Part 2: Dr. Cornel West Opening Session 2010

Uploaded by aphadc on 09.11.2010

West: I met brother Michael Bird outside 10 years ago – 40 percent of their children
living in poverty, 39 percent of brown, 38 percent of black children living in poverty,
20 percent of all of America’s precious children living in poverty in the richest
nation in the history of the world. That is a moral disgrace. That’s an ethical abomination.
What are they going to say about America when they look back? What were you doing? Can you
imagine what the American gibbon is going to say when he or she writes the story of
the decline and fall of the American empire, that this noble experiment in self government
was suffocated by imperial sensibility, plutocratic oligarchic rule in which everyday people felt
more and more helpless and hopeless and hapless as they saw their empire declining. They saw
their rich democratic possibilities waning. They saw their culture decaying with buying
and selling and young people believing to be human is to be stimulated and titillated
rather than deeply nourished. It’s true, wrestling with spiritual malnutrition, that
emptiness of the sole possessing commodities and thinking by possessing commodities they
possess their souls. And that spiritual malnutrution being inseparable from the escalating moral
constipation. Knowing what’s right and good, but it’s stuck, and you just can't get it
out. There’s too much greed at work, too much greed running amok, too much avarice
running amok, too much envy, too much jealous, too much player-hating taking place.
Yes, this is serious business because every generation has to regenerate democratic possibilities.
Since the 1980s that’s what we have witness – greed running amok, especially at the
top. Just a recent New York Times piece today – four-fifth of all the income between 1980
and 2005 went to the top one percent. How long can you sustain a democratic experiment
with that kind of oligarchic and plutocratic tilting of wealth toward the top? Then when
it comes to working on poor people’s education, we don’t have the money. We have $4 billion.
We have $161 billion for Afghanistan. Oh, really? We call for a Marshall Plan for 25
years, but there’s been a Marshall plan. It’s called the carceral penal Marshall
Plan. They spend $300 billion on prisons and jails and a criminal justice system that tilts
against the poor and working people. Don’t tell us you don’t have the money. You found
it for Iraq. You go find it for Afghanistan. What about poor people who need quality health,
quality education, quality transportation? That’s the tradition of WB Dubois and the
others. That’s all we ask – justice, justice. That’s what it’s about – not in a spirit
of self-righteousness. No, not at all. Some of us come out the legacy of Martin Luther
King, Jr., and we are unapologetic about it, which means that we know there’s a connection
between Socratic questioning and deep giving, loving. I use the word love explicitly because
love is a steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others. That’s what it is. I also speak
as a Christian. I take seriously that first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus. I do,
but that Hebrew scripture says to be human is to put the primacy on the orphan and the
widow and the fatherless and the motherless and those whose suffering is rendered invisible.
That’s the kind of Jesus-loving free black man I am. I’m not apologetic about that
at all. I learn from my atheist and agnostic and Buddhist and Hindu and Judaic brothers
and sisters. But what I bring to the table has to do with this legacy that in America
we’ve been wrestling with what it means to be human, but our discourse is to deodorized.
I just finished an album just a couple weeks ago with a genius named Bootsy Collins. He’s
a funk master, with James Brown, George Clinton. There’s a connection between Bootsy and
Socrates. Socrates recognizes that when you examine yourself critically, you have to keep
track of the funk beneath the deodorized discourse, and the funk has to do with your wounds and
your bruises and your scars. It has to do with other folks who are catching hell. And
when you look at those friends [inaudible] call the wretched of the earth. Their humanity
is just as precious and precious as the humanity of anybody else. And for the last 25 years,
it’s been difficult to make that case. We’ve seen indifference toward working people and
the poor, turning the backs toward their plight and predicament.
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Hescher used to say, “Indifference to evil is more evil
than evil itself because it becomes a way of life,” stay in your bubble. You get caught
in that little narrow vanilla suburb, and don’t realize that on the chocolate side
of town there’s an expansion of the new Jim Crowe that Michelle Alexander talks about
in the [industrial complex. 75 percent of those connected to public health are for soft-drug
offenses. We just saw a recent report that young black and brown brothers and sisters
intake less marijuana than our precious white brothers and sisters, but they are arrested
six times more than the precious white ones. That’s called racism. That’s what it’s
called. Differential treatment, double standards. If you’re concerned about justice, you want
fairness – not just for your side of town. That’s one of the sad things about our present
political system, which is relatively broken. We have to be honest about that. It’s relatively
broken. The American people are awakening in this regard – 53 percent unfavorable
reading of the Democratic party, 52 percent unfavorable reading of the Republican party.
That’s real. Our Tea Party brothers and sisters – not just highly misguided, but
also more and more suspicious of a two-party system that’s so tied to big finance, big
banks, and big business corporations. It’s difficult for everyday people’s voice to
really get through the 13,000 lobbyists who spend billions and billions of dollars every
year to tilt the legislative agenda in a certain direction. What we need to do is to somehow
engage in putting the limelight – and it’s difficult to do that given our media because
the mainstream media itself is shaped by big business and big finance. To get the discourse
brought – I don’t believe anyone of us have a monopoly on truth. We’re all cracked
vessels. As a Christian, I’m just trying to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked
heart anyway before I die. But I’m rest assured that our discourse is too narrow.
There's a connection between the excessive suffering as it related to public health,
and the truncated character of our public conversation. When public life is devalued,
public transportation, public conversation, public health, public education – all of
these are devalued. And democracies are all about a robust public life. When it’s evacuated
and more and more empty, we lead toward Machiavellian calculation. That’s what upset me – even
with this dialog about black agenda. Since when has a black agenda been one concerned
about Negros or ex-Negros? We’re African Americans now. Their mamas and daddies were
Negros. Since when? Frederick Douglass – no. Fredrick Douglass was facing white supremacist
slavery, what did he say? I want freedom for everybody. I don’t want to enslave the white
brothers and sisters. Ida B. Wells Barnett was dealing with Jim Crowe and Jane Crowe
– that was American terrorism. Every two and a half days, there was a black body swinging
from a southern tree. Did Billie Holiday sing about the Jewish brother Abel Meeropol in
the lyrics? What was the response of Ida B. Wells in the face of Jim Crowe and Jane Crowe?
I want rights and liberties for everybody. Let’s be very clear. Any serious talk about
social just has to highlight the moment on the south side of Chicago in August of 1955,
when Emmitt Till’s mother stepped to the pulpit in Robert Temple’s church of God
in Christ. You all remember Emmitt Till? He was a precious black brother who went down
to Jim Crowe gut-bucking Mississippi and never made it back. He was killed by cowardly white
supremacists, cowardly American terrorists. She brought the body back. It was her only