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SPECIAL REPORT: Race and Black America : Why Haven’t They Matched the Success of Others?

<i> Cornel West is director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Princeton University and author of "The American Invasion of Philosophy</i> ,<i> " among other books</i>

The destiny of America rests, in large part, on its capacity to come to terms with race. The quality of our work force, the stability of our social order and the health of our culture depend on how candid we are in our reflections about race and how moral we are in our deeds in regard to race. This is why America needs a new framework, a new language and especially a new leadership to talk about race in America.

There is a deep hunger across the country for this new level of discourse about race--yet there is also a warranted fear that if we fail to make this jump to a higher ground, an ugly xenophobic backlash will fill the vacuum.

For example, the undeniable success of talented black figures in the culture industry--such as Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Jasmine Guy and Arsenio Hall--is not simply the result of their hard work, sacrifice and excellence; it is also due to an unprecedented openness of white America to black humanity.

In these days of escalating racist attitudes and violence--accompanied by talk of gloom and doom about race relations--it is important to note that one of the great symbolic victories of the civil-rights movement was the whetting of many white appetites for humane interaction with black people. Yet our narrow frameworks, worn-out languages and weary leaders often overlook this fact, and thereby leave us depressed and debilitated.

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In short, they seem to suppress the best of who and what we are as a people. We are desperate for a broad framework that situates race as an integral element in a new definition of American identity in the post-Cold War era; a vital moral language that goes beyond name-calling and cuts through excuses for white privilege and black upmanship, and a group of courageous and imaginative leaders who tell the truth about the depths of our economic and spiritual crises and of how our grappling with race can help us overcome them.

The first step is to reject the narrow framework presupposed by public discussions of race. This debilitating framework, pitting liberals against conservatives or Great Society Democrats against self-help Republicans, reinforces intellectual parochialism and political paralysis. We shall never grasp the complexity of black life if we simply trot out the depressing statistics of black unemployment, infant mortality, incarceration, teen-age pregnancy and violent crime and then ask whether either government or individuals alone can overcome this plight. Nor can we understand the subtle dynamics in black America--at the levels of class, gender, age or region--by glibly pointing out black role models who may inspire more black youth to achieve and thereby more closely approximate other so-called “model” ethnic minority groups, that is, Japanese-Americans or Jews. Such either/or perspectives and glib historical comparisons provide little insight or encouragement.

The second step is to recognize that race is a crucial element in a new definition of American identity in the post-Cold War era. We must speak a moral language that transcends race--hence condemning all forms of bigotry--even as we address the vicious legacy and presence of racism in American life. We must redefine the public interest in such a way that it includes providing basic social goods--health care, housing, education, child care and jobs--to all citizens and revise our notion of the common good as mutual tolerance and fair power-sharing among diverse groups and unique individuals. From this view, racism is not simply a moral failure of individuals, but, more important, a national dilemma that once again threatens the future of our grand, though flawed, democratic experiment begun in 1776.

The elaboration of a new framework must begin with a candid acknowledgement of where we are as a people--namely, sliding down a slippery slope toward national strife, social turmoil and cultural chaos. And race is but one crucial factor among others in this slide. The fundamental feature of contemporary America is a persistent decline in the standard of living for most of us, combined with a profound decay in the moral quality of communal life for all Americans.

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This unique fusion of downward social mobility for many and cultural impoverishment for most is unprecedented in recent American history. Under these conditions of economic hardship and spiritual disarray, xenophobic attitudes surface with potency--especially against women, Jews, Asians, American Indians, Latinos, gays and lesbians and, above all, black people.

In building this new framework, we begin with the basic cultural fact of our moment: the social breakdown of nurturing systems that transmit meaning, value, purpose, dignity and excellence to children. The institutional dimension of this breakdown is rooted in the shattering of families, neighborhoods and civic bonding owing to structural unemployment, welfare policies and, most important, market forces (that is, the drug industry and mass-media images of prosperity). Black filmmaker John Singleton’s powerful “Boyz N the Hood” provides a graphic portrait of this dimension.

The spiritual dimension of this breakdown results in rootless children with little sense of self-worth, a cultural arsenal inadequate for navigating through the traumas of life and feeble existential moorings. The monumental eclipse of hope, the colossal collapse of meaning, the incredible disregard for human (especially black) life and property in significant pockets of black life--these constitute but an extreme case on a continuum with much of American life.

Black social mobility falls behind that of other groups principally because the concrete nihilism promoted by massive social breakdown is more pervasive in black America--especially in black working poor and underclass communities.

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The most disheartening fact today is the paucity of high-quality leaders who speak frankly about our situation in an insightful and inspiring manner. This is especially so in regard to race. The White House manipulation of race has been pathetic; Jesse Helms’ Senate-campaign commercial against his black opponent, Harvey Gantt, was disgusting. The National Urban League’s noncommitment on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court was unprincipled. White demagogues like David Duke and black chauvinists like Louis Farrakhan surface precisely because of the dearth of candid dialogue by principled leaders. Bill Bradley’s remarkable speech on the Senate floor in July in which he took President Bush to task for his actions on civil-rights policy sets the right tone: We must seize a higher moral ground not only because we must be true to the best ideals that inform us, but also because our national survival and security are at stake.

Our best ideals of freedom, democracy and equality must be renewed such that they invigorate citizens, especially the luckless and landless among us. This does not mean that race-specific policies are the solution. Yet it does require that special attention--from the powerful sectors of American society--be given to those ill-fed, ill-housed and uneducated.

Racism in America is first and foremost a species of economic inequality--a matter of the relative lack of access to resources. Needless to say, racism also has cultural and psychological dimensions. But the challenge of personal prejudice, mutual respect and self-worth is more easily met when people have resources requisite for lives of decency and dignity.

On the burning domestic issue of race, President Bush has failed us. His vulgar race-baiting in the 1988 election, his racially coded quota-baiting in his veto of last year’s civil-rights bill and, most important, his colossal cutback of federal spending for decaying inner cities has encouraged black, Asian, Latino, Jewish and white Americans to turn against one another in frightening ways.

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Yet few leaders speak directly to President Bush’s moral failure (and political savvy) for fear of alienating the crossover white middle and working classes that have given the Republican Party a majority vote in recent presidential elections. Bush’s sense of urgency and bold action for suffering people in Kuwait under a pernicious Iraqi regime stands in stark contrast to his refusal to act for those suffering in America.

Courageous leaders must connect Bush’s retrograde racial politics to the downward mobility of the very white Americans that he appeals to. As long as black Americans are viewed as the cause for this social slippage, we remain locked in Bush’s cynical strategy--with dire consequences for all middle- and working-class Americans.

Only a leadership that can motivate “the better angels of our nature” and activate political possibilities for a more equitable, efficient and stable America deserves support. Let us hope that the vast intelligence, imagination and courage in this country will not fail us at this critical point in our history.


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