Cornel West

African-American philosopher and political/civil rights activist

Cornel Ronald West (born 2 June 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma) is an American philosopher, political activist, social critic, author, and public intellectual. The son of a Baptist minister, West focuses on the role of race, gender, and class in American society and the means by which people act and react to their "radical conditionedness." A radical democratic socialist, West draws intellectual contributions from multiple traditions, including Christianity, the black church, Marxism, neopragmatism, and transcendentalism. Among his most influential books are Race Matters (1994) and Democracy Matters (2004). He is currently running a third-party campaign in the 2024 United States presidential election.

To be an intellectual really means to speak a truth that allows suffering to speak. That is, it creates a vision of the world that puts into the limelight the social misery that is usually hidden or concealed by the dominant viewpoints of a society.


The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people.
I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years "Be successful, be successful, be successful" as opposed to "Be great, be great, be great". There's a qualititative difference.
You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people, if you don't serve the people.
  • I focus on popular culture because I focus on those areas where black humanity is most powerfully expressed, where black people have been able to articulate their sense of the world in a profound manner. And I see this primarily in popular culture. Why not in highbrow culture? Because the access has been so difficult. Why not in more academic forms? Because academic exclusion has been the rule for so long for large numbers of black people that black culture, for me, becomes a search for where black people have left their imprint and fundamentally made a difference in terms of how certain art forms are understood. This is currently in popular culture. And it has been primarily in music, religion, visual arts and fashion.
    • "Cornel West interviewed by bell hooks" in Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1991)
  • In situations of sparse resources along with degraded self-images and depoliticized sensibilities, one avenue for poor people is in existential rebellion and anarchic expression. The capacity to produce social chaos is the last resort of desperate people.
    • "The Role of Law in Progressive Politics" in Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1993)
  • The Enlightenment worldview held by Du Bois is ultimately inadequate, and, in many ways, antiquated, for our time. The tragic plight and absurd predicament of Africans here and abroad requires a more profound interpretation of the human condition — one that goes beyond the false dichotomies of expert knowledge vs. mass ignorance, individual autonomy vs. dogmatic authority, and self-mastery vs. intolerant tradition.
  • Analytical philosophy was very interesting. It always struck me as being very interesting and full of tremendous intellectual curiosities. It is wonderful to see the mind at work in such an intense manner, but, for me, it was still too far removed from my own issues.
    • Interview in African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations (1998) edited by George Yancy, p. 35
  • The authority of science … promotes and encourages the activity of observing, comparing, measuring and ordering the physical characteristics of human bodies.… Cartesian epistemology and classical ideals produced forms of rationality, scientificity and objectivity that, though efficacious in the quest for truth and knowledge, prohibited the intelligibility and legitimacy of black equality…. In fact, to "think" such an idea was to be deemed irrational, barbaric or mad.
    • Prophesy Deliverance! (2002)
  • I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years "Be successful, be successful, be successful" as opposed to "Be great, be great, be great". There's a qualitative difference.
    • Speech in San Francisco: Democracy Matters (1 October 2004)
  • Free-market fundamentalism trivializes the concern for public interest. It puts fear and insecurity in the hearts of anxiety-ridden workers. It also makes money-driven, poll-obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit – often at the cost of the common good. … The free-market fundamentalism that prevails in the United States today promotes the pervasive sleepwalking of the populace. People see that the false prophets are handsomely rewarded — with money, status and access to more power. … We are experiencing the sad gangsterization of America — an unbridled grasp at power, wealth and status.
  • You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people, if you don't serve the people.
    • Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom (2008); also on "The Way I See It" Starbucks Coffee Cup #284
  • Justice is what love looks like in public.
    • Brother West (2009), p. 232
  • From whence are these "rights of individuals" derived, and why should we care? Unless we presume the existence of some greater power that determines what is good, isn't it arbitrary to posit that human survival is more important than private property rights, an equally artificially construed concept? Isn't it arbitrary to assume that some sort of equality is preferable to a system where, say, the poor are assumed to have bad karma? If these 'rights of individuals' are derived only from shared humanity, then do 'individuals' (a thoroughly meaningless term, by the way), begin to lose them when they act inhumanely? And isn't it totally arbitrary to grant rights to humans rather than other creatures anyway?
    • Lecture in New Haven, On Constructed Rights (28 February 2013)
  • The rule of Big Money and its attendant culture of cupidity and mendacity has so poisoned our hearts, minds and souls that a dominant self-righteous neoliberal soulcraft of smartness, dollars and bombs thrives with little opposition.
    • "America is spiritually bankrupt. We must fight back together." The Guardian, (14 January 2018)
  • Well, as you know, I was blessed to do over a hundred events for my dear brother [Bernie Sanders]. And this is the first time I’ve had a chance to publicly endorse him again, but yes, indeed. I’ll be in his corner that we’re going to win this time. And it has to do with the Martin Luther King like criteria of assessing a candidate namely the issues of militarism, poverty, materialism, and racism, xenophobia in all of its forms that includes any kind of racism as you know against black people, brown people, yellow people, anybody, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Kashmirians, Tibetans and so forth. So that there’s no doubt that the my dear brother Bernie stands shoulders above any of the other candidates running in the Democratic primary when it comes to that Martin Luther King-like standards or criteria.
  • [Bernie Sanders is] anti-racist in his heart. Two, he’s old-school. He’s like me. He doesn’t know the buzzwords. He doesn’t endorse reparations, one moment in the last 30 years, silent on it. He has the consistency over the years decade after decade and therefore it’s true in his language, in his rhetoric. There are times in which he doesn’t... use the same kind of buzzwords. But when it comes to his fight against racism, going to jail in Chicago as a younger brother and he would go to jail again. He and I would go to jail together again in terms of fighting against police brutality. So in that sense, I would just tell my brothers and sisters, but especially my chocolate ones that they shouldn’t be blinded by certain kinds of words they’re looking for, that in the end, he is a long distance runner in the struggle against white supremacy.
  • Harvard now, I think, suffers from a kind of self-idolatry, that it needs to be critical of itself in order to grow. And again, if you can be in contact with the best of its past, then it’s got a chance. But if it just remains well adjusted to the status quo, generating careerist and opportunist students rather than critically oriented students who have a heart and soul, concerned about suffering here and around the world — then Harvard has a chance. I’m not giving up on Harvard, but I am making my way to New York.
    • Speaking in Too Radical for Harvard? Cornel West on Failed Fight for Tenure, Biden’s First 50 Days & More, Democracy Now!, (10 March 2021)
  • With a few glorious and glaring exceptions, the shadow of Jim Crow was cast in its new glittering form expressed in the language of superficial diversity... The disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet deferential faculty, and the disorientation of precious students loom large... To witness a faculty enthusiastically support a candidate for tenure then timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting... We all know the mendacious reasons given had nothing to do with academic standards... This kind of narcissistic academic professionalism, cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration, and indifference to my Mother’s death constitutes an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep deaths...
  • We’re at such a low point in the American empire. Its spiritual decay and its immoral decadence are so profound that we have to begin on the foundational level of a spiritual awakening and a moral reckoning. Organized greed. Institutionalized hatred. Routinized indifference to the lives of poor and working people of all colors. We’ve got to get beyond an analysis of the predatory capitalist processes that have saturated every nook and cranny of the culture. We’ve got to get beyond the ways in which the political system has been colonized by corporate wealth and by monied elite. We’ve got to get beyond that sense of impotence of the citizenry. These are all the signs of an empire in decline. The only thing that we have to add is military overreach, and we see that as well.
  • The Democratic Party is beyond redemption at this point when it comes to seriously speaking to the needs of poor and working people… The neofascism that's escalating is predicated on the rottenness of a system in which the Democratic Party facilitates that frustration and desperation because it can't present an alternative… If America is unable to present an alternative to the Democratic Party, then we're going fascist.
  • The Democratic Party is beyond redemption at this point when it comes to seriously speaking to the needs of poor and working people… The neofascism that's escalating is predicated on the rottenness of a system in which the Democratic Party facilitates that frustration and desperation because it can't present an alternative… If America is unable to present an alternative to the Democratic Party, then we're going fascist.

Race Matters (1993)

  • for liberals, black people are to be “included” and “integrated” into “our” society and culture, while for conservatives they are to be “well behaved” and “worthy of acceptance” by “our” way of life. Both fail to see that the presence and predicaments of black people are neither additions to nor defections from American life, but rather constitutive elements of that life. (p3)
  • The paradox of race in America is that our common destiny is more pronounced and imperiled precisely when our divisions are deeper. (p4)
  • as long as hope remains and meaning is preserved, the possibility of overcoming oppression stays alive. (p15)
  • Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of one’s soul. (p19)
  • This market way of life promotes addictions to stimulation and obsessions with comfort and convenience. (p29)
  • Quality leadership is neither the product of one great individual nor the result of odd historical accidents. Rather, it comes from deeply bred traditions and communities that shape and mold talented and gifted persons. Without a vibrant tradition of resistance passed on to new generations, there can be no nurturing of a collective and critical consciousness—only professional conscientiousness survives. (p37)
  • Humility is the fruit of inner security and wise maturity. To be humble is to be so sure of one’s self and one’s mission that one can forego calling excessive attention to one’s self and status. And, even more pointedly, to be humble is to revel in the accomplishments or potentials of others -- especially those with whom one identifies and to whom one is linked organically. (p38)
  • The need of black conservatives to gain the respect of their white peers deeply shapes certain elements of their conservatism. In this regard, they simply want what most people want, to be judged by the quality of their skills, not by the color of their skin. But the black conservatives overlook the fact that affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans on that basis. (p52)
  • My aim is not to provide excuses for black behavior or to absolve blacks of personal responsibility. But when the new black conservatives accent black behavior and responsibility in such a way that the cultural realities of black people are ignored, they are playing a deceptive and dangerous intellectual game with the lives and fortunes of disadvantaged people. We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live. By overlooking these circumstances, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament. It is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims perspective. (p56)
  • Without some redistribution of wealth and power, downward mobility and debilitating poverty will continue to drive people into desperate channels. And without principled opposition to xenophobias from above and below, these desperate channels will produce a cold-hearted and mean-spirited America no longer worth fighting for or living in. (p79)
  • Anytime two human beings find genuine pleasure, joy, and love, the stars smile and the universe is enriched. Yet as long as that pleasure, joy, and love is still predicated on myths of black sexuality, the more fundamental challenge of humane interaction remains unmet. (p85)
  • Of course, the aim of a constitutional democracy is to safeguard the rights of the minority and avoid the tyranny of the majority. Yet the concrete practice of the US legal system from 1883 to 1964 promoted a tyranny of the white majority much more than a safeguarding of the rights of black Americans. (p. 102-3)
  • Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be "white"-- they would be Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and other engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. (p. 107-108)
  • In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other's throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation--and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so. (p 109)
  • every historic effort to forge a democratic project has been undermined by two fundamental realities: poverty and paranoia. The persistence of poverty generates levels of despair that deepen social conflict the escalation of paranoia produces levels of distrust that reinforce cultural division. Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia despair, and distrust. In short, a candid examination of race matters takes us to the core of the crisis of American democracy. (p155 of 2001 edition)
  • this fragile experiment began by taking for granted the ugly conquest of Amerindians and Mexicans, the exclusion of women, the subordination of European working-class men and the closeting of homosexuals. These realities made many of the words of the revolutionary Declaration of Independence ring a bit hollow. yet the enslavement of Africans -- over 20 percent of the population -- served as the linchpin of American democracy; that is, the much-heralded stability and continuity of American democracy was predicated upon black oppression and degradation. Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be "white -- they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. What made America distinctly American for them was not simply the presence of unprecedented opportunities, but the struggle for seizing these opportunities in a new land in which black slavery and racial caste served as the floor upon which white class, ethnic, and gender struggles could be diffused and diverted. In other words, white poverty could be ignored and whites' paranoia of each other could be overlooked primarily owing to the distinctive American feature: the basic racial divide of black and white peoples. From 1776 to 1964… this racial divide would serve as a basic presupposition for the expansive functioning of American democracy, even as the concentration of wealth and power remained in the hands of a Few well-to-do white men. (p156 of 2001 edition)
  • The political triumph of Donald Trump is a symbol and symptom—not cause or origin—of our imperial meltdown. Trump is neither alien nor extraneous to American culture and history. In fact, he is as American as apple pie. Yet he is a sign of our spiritual bankruptcy—all spectacle and no substance, all narcissism and no empathy, all appetite and greed and no wisdom and maturity. Yet his triumph flows from the implosion of a Republican Party establishment beholden to big money, big military, and big scapegoating of vulnerable peoples of color, LGBTQ peoples, immigrants, Muslims, and women; from a Democratic Party establishment beholden to big money, big military, and the clever deployment of peoples of color, LGBTQ peoples, immigrants, Muslims, and women to hide and conceal the lies and crimes of neoliberal policies here and abroad; and from a corporate media establishment that aided and abetted Trump owing to high profits and revenues. (2017 introduction)

Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004)

  • The blues is relevant today because when we look down through the corridors of time, the black American interpretation of tragicomic hope in the face of dehumanizing hate and oppression will be seen as the only kind of hope that has any kind of maturity in a world of overwhelming barbarity and bestiality. That barbarity is found not just in the form of terrorism but in the form of the emptiness of our lives - in terms of the wasted human potential that we see around the world. In this sense, the blues is a great democratic contribution of black people to world history. (p20)
  • To many, our democratic system seems so broken that they have simply lost faith that their participation could really matter. The politics of self-interest and catering to narrow special interests is so dominant that so many ask themselves: Why vote? This disaffection stems both from the all-too-true reality of the corruptions of our system and from a deeper psychic disillusionment and disappointment. The political discourse is so formulaic, so tailored into poll-driven, focus-group-approved slogans that don't really say anything substantive or strike at the core of our lived experience; the lack of authenticity of discourse—and the underlying lack of gravitas, of penetrating insight and wisdom on the part of politicians—is numbing. But we must keep in mind that the disgust so many feel comes from a deep desire to hear more authentic expressions of insights about our lives and more genuine commitment to improving them. Many of us long for expressions of real concern both about the pain of our individual lives and about the common good [...] as opposed to the blatant catering to base interests and to narrow elite constituencies. We long for politics that in not about winning a political game but about producing better lives.

Quotes about Cornel West

  • Cornel West thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.
  • One of the most authentic, brilliant, prophetic and healing voices in America today.
  • The pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.
  • Noted UCLA professor Robin Kelley... wote... “Why Cornel West’s Tenure Fight Matters.” And he says, “Harvard has a problem with outspoken, principled faculty who take public positions that question university policy, challenge authority, or might ruffle the feathers of big donors. And when the faculty in question are scholars of color, their odds of getting through the tenure process are slim to none.”... And... the Harvard Black Law Students Association [wrote].. to the administration, “Harvard’s refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure continues a consistent pattern of practice that undermines and devalues the scholarship of Black professors and professors of color...The refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure raises concerns about the future treatment of Black academics and academics of color in a tenure process that already lacks transparency.”
  • To paraphrase scholar Cornel West, you can't save a country you don't serve, and you can't lead a country you don't love. And there is much to love in this country.
  • Most commonly, the public face even on positive Jewish-African American relations has been inscribed as largely male. Michael Lerner and Cornel West, though they mention gender, do so in booming patriarchal voices. It took years before they invited a woman to join their public conversations, and though their choice of partner-Susannah Heschel, Director of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth and daughter of Rabbi Heschel-is apt, might not the gentlemen have also included an African American woman? What about an African American Jew?
  • Cornel West, the African American philosopher and writer, spoke recently in San Francisco talking about the importance of linkages. For example, he said gay and lesbian rights are an issue in the African American community. They aren’t separate, outside of the community. Just because the issue is not welfare, or racism, or gangs, that doesn’t mean it’s not a Black community issue. I think that’s a very useful and important way to look at things. I know a lot of Latinos wouldn’t agree that gay and lesbian rights are a Latino issue. But we need to work for this understanding and make it clear that the issue is not a problem for a bunch of people outside the Latino community who happen to be gay or lesbian. It’s inside our community. Taking that kind of position is the only way that in fact makes sense.
  • The aim of fiction is to break down stereotypes. Unfortunately, the publishing and academic industries seem to profit more from reinforcing stereotypes. This is what African American intellectuals have to deal with too. That's why I feel I'm on the same wavelength with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, James Alan McPherson. Why should a minority person be made to feel guilty because she believes education leads to both self-improvement and national enlightenment? To me, class is as divisive as race.
    • 1996 interview in Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee Edited by Bradley C. Edwards (2009)
  • Cornel West is not simply a lucid African-American guide equal to the complexities of real multiculturalism, but also an authentic teacher of hope and reason.
  • Famed civil rights activist Cornel West announced he is leaving his post at Harvard University’s Divinity School in a scathing resignation letter — accusing the institution of “spiritual rot” and describing it as in a state of “decay and decline.” In a letter shared to Twitter on Monday night, the professor of African American studies said he had taken an untenured position four years ago with the hope that he could “still end his career with some semblance of intellectual intensity and personal respect.... "How wrong I was!...” wrote West, 68... [He]... had previously been a tenured Harvard professor before he quit in 2002 — said it had become disheartening to see the institution in a state of “decline and decay.” ... The prominent black philosopher also said he received the “lowest increase possible” to his salary every year since he returned to campus. When he was recommended for a tenure review, the university rejected it over his support of Palestine, he said. He then lamented a lack of personal engagement and empathy from colleagues outside of work and academia, including how he only received two replies to news of his mother’s death in a newsletter. West said he was resigning with “precious memories but absolutely no regrets.”
  • Dr. Cornel West, one of the most important philosophers of our time

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