctly makes the point of identifying both ideological flaws. Liberals discount community and bias, focusing too much on structure and government support, while the conservatives discount economic and social hinderances, focusing too much on the Protestant ideals of working hard. Both neglect oppressive history and angry undertones that pervade actual life. West points out that both ideas, as with any political setting, reduce the argument to the extremes of both edges, often ignoring the real issues in favor of scoring political points. He also notes how the spiritual core that had preserved and protected the black community up until the 1970’s has since eroded away beneath the capitalistic influence of modern america. This void led to the destruction of the once strong community that had survive persecution for hundreds of years.
West postulates (and, in my opinion, successfully defends) the idea the ‘blackness’ is a political definition that holds power only because the black community wants to isolate itself, for fear of losing itself to the white community. However, their closed rank approach only serves to isolate them even further, while letting the lowest common denominator represent them at large. See: Clarence Thomas. This idea manifests as ‘racial reasoning,’ also known as the ‘race card’ wherein people attack others with faulty logic and weak arguments predicated on the fact that one is either black or not black.
That’s really all I can say safely about the book, the purpose of which is to explore in greater depth and prose what I can only begin to comprehend. There does seem to be a central theme that can apply to any self-isolated group that wants to be accepted: i.e. Jew, gays, etc. They isolate themselves with walls the believe define their culture and in the process only weaken themselves. If there is any greater meaning to Race Matters, I would argue that this is it. That the same rules of self destructive isolationism and pandering to the lowest common denominator apply to any group.
If you have a stronger stomach and are willing to confront truths that are usually hidden beneath walking platitudes and television heads, this is definitely a book I recommend. Cornel West is a fox, for sure. That’s why you’ll never see him on CNN or FOX but he’s got a great point of view and, certainly, nothing he says makes for a 30 second sound bite. That’s how you know it’s for real. So, pick this up if you’re willing to be challenged.