In his seminal work, Race Matters, Dr. Cornel West questions matters of economics and politics, as well as addressing the crisis in Black leadership. The book was written in 1993, but many of its themes are salient today. His scholarship has come to be recognized globally and West, himself, is known for his combination of political and moral insight and criticism. The bulk of his work focuses on the role of race, gender, and class in American society. As a contemporary of Barack Obama, and fellow Harvard student, West is among the few scholars to so eloquently articulate the modern Black experience of our generation. Both men are products of various influences including the civil rights movement and, like West, Barack Obama has made an art of maximizing his patchwork heritage to bring greater consciousness to the American public and elevate civic dialogue on race, politics and society.
Cornel West was born in 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shaped by his family, church, education and the black social movements of the 1960s, West admired the “sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party… and the livid black theology of James Cone.” He enrolled at Harvard University and took classes taught by philosophers like Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell. After earning his doctorate from Princeton in 1980, he went on to teach at several institutions including Yale and Harvard.
In 2000, after a public row with economist, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and then-president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, he left his post and returned to Princeton University, where he has been teaching ever since.
He has been involved in projects such as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit. West’s outreach and projects were focused on bringing youth into the political fold and helping them realize the power of their generation to change the status quo, a meem echoed by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign, which resulted in an unprecedented amount of youth participation both, on the ground and in the voting booths.
West is probably best known for his views on race in America, a topic of immense relevance as we begin the term of the first black President, Barack Obama. West describes the United States as a “racist patriarchal” nation where “white supremacy” continues to define everyday life. In a somewhat controversial statement with regard to the September 11 attacks, West said the attack gave white Americans a glimpse of what it means to be black in America – feeling “unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hated” for who they are.
Being, in many ways, a kindred spirit to President Barack Obama, it was no surprise when West so actively supported and campaigned for Obama during the presidential race. Both Dr. Cornel West and President Barack Obama were deeply influenced by the histories they came from and realized that the real power of a nation came from overturning stale paradigms and reinvigorating the youth toward positive change.
Watch our Video of Dr. West discussing his favorite “Way Black When” moment. Take a look: