Cornel Ronald West (born June 2, 1953) 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).
West is an outspoken voice in American leftist politics, and as such has been critical of members of the Democratic Party, including former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He has held professorships at Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Pepperdine University, Union Theological Seminary, and the University of Paris during his career. He is also a frequent commentator on politics and social issues in many media outlets.
From 2010 through 2013, West co-hosted a radio program with Tavis Smiley, called Smiley and West. He has also been featured in several documentaries, and made appearances in Hollywood films such as The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, providing commentary for both films. West has also made several spoken word and hip hop albums, and due to his work, has been named MTV's Artist of the Week. He has also been portrayed on Saturday Night Live by Kenan Thompson.
West in 2018
|Born||Cornel Ronald West
June 2, 1953
Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.
|Alma mater||Harvard College (A.B.)
Princeton University (Ph.D.)
|Institutions||Union Theological Seminary
Yale Divinity School
|Race Matters, Democracy Matters|
West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in Sacramento, California, where he graduated from John F. Kennedy High School. His mother, Irene (Bias), was a teacher and principal, and his father, Clifton Louis West Jr., was a general contractor for the Defense Department. Irene B. West Elementary School in Elk Grove, California, is named for his mother.
As a young man, West marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests demanding black studies courses at his high school, where he was class president. He later wrote that, in his youth, he admired "the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party, and the livid black theology of James H. Cone."
In 1970, after graduating from high school, he enrolled at Harvard College and took classes from philosophers Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell. In 1973, West graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and civilization. He credits Harvard with exposing him to a broader range of ideas, influenced by his professors as well as the Black Panther Party. West says his Christianity prevented him from joining the BPP, instead choosing to work in local breakfast, prison, and church programs. After completing his undergraduate work at Harvard, West enrolled at Princeton University where he received a Ph.D in 1980, becoming the first African American to graduate from Princeton with a Ph.D. in philosophy. At Princeton, West was heavily influenced by Richard Rorty's neopragmatism. Rorty remained a close friend and colleague of West's for many years following West's graduation. The title of West's dissertation was Ethics, historicism and the Marxist tradition, which was later revised and published under the title The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.
In his late-20s, he returned to Harvard as a W. E. B. Du Bois Fellow before becoming an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. In 1984, he went to Yale Divinity School in what eventually became a joint appointment in American Studies. While at Yale, he participated in campus protests for a clerical labor union and divestment from apartheid South Africa. One of the protests resulted in his being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the University administration canceled his leave for the spring term in 1987, leading him to commute from Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was teaching two classes, across the Atlantic Ocean to the University of Paris.
He then returned to Union Theological Seminary for one year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Program in African-American Studies from 1988 to 1994. After Princeton, he accepted an appointment as professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School. West taught one of the University's most popular courses, an introductory class on African-American studies. In 1998, he was appointed the first Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. West utilized this new position to teach in not only African-American studies, but also in divinity, religion, and philosophy. West left Harvard after a widely publicized dispute with then-President Lawrence Summers in 2002. That year, West returned to Princeton, where he helped create "one of the world’s leading centers for African-American studies" according to Shirley Tilghman, Princeton's president in 2011. In 2012, West left Princeton and returned to the institution where he began his teaching career, Union Theological Seminary. His departure from Princeton, unlike his departure from Harvard, was quite amicable. As of 2017, he continues to teach occasional courses at Princeton in an emeritus capacity as the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies.
The recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees and an American Book Award, he has written or contributed to over twenty published books. West is a long-time member of the Democratic Socialists of America, for which he now serves as an honorary chair. He is also a co-founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. West is on the advisory board of the International Bridges to Justice.
West is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and its World Policy Council, a think tank whose purpose is to expand Alpha Phi Alpha's involvement in politics and social and current policy to encompass international concerns.
In 1995, The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier charged him with opportunism, crass showmanship, and lack of scholarly seriousness. Wieseltier specifically dismissed West's books as "almost completely worthless" because, he said, they are "noisy, tedious, slippery ... sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared." Nonetheless, West remains a widely cited scholar in the popular press.
In November 2016, Harvard announced that West would be leaving Union Theological Seminary to hold a joint nontenured appointment at the Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard Department of African and African-American Studies as Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy.
West appears as Councillor West in both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions and also provides the voice for this character in the video game Enter the Matrix. In addition, West provides philosophical commentary on all three Matrix films in The Ultimate Matrix Collection, along with integral theorist Ken Wilber.
He has made several appearances in documentary films also, such as the 2008 film Examined Life, a documentary featuring several academics discussing philosophy in real-world contexts. West, "driving through Manhattan, . . . compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be." He also appears in conversation with Bill Withers in the Bill Withers documentary, Still Bill.
In 2010, he completed recording with the Cornel West Theory, a hip hop band endorsed by West. He has also released several hip-hop/soul/spoken word albums. In 2001, West released his first album, Sketches of My Culture. Street Knowledge followed in 2004. In 2007, West released Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, his third album which included collaborations with the likes of Prince, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, KRS-One, and the late Gerald Levert. West appeared on Immortal Technique's song "Sign of the Times", which appeared on the 2011 album The Martyr. In 2012, he was featured on Brother Ali's song "Letter to My Countrymen", which appeared on the album Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color.
In 2000, economist and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers became president of Harvard. Soon after, Summers held a private meeting with West, where he reportedly rebuked West for missing too many classes, contributing to grade inflation, neglecting serious scholarship, and spending too much time on his economically profitable projects. Summers reportedly suggested that West produce an academic book befitting his professorial position, as his recent output had consisted primarily of co-written and edited volumes. According to some reports, Summers also objected to West's production of a CD, the critically panned Sketches of My Culture, and to his political campaigning, including an alleged three weeks to promote Bill Bradley's presidential campaign. West contended he had missed only one class during his tenure at Harvard "in order to give a keynote address at a Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS." Summers also allegedly suggested that since West held the rank of Harvard University Professor and thus reported directly to the President, he should meet with Summers regularly to discuss the progress of his academic production.
Summers refused to comment on the details of his conversation with West, except to express hope that West would remain at Harvard. Soon after, West was hospitalized for prostate cancer. West complained that Summers failed to send him get-well wishes until weeks after his surgery, whereas newly installed Princeton president Shirley Tilghman had contacted him frequently before and after his treatment.
In 2002 West left Harvard University to return to Princeton. West lashed out at Summers in public interviews, calling him "the Ariel Sharon of higher education" on NPR's Tavis Smiley Show. In response to these remarks, five Princeton faculty members, led by professor of molecular biology Jacques Robert Fresco, said they looked with "strong disfavor upon his characterization" of Summers and that "such an analogy carries innuendoes and implications... that many on the Princeton faculty find highly inappropriate, indeed repugnant and intolerable."
Harvard University's undergraduate student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, suggested in October 2002 that the premise of the Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode "Anti-Thesis" was based on West's conflicts with Summers.
West has called the U.S. a "racist patriarchal" nation where white supremacy continues to define everyday life. "White America," he writes, "has been historically weak-willed in ensuring racial justice and has continued to resist fully accepting the humanity of blacks." This has resulted, he says, in the creation of many "degraded and oppressed people hungry for identity, meaning, and self-worth." West attributes most of the black community's problems to "existential angst derive[d] from the lived experience of ontological wounds and emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images permeating U.S. society and culture."
In West's view, the September 11 attacks gave white Americans a glimpse of what it means to be a black person in the United States—feeling "unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence, and hatred" for who they are. "The ugly terrorist attacks on innocent civilians on 9/11," he said, "plunged the whole country into the blues."
West was arrested on October 13, 2014, while protesting against the shooting of Michael Brown and participating in Ferguson October, and again on August 10, 2015, while demonstrating outside a courthouse in St. Louis on the one-year anniversary of Brown's death. The 2015 documentary film #Bars4Justice includes footage of West demonstrating and being arrested in Ferguson.
West has described himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (partly because he does not view Marxism and Christianity as reconcilable) and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join". He also described himself as a "radical democrat, suspicious of all forms of authority" on the Matrix-themed documentary The Burly Man Chronicles.
West believes that "the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's ugly totalitarian regime was desirable," but that the war in Iraq was the result of "dishonest manipulation" on the part of the Bush administration. He asserts that Bush Administration hawks "are not simply conservative elites and right-wing ideologues", but rather are "evangelical nihilists – drunk with power and driven by grand delusions of American domination of the world". He adds, "We are [now] experiencing the sad gangsterization of America, an unbridled grasp at power, wealth, and status." Viewing capitalism as the root cause of these alleged American lusts, West warns, "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."
West has been involved with such projects as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and worked with such public figures as Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.
In 2000, West worked as a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. When Bradley lost in the primaries, West became a prominent endorser of Ralph Nader, even speaking at some Nader rallies. Some Greens sought to draft West to run as a presidential candidate in 2004. West declined, citing his active participation in the Al Sharpton campaign. West, along with other prominent Nader 2000 supporters, signed the "Vote to Stop Bush" statement urging progressive voters in swing states to vote for John Kerry, despite strong disagreements with many of Kerry's policies.
In April 2002 West and Rabbi Michael Lerner performed civil disobedience by sitting in the street in front of the U.S. State Department "in solidarity with suffering Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters." West said, "We must keep in touch with the humanity of both sides." In May 2007 West joined a demonstration against "injustices faced by the Palestinian people resulting from the Israeli occupation" and "to bring attention to this 40-year travesty of justice". In 2011, West called on the University of Arizona to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
West also serves as co-chair of the Tikkun Community. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization's Task Force on Parent Empowerment and participated in President Clinton's National Conversation on Race. He has publicly endorsed In These Times magazine by calling it: "The most creative and challenging news magazine of the American left". He is also a contributing editor for Sojourners Magazine.
West supports People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in its Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign, aimed at eliminating what PETA describes as KFC's inhumane treatment of chickens. West is quoted on PETA flyers: "Although most people don't know chickens as well as they know cats and dogs, chickens are interesting individuals with personalities and interests every bit as developed as the dogs and cats with whom many of us share our lives."
In 2008, West contributed his insights on the current global issue of modernized slavery and human trafficking in the documentary Call+Response. West is a member of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.
In 2011, West addressed his frustration about some critics of the Occupy Wall Street, who remark about the movement's lack of a clear and unified message. West replied by saying:
It's impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand, or two demands. We're talking about a democratic awakening...you're talking about raising political consciousness so it spills over all parts of the country, so people can begin to see what's going on through a set of different lens, and then you begin to highlight what the more detailed demands would be. Because in the end we're really talking about what Martin King would call a revolution: A transfer of power from oligarchs to everyday people of all colors. And that is a step by step process.
On October 16, 2011, West was in Washington, D.C., participating in the Occupy D.C. protests on the steps of the Supreme Court over the court's decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case the previous year. Five days later, he was arrested during an Occupy Wall Street protest in Harlem against the New York Police Department's stop and frisk policy.
In August 2017, West was one of a group of interfaith, multiracial clergy who took part in a counterprotest at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; West averred that Antifa had saved their lives.
West has often spoken about the lack of adequate black leadership and how it leads to doubt within black communities as to their political potential to ensure change. Cornel West publicly supported 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. He spoke to over 1,000 of his supporters at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, on November 29, 2007.
West, however, criticized President Obama when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, saying that it would be difficult for Obama to be "a war president with a peace prize". West further retracted his support for Obama in an April 2011 interview, stating that Obama is "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black muppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it." In November 2012, West said in an interview that he considered Obama a "Rockefeller Republican in blackface."
Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University, criticized what she described as the "utter hilarity" of West's statements, writing that his comments are a "classic projection of his own comfortably ensconced life at Harvard and Princeton Universities" and that West "offers thin criticism of president Obama and stunning insight into the delicate ego of the self-appointed black leadership class". West later called Harris-Perry a "fake and a fraud".
In 2011, West participated in a "Poverty Tour" with Tavis Smiley, his co-host on the Public Radio International program Smiley & West. The tour became a two-part special on their radio program as well as a five-night special on the PBS television program Tavis Smiley. They recounted their experience on the tour in their 2012 bestselling book The Rich and the Rest of Us. The stated aim of the tour was to highlight the plight of the impoverished population of the United States prior to the 2012 presidential election, whose candidates West and Smiley stated had ignored the plight of the poor.
In 2014, West gave an interview slamming Obama, calling him a "counterfeit" who posed as a progressive. West defined Obama's presidency as "a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency."
In 2015, West expressed his support for Democratic contender Bernie Sanders during an interview on CNN Tonight. West argued that Sanders' plans to divert wealth from Wall Street elites to the poorest members of society would be beneficial for the African-American community. On August 24, 2015, West tweeted, "I endorse Brother @BernieSanders because he is a long-distance runner with integrity in the struggle for justice for over 50 years."
Following the victory of Donald Trump, West contended in an op-ed for The Guardian that white working and middle class voters "rejected the economic neglect of neoliberal policies and the self-righteous arrogance of elites," yet "supported a candidate who appeared to blame their social misery on minorities, and who alienated Mexican immigrants, Muslims, black people, Jews, gay people, women and China in the process."