Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cornel West seeks in Race Matters to revitalize the United States’ discussion of race. That discussion has become mired in a polarized debate between liberals and conservatives that fails to examine the complexities of the issue. Through a series of eight essays, West creates a new discourse around race. Each essay follows the same structure: A problem is presented and analyzed, and a solution is offered. Three themes emerge throughout these essays: the power of market forces in shaping African American culture, the absence of African American leadership, and the challenge of Black Nationalism to black America. West argues that the first two factors have contributed to the collapse of institutions that create community among African Americans, while the third factor threatens potential solutions to that collapse by isolating the African American community.

Three of the book’s essays focus on market forces and their effects on black America. In the first, West argues that “nihilism,” by which he means living with a sense of hopelessness, threatens the survival of the African American community. This nihilism was avoided in the past, because society’s institutions were able to provide community connections. However, these institutions have been threatened by market forces that encourage individuals to seek personal pleasure at the expense of love and service to others. In contrast, West calls for a “politics of conversion” guided by a “love ethic” to generate feelings of self-love and agency among African Americans.

In the second essay, West claims a new black conservatism has emerged in the United States as a result of market forces. The emphasis placed on individualism by conservatives and neoconservatives such as Glenn Loury leads them to conclude that individual behaviors have led to a moral breakdown of American society. While West acknowledges the effects of these behaviors, he charges that conservatives ignore the power of market forces to stimulate behavior. While...

(The entire section is 829 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Allan, Kenneth. Contemporary Social and Sociological Theory: Visualizing Social Worlds. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2006. This analysis of sixteen seminal social theorists places West alongside such other thinkers as Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, and Pierre Bourdieu.

Delaney, Paul. “An Optimist Despite the Evidence.” The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1993, p. 11. Notes the optimism of West’s work, even as that work chronicles the problems West describes. Concludes with West that leadership is a key to the future of African Americans.

Hentoff, Nat. “Preaching in the Streets and in the Academy.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 1 (Autumn, 1993): 96-98. A largely positive summary of West’s position with emphasis on the success of the book in raising issues of race. Ends with a reflection on the role of the press in keeping silent on race.

Kulman, Linda. Review of Race Matters, by Cornel West. The New Leader 76, no. 12 (October, 1993): 18-19. Notes the intersection of West’s religion with the argument in Race Matters and draws positive conclusions about the moral message the book is designed to deliver.

Loury, Glenn. “Race Matters.” The Wilson Quarterly 17, no. 3 (Summer, 1993): 80-83. Provides a neoconservative reply to the argument of West’s book. Loury’s defense of capitalist ideology and critique of West’s progressive policy agenda is worthy of attention.

Pinsker, Sanford. “What’s Love, and Candor, Got to Do with It?” Virginia Quarterly Review 70, no. 1 (Winter, 1994): 174-181. Calls Race Matters an “extraordinary” book and praises West’s intellectual powers, humanism, and analysis of the market forces that shape contemporary African American culture.

Puddington, Arch. Review of Race Matters, by Cornel West. Commentary 96, no. 2 (August, 1993): 62-65. Strongly critical review, especially on issues relating to black conservatives and African American-Jewish relations. Puddington claims West’s observations on black conservatives are driven by leftist politics and that his conclusions on African American-Jewish relations are based on errors.