Cornel West's Race Matters and the Politics of Democratic Respect

06/02/2015 04:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

In 1993, responding to what he saw as misleading treatments of the Watts riots following the acquittal of four police officers a year earlier in Los Angeles after the violent beating of an unarmed black man, Cornel West wrote Race Matters. "Glib attempts to reduce its meaning to the pathologies of the black underclass, the criminal actions of hoodlums or the political revolt of the oppressed urban masses miss the mark," West argued. Rather, in his view,

what we witnessed in Los Angeles was the consequence of a lethal linkage of economic decline, cultural decay and political lethargy in American life. Race was the visible catalyst, not the underlying cause.

West made an impassioned, eloquent call for action on issues of racial injustice, poverty and despair, arguing that "our ideals of freedom, democracy and quality must be invoked to invigorate all of us, especially the landless, propertyless and luckless." He also struck an urgent tone. "Either we learn a new language of empathy or compassion or the fire this time will consume us all."

In the book, West proposes large-scale public action, often called for by liberals, to address black poverty and unemployment by ensuring access to social goods such as housing, food, health, education and jobs. He also argues, in the vein of conservative thinking, that liberals ignore dynamics of culture and identity. These are "the murky waters of despair and dread that now flood the streets of black America," which generate a mood of nihilism among many blacks. "The issues of black identity -- both black self-love and self-contempt," he concludes," sit alongside black poverty as realities to confront and transform."

The book merits renewed attention in 2015 following police shootings of unarmed African-Americans in recent months and protests across the nation. These have drawn attention not only to police action but also to African Americans communities as acute examples of diminished life chances, social challenges, and poverty which Robert Putnam describes in Our Kids, which I reviewed last week. In Baltimore, with a median value of $6,446, African-American households were 10 percent poorer in 2011 than in 1984. Whites and blacks with means have moved out of the East Side and West Baltimore. As Eric Singer wrote in "Why Baltimore Burns" in The Nation, "many residents interpret the area... as a physically, socially and economically isolated place of terror."

West's tone has become more pessimistic over the last two decades. In Race Matters West asks, "Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect and will to meet the challenge?" and concludes that "each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so." He also cites community organizing groups like BUILD in Baltimore "that bring power and pressure to bear on specific issues" as hopeful alternatives.

In recent years, West lambasts what he sees as the failure of the Obama administration. "The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King's prophetic legacy," he wrote in the New York Times. After the 2013 Inauguration he told C-Span that Obama's use of King's Bible "makes my blood boil."

West neglects technocratic power and its "cult of the expert" which disrespects the talents of everyday citizens, found in government and elsewhere and far beyond power of presidents to turn around.

As I described in Everyday Politics, a 1999 study by the Minnesota Board of Aging found that most citizens wanted civic opportunities to make a real difference on public problems but were well aware of obstacles. Both baby boomers and older citizens in the Board's focus groups said they wanted to do "more than volunteering," by contributing to rebuilding a sense of community and being involved in decision making. They wanted to learn civic skills such as working across differences of partisan belief, race and culture, and big picture thinking that tied specific tasks to large challenges facing the country.

They also felt that most institutions -- government, and also businesses, schools and nonprofits -- devalued their talents. Volunteer opportunities typically relegated people to "positions of mediocrity with the assumption that they lack to capacity to work on big issues that impact the community." Volunteers were rarely asked "what they are good at, what is important to them, and how they want to be part of shaping their community."

In his 1984 book Outgrowing Democracy, the conservative Catholic intellectual John Lukacs, a refugee from Hungary after the 1956 revolution, was shocked to find such disrespect. He had come to America believing our country overestimated the capacities of "the democratic masses." Whether that had ever been the case, he observed that America had shifted from a democratic order to a bureaucratic state system ruled by experts. Not only government but also the media, businesses, higher education, schools, and foundations had sharply diminished views of the talents of most people.

Barack Obama in 2008 repeatedly challenged such disrespect. In a campaign speech in Independence Missouri on June 30, he declared "the greatness of this country, its victories in war, its enormous wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements, all result from the energy and imagination of the American people, their toil, drive, struggle, restlessness, humor and quiet heroism."

In such a view, wise leaders are important, but not the driving agents of change. Democracy rests on those whom one contemporary Revolutionary leader called "the people without the frosting," unheralded citizens practiced at running their own affairs and building communities. Martin Luther King centuries later made the same point when he describes "the unlettered men and women" as "the real heroes of the movement... bringing the country back to the great wells of democracy."

Who gets in office matters. But we need a citizen movement for deepened democracy that challenges continuing racism, as part of a politics of democratic respect for the talents and potential of citizens of every race and creed.

Harry C. Boyte is editor of Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press, 2015). The contributors give examples of a "politics of democratic respect" reappearing in higher education.