Spiritualizing Race:
Sketches on the Values Politics of Cornel West

Mas'ud Zavarzadeh

Hard-line conservatives like Rod Dreher ("Harvard's Rapper", The National Review, January 4, 2002) were outraged when Cornel West, the highly-paid university professor in African-American Studies at Harvard, felt insulted and threatened to leave Harvard after its president, Lawrence Summers, recently suggested that West should engage in serious scholarship—rather than writing popular essays and making rap CD's—and take his teaching more seriously.

The conservative anger and contempt directed at West, however, is highly ironic because it is the conservative establishment and its media that have found West's views on race so ideologically agreeable that they have turned him into a celebrity radical. He is their favorite left race thinker. As might be expected from a "radical" media star, he uses a militant rhetoric to legitimate the race views of the right. In doing so, he makes those principled thinkers on race, who are fighting for substantial structural change in race relations, look extremist, unreasonable and even silly.

West's celebrity power—which is such that Lawrence Summers, as  The New York Times put it, "met and mended fences" with him a few days after the original contretemps—derives from his considerable preacherly talent to give inoffensive, risk-free and, at times, patently banal ideas on race relations an air of  compassionate profundity and commitment.

This profundity-effect is produced by his juxtaposing two sets of opposing ideas and then meditating on the inflexibility, dogmatism and limits of each in order not to take a position on either one and instead adopt an in-between course.  It is his intellectual opportunism that comes across as thoughtfulness.  "The difficult and delicate quest for black identity", he writes in his best-seller book, Race Matters, "is integral to any talk about racial equality".  However, he immediately defuses the controversial issue of "equality" by stating that equality "is not solely a political or economic matter" (97).   By using "solely", he signals an extreme position from which he withdraws and thus suspends, without resolution, the question of racial equality.  This in-between-ness has the mark of "complexity" and has turned Cornel West into a "radical" celebrity. It gives the impression that he has said something really important, discerning and insightful, when, in fact, he has merely reproduced the political clichés that circulate in right-wing literature as markers of attentive open mindedness.

William Bennett, for example, writes, in his De-Valuing of America, that the cornerstone of civil rights is "economic opportunity", and after quoting Jack Kemp, he elaborates that "economic barriers" should be broken.  But he too goes on to say that the economic is not the sole issue and the answer includes the "right things (honoring commitments, individual responsibility, hard work, community norms, and virtue…" (197-98). It is not only conservative thinkers such as Bennett who endorse West's radical suspension of the material conditions of race relations.  Even ideological hacks such as Rush Limbaugh are in agreement with him: quoting Quayle, Limbaugh believes "poverty" is certainly an issue in race relations but "the breakdown of the two-parent family" is equally important (See I Told You So 102).

West's writings are all re-writings of this conservative logic in a radical and prophetic rhetoric that represents issues as too complicated to be amenable to any solution. His "thoughtful" in-between-ness, in other words, is an ideological ploy that makes anyone who argues that racial equality is fundamentally a matter of economic equality look dogmatic, foolish and simple-minded.  West's writings construct a floating, blank space—what Ernesto Laclau calls an "empty signifier" and considers to be the ultimate subversion of cultural meanings [Emancipation(s) 36-46]—within highly charged political and economic issues that get filled not by him taking a position (since that would be a fixing of cultural meanings) but by the contingent  desires of his audience.

Through these intellectual maneuvers, West has successfully replaced root thinking on race, which entails taking a stand and acting on ideas, with  equivocations and the murky rhetoric of "spiritual impoverishment…the collapse of meaning in life—the eclipse of hope and absence of love of self and others, the breakdown of family and neighborhood bonds . . ." (9). One of the consequences of his writings is that he relegates race and racism to the private domain: race matters become matters of family, self-esteem, care and personal freedom. His condemnation of "profit-hungry corporations" is quite telling of his politics.  Like most left radicals, West's object of social critique is "corporations" not capitalism.  To him, capitalism (economics) is not the problem.   Rather, the problem is soulless corporations that distort capitalism by their greed (values).  But even his critique of corporations is an afterthought since the public space, in his work, is already made secondary to the private areas of life. For West the real danger is that one might fall into dogmatic rigidity and make a "fetish of the public square" (12).

He shares this priority of the private over the public with such neoconservative writers as Irving Kristol, who believes "[T]he problems, of young blacks do not arise in our schools, nor are they remediable there. They are the product of their homes and environments…" (Neoconservatism 51).   Race is a values matter and values are spiritual and post-material.  This is why West is so contemptuous of any demand for a conceptual analysis of race and privileges populist anti-race writing.  In West's writings, the conceptual grasping of race in its historical materiality is itself the essence of racism—the legacy of a Eurocentric Enlightenment positivism that he condemns in conformity with contemporary cultural politics (such as Foucault, "What is Enlightenment?").

As might be expected, West objects to being read as a "celebrity"—a marketable academic commodity. This is understandable because to allow himself to be viewed as a "star" (a commodity) is to concede that he is just as much a service provider to capital as his white counterparts. The market value of academic stars depends on how subtly they resignify specific "problems" like race, sexuality, or nationality and complicate them in order to cleanse capitalism of its violent history of homophobia, sexism, racism, nationalism. Consequently, they affirm capitalism's global legitimacy.  West has been one of the most subtle readers in the culture industry.   Like such other subtle readers as Stanley Fish, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Stephen Greenblatt and  Ernesto Laclau—who have used discourses of sexuality, law, culture, history and hegemony  to "solve" in the cultural superstructure the contradictions of capitalism that cannot be solved in its material (labor) relations—West has redescribed race in such a way as to displace racism as exploitation (which is constitutive of capitalism) and substitute for it the representation of racism as oppression (which is part of the cultural politics of capitalism). In doing so, he has translated class struggle into cultural resistance.

West's writings are devoted to marginalizing the materialist view of race and transforming race into cultural difference. In his narratives race becomes a lifestyle that is ultimately a personal state of consciousness and a cross-class subject that is autonomous from such crude matters as the economic.  "Racial progress", West writes is "undeniable in America".  Proof?  "Never before have we had such a colorful menagerie of professionals, in business, education, politics, sports and the labor movement". Progress, in other words, is first and foremost a distributional issue and has nothing to do with material conditions at the point of production. This is another way of saying that for him "progress" means improvement of the conditions of life for the upper-middle class: "Glass ceilings", he writes, "have been pierced" (xiv).

Dismissing the materialist analysis of race, West's notion of race converges with conservative views and mystifies the capitalist exploitation of people's labor power by representing the creation of "jobs" (i.e. steady "income") as a remedy for racism. In doing so, he obscures "class" (the cause of racism), replacing it with "income", which hides inequalities at the point of production under seemingly "free choice" in the consumption of commodities.

Jobs, joblessness and the need for generating jobs for African-Americans and other racial minorities are, therefore, some of the major themes of his writings.  West seems to think that by emphasizing the need for "jobs" he is undertaking a serious, no-nonsense materialist analysis of racism.  In fact, he is doing quite the reverse.  By demanding "jobs" for African-Americans he is displacing production by consumption and actually demanding an increase in the spending power of minorities, which is what capital needs to boosts its profits.  His argument is a version of left redistributionism (Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus) that attempts to erase equality at the point of production (labor)  from the agenda of struggle.  Demand for "jobs" in isolation from demand for equality in the social division of labor is a left ideological maneuver by which West, Fraser and others cover up the fact that property relations and not income are the real cause of poverty and racism.

This quiet normalization of wage labor and its cultural politics is the main reason West has become the media's favorite race theorist.  He articulates neoliberal economic views of the market and racism in a stirring rhetoric of liberation that reinforce the prevailing social relations. This is a liberation from poverty into exploitation:  his race theory is a theory of recruiting a cheap domestic labor force for capital ("jobs").  His underlying message, in other words, echoes Nike's owners, who essentially say that by exploiting the poor of the world in their sweatshops, they are helping them.

West's new book, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, is a new elaboration of his old themes. It purports to ask tough questions about the U.S.'s "free-market fundamentalism" and the accompanying militarism and authoritarianism that now dominate the world.  But his answers are aimed at the cultural reconciliation of the poor and the rich. As in his previous writings, he refuses to recognize that imperialism is structured into capitalism and is not merely a political accident.

West's objection to what he calls "market culture" is not that it exploits people but that it weakens "caring and sharing, nurturing and connecting" (xvi).  In other words, if social reforms can put a human face on capitalism and turn it into a caring and sharing capitalism, West would have no objection to it.  He does not object to exploitation, but wants exploitation to proceed with a smiling, caring and sharing capital. The semiotics of his writings—a militant tone with an empty signifier—mark his views among the cultural managers of capital as a reasonable and judicious protest against racism: a radical message without radicalism.

His radicalism turns race into a cultural issue and defuses its political economy into the cultural politics of ethnicity.  West's interest in Hip Hop and his recent rap CD are not expressions of some personal eccentricity or, as Lawrence Summers seems to think, intellectual slackening. Making the CD is part of his "theory" of race. For West, race is a cultural state of being that has very little to do with class, economics or other material issues.  This does not mean that his writings are not filled with references to jobs, justice, class, violence. They are. But like race, each of these concepts in his texts is systematically emptied out of its materialist meaning and used in such a broad and vacuous way that it becomes a metaphor and loses its explanatory power.

For West, race is a cultural trope that is autonomous from class. It is the shifting site of the excesses of the sign and its non-representability, which is another way of saying that in West's writings, class is treated as an obsolete concept that belongs to industrial capitalism and is useless in dealing with new capitalism.  New capitalism, for West, is more a cultural logic than a regime of labor because he seems to believe that wealth is no longer produced by human labor but by knowledge workers.

West regards existing race relations to be an effect of "nihilism" and attributes them to personal character and not to the social structures that have evolved historically.  Personal responsibility is, for West, what constitutes the essence of race relations in America today.  What black people need in their struggles, West believes, is to be equipped with a "cultural armor" to "beat back hopelessness, meaninglessness and lovelessness" (Race Matters 23).  In focusing on the personal and marginalizing the economic and social, his writings read at times like a chamber of commerce memo praising the "embodied values of service and sacrifice, love and care, discipline and excellence" (24).  Like all conservatives, West too believes that the quality of life and leadership come from "traditions and communities", by which he means post-class, non-economic congregations of cultural habits and customs.

In his post-class theory of race, West thinks what really matters is that black culture with its music, its language, its modes of living be honored. Racism is lack of respect for black culture by white people. Racism, according to these views, will, therefore, end when a cultural reconciliation based on mutual respect is created by love and caring.

Race, in other words, is ethnicity, and ethnicity is a lifestyle. In the generous democracy that is the United States, all are free to pursue their lifestyles, and each lifestyle deserves to be respected.  Racism for West is a state of tension; something quite similar to Huntington's theory of the clash of civilizations, with civilization understood not as a mode of accumulation but as a repository of conventions and structures of feeling.

For West the idea that race is not simply a cultural or civilizational issue but the consequence of class relations is an outlandish and outdated idea.  His analysis of the major events of the last two decades, therefore, is almost identical with the right-wing interpretations. In discussing the class uprising in Los Angeles, after Rodney King's beating, for example, he writes:  "What happened in Los Angeles in April 1992 was neither a race riot nor a class rebellion" (3).  It was, according to him, a "trans-class" outrage. He argues that racism is not the product of "relative economic deprivation" but of the "existential and psychological realities of black people" (19-20). In other words, racism is fundamentally an ontological and personal issue. Blackness is a "values" issue, not a matter of economics. Through race, he converts the material into the cultural.

THE RED CRITIQUE 10 (Winter/Spring 2005)