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on October 1, 2000
This is my first encounter with Cornel West, who is described on the back cover as the "preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation."
For the reasons listed below, I am very disappointed with this book; the space allotted to reviews hardly allows me to describe fully all of the ways in which West errs, but let me list a few. West appears to use three types of "evidence" to present his case:
1. The first type of "evidence" is the frequent use of unsupported statements. There are no citations, footnotes, or reading list in this book. This lack of intellectual accountability allows West the luxury of making statements that would not pass muster in a decent high school term paper. For example, West states that Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and other conservative Republicans supported policies that resulted in "the unleashing of unbridled capitalist market forces on a level never witnessed in the United States before that have devastated black working and poor communities." This sweeping statement is clearly debatable: on what basis is he saying that black and poor communities were "devastated"? Were the market forces truly "never witnessed before"? What of the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, and the post-World War II boom? If blacks really did not participate in the economy of the 1980's (and West offers no evidence that they did not), one must ask: why not? Recently released statistics show that blacks have clearly benefited from the economic expansion of the 1990's.
2. The second type of "evidence" used by West is error. He is simply wrong on multiple points of fact. For example, in Chapter 1, "Nihilism in Black America" West states that suicide was formerly uncommon in young blacks, but "... now young black people lead the nation in suicides." The statement is wrong, as five minutes of research in a university library would demonstrate. The standard American text on public health is Maxcy-Rosenau-Last Public Health and Preventive Medicine. The thirteenth Edition of this text was published in 1992, the year before West's book, so it was available to him as a reference. That text states that "White males are at the highest risk of suicide." (p. 1084) Not only that, but black females have rates of suicide lower than that of both white males and white females (The National Vital Statistics Report for 1998 confirms that these facts have not changed). West's gross error clearly undermines his thesis. Could West possibly have confused suicide with homicide? There is no question that young black males have the highest rates of committing homicides, and homicide is the leading cause of death among black men aged 15-34 (p. 1037).
3. The third type of "evidence" West uses is, quite literally, Fiction. Twice in the chapter "Nihilism in Black America," West refers to novels by Toni Morrison to try to make a point that really requires a concrete example or anecdote. I have read a lot of non-fiction over the years, but I have never before seen a serious writer use fiction in this way to try to support an argument. In addition to the above problems, superficial thinking and sloppy logic permeate this book; a few examples are listed below.
West consistently fails to view racial conflicts from anything other than a black perspective. For example, West lists Jews' resistance to affirmative action as one of the main areas of conflict between blacks and Jews, but he does not give a reason why Jews oppose it or even try to view the issue from the Jewish point of view. If he did, he might have considered that perhaps Jews oppose affirmative action because it represents a form of discrimination in favor of one particular group and that one cannot discriminate in favor of one group without discriminating against others. The form of aggressive affirmative action favored by West quite often leads to quotas. Jews remember all too well the days when quotas limited the number of Jewish academics who could be faculty members at elite universities and of Jewish physicians who could be granted admitting privileges at leading hospitals. It is this legacy of discrimination, and resulting general distrust of quotas, that I believe has limited Jews' acceptance of affirmative action.
Also in regard to affirmative action, he apparently thinks only some blacks should benefit from it. He states in Chapter 2 that "black people could have simply opposed (Supreme Court nominee Clarence) Thomas based on qualifications and principle." He must believe that only black, conservative Republicans should be judged on merit, and that affirmative action should be reserved for those who have sufficient "black authenticity."
West believes that only whites can be racist, whereas he calls the same impulses of blacks "xenophobia." However, he goes on to say that "Although this particular form of xenophobia from below does not have the same institutional power of those racisms that afflict their victims from above, it certainly deserves the same moral condemnation." His labeling of certain behaviors and beliefs as racist if exhibited by whites and as xenophobia if exhibited by blacks truly points out a distinction without a difference.
In the chapter Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject, the taboos are apparently so great that West cannot even clearly state them. On every page, non sequiturs abound, such as this howler: "The major cultural impact of the 1960s was not to demystify black sexuality but to make black bodies more accessible to white bodies on an equal basis." Several months before reading this book, I had read an article by David Horowitz on Salon.com, entitled "No Light in His Attic." It is a critique of the overall career of Cornel West and not of a specific book. I found Horowitz' article abrasive and somewhat mean-spirited. He clearly considers West to be an intellectual lightweight. When starting to read this book, I was willing to give West the benefit of the doubt, but, having read Race Matters, I fear that Horowitz may be right.