Race: State of Affairs

Cornel West
Scholar, Professor of Religion. Princeton University
Tuesday, July 17, 2007; 10:30 AM

Cornel West, Ph.D., renowned scholar and professor of religion at Princeton University, was online Tuesday, July 17, at 10:30 a.m. ET to discuss his upcoming socially conscious recording project, "Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations," to be released next month (Hidden Beach Forum, in partnership with "Black Men Who Mean Business") and which explores the issues of race, the use of the "N-word" in popular culture and hip-hop and the current state of the world.

Dr. West provides political commentary alongside a collection of artists including Prince, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, Rhymefest, hip-hop legend KRS-One, The Roots' Black Thought, Rah Digga and the late Gerald Levert.

A transcript follows.


Dr. Cornel West: This CD is a danceable education. It's aim is to keep alive the spirit and legacy of Curtis Mayfield. We want to bring together the spiritual and the social, the personal and the political. We want to contribute to an awakening in our culture, especially youth culture that begins with a deep sense of history that brings together the three dimensions of time: past, present and future.


Baltimore: Dr. West,

Do you feel that the recent Imus controversy and the burying of the N word will affect the consciousness of the rap stars of today?

Dr. Cornel West: I hope that rap musicians and hip-hop artists become more sensitive to the vicious history of the "N word." That I know that "nigga" as opposed to "nigger" is a term of endearment for some young people. But the history of "nigger" with its connotation of self-hatred and self-disrespect needs to be acknowledged, so the discussion of the "N word" on my CD that pits my dear brother Michael Eric Dyson who defends the word, against myself, with my dear brother Tavis Smiley moderating provides a forum for this crucial question.


Monroe, Mich.: How do you feel about Michael Eric Dyson's uncompromising defense of hip-hop? Why has the Black intelligentsia endorsed and defended the violent and materialistic culture glorified by hip hop? This is most evident in Dyson's attacks against Bill Cosby's criticism of hip-hop culture.

Dr. Cornel West: Brother Mike Eric Dyson does not defend violence, sexism or homophobia in hip-hop. That any reading of his work reveals his critique and rejection of these. He rejects the demonization of hip-hop because he, like myself, knows there are progressive hip-hop artists like Common, Lupe Fiasco, KRS-One and others who are hip-hop to the core but also critical of violence, sexism and homophobia.


Boston: Do you agree or disagree with Chief Justice Roberts that the best way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop taking race into consideration?

Dr. Cornel West: No, I think Judge Roberts is wrong. That in order to confront the ugly legacy of racism you don't act as if we are color blind overnight. Such action is short-sighted and wrong-headed.


Washington, D.C.: Many credit the quiet forums provided by the Internet and other social networking platforms with reducing the overall climate of protest and social activism, especially in today's youth. Do you think such events as the NAACP's burial of the "N" word are miscalculated and irrelevant to younger generations, or do you feel that a significant physical presence on a national stage is still necessary to invoke change and/or discussion?

Dr. Cornel West: That we need all progressive and effective strategies. The Internet is indispensable. So are symbolic gestures of burial for the "N word." Street demonstrations as in Seattle 1999 and reform within our corrupt political system.


Washington, D.C.: What will be the impact of a black man being elected president to the African American community? Also, at the State of Black America you said that people need to know how Obama's campaign is financed to see who is pulling the strings. Given that fact that almost all of his money has come from normal people -- over 250,000 of them so far -- do you think that he is shaping up to actually be a different candidate, an agent of change?

Dr. Cornel West: First, it is important to engage in Socratic questioning of all candidates regardless of color or agenda. That's why I raised that question at Tavis Smiley's forum. At the same time I have endorsed Obama because I am convinced that he would not only be a progressive candidate but also he has the potential to be a great statesman. But we all must be part of the process to make him and other politicians accountable.


Tokyo: According to prediction markets, Barack Obama is currently thought to have about a 2 percent chance of becoming the next president, second only to Hillary Clinton. He is also raising more money than other candidates. How important is this, and how important would it be if he actually won?

Dr. Cornel West: First, we must keep in mind that Hillary Clinton has been on the national scene for 15 years. Just as John Edwards has been running for president for five years. Obama began his race a few months ago. If his momentum continues, which I hope it does, and he wins, his presidency will be significant, not solely because it has shattered a racist barrier but more importantly he will have the vision and courage to change American policy with a focus on everyday working and poor people.


Washington, D.C.: What is the message in your project "Never Forget" and is this a CD that will be available commercially?

Dr. Cornel West: Oh it will be highly available commercially. The fundamental message of the CD with giants like Prince, Gerald Levert, Talib Kweli, KRS-One, Jill Scott and others is to provide a danceable education that highlights the need for an awakening, for political engagement for progressive politics and sheer fun.


Washington, D.C.: Prof. West: You have blended your scholarship with pop/mass culture quite a lot over the past several years. Do you have any concerns that, unlike WEB Dubois, you are aligning yourself with lesser rather than greater cultural traditions, and that you are leading promising young black students to ignore more intellectually challenging art and music in favor of what they already frequently see on TV and hear on the radio?

Dr. Cornel West: I appreciate the question. I do not believe in an either/or approach between high culture and popular culture. Instead, I adopt a both an approach that highlights the John Coltranes, Stephen Sondheims, Beethovens and Ellingtons as well as Common, Lauren Hill, Chuck D and Talib Kweli.


Albuquerque, N.M.: Do you believe that racial problems are more a reflection of class today, or do you believe that it is still only "skin deep"?

I ask because I am 30 with friends of many colors, and it seems to me that race is no longer an issue. It seems to be something older generations are "stuck on," and cannot get over.

Here's another question -- is either affirmative action in academics or racial profiling along I-95 appropriate? How are they different?

Dr. Cornel West: The race problem in America has always been, in part, a class problem and it remains both a matter of economic deprivation and color prejudice.

Affirmative action has never been solely a race matter. It included gender and in schools it also included region. I believe the issue of class or economic status is important in regard to affirmative action alongside race and gender and region.


Anonymous : What is your response to Bill Cosby's position on the problems facing the Black community and how they should be fixed (e.g., speaking only "correct" English)?

Dr. Cornel West: Bill Cosby's gallant attempt to correct the attitudes and actions of young people is significant. I believe that the language of correction must be informed by a fundamental compassion that he must put his love and concern for young people at the forefront of his language of correction. Young people must become more multilingual.


Mitchellville, Md.: I agree with much that's being said about refraining from the use of offensive language but I think that should be a personal choice by the "artist", not by others.

Do you believe that limits and guidelines can be established for an artistic genre (in this case hip-hop) and still allow artists to reach the depths of their creativity? If so, how?

Dr. Cornel West: I do not believe in censorship. Artistic freedom is essential in a democracy. There would be no Eugene O'Neill, Laurie Anderson or Tupac Shakur if we had censorship. But I do believe artists have a responsibility for what they say and do.

_______________________ This concludes our discussion with Dr. West today. He had to leave because of appointments. Please consult the Discussions schedule in the coming weeks for part two of our chat about race and society.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company