Race Matters is a collection of loosely connected essays. West’s writing is aimed at a wide audience, and the author avoids using technical philosophical jargon or making obtuse references to internal academic debates. To avoid such jargon, terms like “nihilism” that have specific meanings within philosophical discourse are given new definitions by West.
The essays in Race Matters focus on contemporary events, but the “assault on black humanity,” to use West’s term, has ongoing relevance in American political life, and continuing political debates over issues raised in the essays are likely to perpetuate the work’s importance. West’s analyses of market forces and African American leadership, as well as their connections to the crisis in African American life, are all skillfully presented. Readers may encounter some difficulty in following West’s argument, however. Some terms, such as “love ethic,” “prophetic,” and “psychic conversion” are only vaguely defined, leaving readers to discern for themselves the proper application of these terms to the problems addressed. In particular, the term “progressive,” which is crucial to West’s argument, remains poorly defined. It thus comes to resemble a catchphrase, rather than denoting a clear agenda for reform.
Some critics have charged West with ignoring the history behind the problems he raises, particularly the effects of market forces on black nihilism and the decline of community institutions. More a polemic than an academic treatise, the book lacks footnotes, a bibliography, or an index, giving little direction to readers wishing further to examine the issues it raises. Even with these limitations, West achieves the goal he set for Race Matters: prompting a new dialogue on race. His thinking is fresh and original, and the concerns he raises about homophobia, sexism, and classism are welcome aspects of a contemporary discourse on race. The book offers guideposts, however, rather than concrete solutions.
The publication of Race Matters sparked the discussion West wished to begin, and for that reason alone the book is an important contribution to the literature on race. Two of West’s earlier publications, Prophecy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982) and Prophetic Fragments (1988), examine the intersection between religious tradition, Marxism, and race. West followed these works with The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989), which analyzed philosophical pragmatism as it relates to race. Shortly afterward, his Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1991)—coauthored with Bell Hooks—called on intellectuals to engage in political life and address the plight of the African American commuity.
While Race Matters avoids direct reference to religious traditions, as well as to Marxism, one can hear echoes of both in West’s discussion of African American communities and the “progressive” agenda he recommends. Many works have followed Race Matters, including Keeping Faith (1993), which uses “prophetic criticism” to examine issues of power and race and further explores the philosophical issues raised in Race Matters. Cornel West may be that rarest of species, a “celebrity” intellectual, but the former term should not, and does not, diminish the latter.