Book Review

Book Review: Race Matters by Cornel West

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

By Matt Johnson

It is important to understand that the construct of race in the United States is special. It is special because it has been dynamically constructed through economic, political, and social means since the first African slaves arrived in the colonies in the early 17th century. Race is not static. Racism

…the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

did not all of sudden end with the civil rights acts of the 1960’s after more than 300 years of practice. Race is a dynamical process and its nefarious and subtle effects compound and ripple through time and space and into the future.

Race emerged in the American context and has evolved by slave laws in the 17th century; the Constitution of the United States in the 18th century by way of the Three-Fifths Compromise; the black codes of the northern states in the early 19th century; Jim Crow and legalized segregation throughout the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century; redlining policies in cities like Detroit and Atlanta; and the continued psychological effects from generation to generation throughout these previously stated examples of practiced partitioning here in the United States. Yes indeed, race is real in the sense that many Americans do experience it and race does matter.

In the book Race Matters, professor of philosophy Cornel West argues that race is real; that is, it is not biological, rather it is a sociopolitical construct. He also argues that race has and still does play an intricate role in the lives of blacks, whites, and United States citizens in general and what prevents Americans from viewing the effects of racism in totality are the narrow political views of liberals and conservatives. Hence, this theme of lack of breadth and width by both liberals and conservatives is intertwined throughout the eight chapters in the book, explicitely and implicitely.

This narrowness is important because Professor West utilizes this rhetorical tool to critique both sides. In fact, he not only critiques liberals and conservatives, but he also critiques the smothering rhetoric between the two sides. He critiques the lack of leadership for those Americans partitioned into black communities by way of Jim Crow and redlining laws; he critiques conservatives such as Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele; he critiques American sexuality (he believes American sexuality is immature and dogmatic); and he critiques Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. He also discusses the very meaning of what it means to be black in the United States and the experiences that come with this visual label. Ultimately, he argues that “blackness is a political and ethical construct.”

Indeed this constructive criticism is a welcome change compared to the usual political rhetoric of isolated bubbles of today’s political discourse. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find intellectuals and leaders from either side of the political spectrum who will critique their own respective positions and teams. Nowadays it is a lot of “us versus them” language mixed with and highlighted by hyperbole followed by a lot more patting on the back for a job well done.

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

Professor West codifies the two sides. Thus, there are two distinguishing arguments for a repair of the plight of black Americans. First, there are the “liberal structuralists.” They argue for

…full employment, health, education, and childcare programs, and broad affirmative action practices.

This is still true today. And second, there are the “conservative behaviorists.” They argue for

…self-help programs, black business expansion, and non-preferential job practices. They [also] support vigorous ‘free market’ strategies that depend on fundamental changes in how black people act and live…a cultural revival of the Protestant ethic in black America.

Although Dr. West is not making a systems argument; that is, a recognition of whites and blacks as the elements in the system, the interactions between the two groups, and the purpose of the system, he is definitely making the argument that one perspective cannot exist without the other, which is, even if unintentionally, a way of thinking about a system. As Professor West explains

…structures and behavior are inseparable, that institutions and values go hand in hand. How people act and live are shaped – though in no way dictated or determined – by the larger circumstances in which they find themselves. These circumstances can be changed, their limits attenuated, by positive actions to elevate living conditions.

Professor West seems to have a strong intuition for systems thinking. He understands that their is legitimacy to the structural argument and perceptions from the left but that there is also legitimacy to the behavioral argument and perceptions from the right. But what is unfortunate is the fact that he does not expand on the interactions and relationships between these two often perceived as dichotomous propositions. And this is a shame because he is a trained philosopher and he has the chops to present such a model. But challenging Professor West on this point is not a wasted practice.

Photo Courtesy of - Dr Cornel West being arrested in Ferguson, Missouri

Photo Courtesy of – Dr Cornel West arrested in Ferguson, Missouri

For example, if these two concepts are to coexist, what would that existence look like to Dr. West? In other words, what does his philosophical model look like? He argues that his nihilistic approach is not meant to be philosophical, but if it is not philosophical, then what is the starting point? Scientific arguments derive from philosophical arguments. This is true in the history of science and philosophy.

No doubt, as he states, people experience “horrifying meaningless, hopelessness, and…lovelessness” but in order to create and test possible systems hypotheses for the dichotomous experiences between black and white Americans in this country, a potential model must be explored. Only then would credible and productive policies be able to address the experiential dichotomy between the groups and only then would the credible and productive policies be attainable and applicable. This is the greatest failure of this book.

The always fascinating thing about reviewing a book is, first, reading the authors words, absorbing them, and then agreeing or disagreeing on the philosophies and positions. Hence, if a book is well written and presents plenty of new, interesting, and provocative ideas, a reviewer can write more than one review. This is certainly the case for this book.

Second, and to reiterate, this writer appreciates the critique of the positions of those on the left from a self proclaimed “leftist.” This is definitely the strength of this book. However, the author and reader must remember that it is easy for a Fox or Newsmax commentator to criticize the left and their positions; it is easy for the National Review and Townhall to criticize the left and their positions; it is easy for Michelle Malkin, Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, Rich Lowry, and other conservative writers to criticize the left and their positions; but it is quite another for someone on the left to criticize the left. Introspection takes courage and leadership. The question now becomes how the left will take that criticism.


Matt Johnson is an economics and science writer for The Systems Scientist. You can connect with him directly in the comments section, follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist

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