This is an old interview (1996) with Cornel West and Jorge Klors De Alva, but it hits on some interesting issues of race, class, this whole black/brown thing that I'm not sure that I fully comprehend. I mean that in terms of what this debate is trying to accomplish and what are the implications of using and operating within these labels in order to construct unity or agency. It keeps coming up more often than I'm used to now that I'm based in LA.
(Harper's Magazine) The angry and confused discourse about American race relations that followed the O. J Simpson trial may have been passionate, but it blindly assumed (as if the year were 1963 or 1861) that the only major axis of racial division in America was black-white Strangely ignored in the media backwash was the incipient tension between the country's largest historical minority, blacks, and its largest future one, Latinos.
In fifteen years, Latinos (known to the U.S. Census as Hispanics) will outnumber blacks, as they already do in twenty-one states Each group constitutes an ever greater percentage of the total population; each is large enough to swing a presidential election But do they vote with or against each other, and do they hold the same views of a white America that they have different reasons to distrust?
Knowing that questions of power and ethnicity are no longer black-and-white, Harper's Magazine invited three observers--a black, a Latino, and a white moderator--to open the debate.
This conversation took place at the Colombe d'Or restaurant in Manhattan.
JORGE KLOR DE ALVA is the Class of 1940 Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies and Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author or editor of fourteen books on anthropology, history, and interethnic relations in the Americas. He is presently at work on The Norton Anthology of Indigenous Mesoamercian Literature.
EARL SHORRIS is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of ten books, including Latinos: A Biography of the People; Ofay, a 1996 novel about a black-white love affair; and Under the Fifth Sun, a novel of Pancho Villa.
CORNEL WEST is a professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy of Religion at Harvard University. He is the author of eleven books on philosophy, African-American studies, and religion, including Race Matters. His latest book is The Future of the Race, co-authored with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
EARL SHORRIS: To begin, would you both answer one question with a yes or no, no more than that? Cornel, are you a black man?
CORNEL WEST: Yes.
SHORRIS: Jorge, do you think Cornel is a black man?
JORGE KLOR DE ALVA: No, for now.
SHORRIS: Apparently we have something to talk about. Jorge, can you tell me why you say, "No, for now?"
KLOR DE ALVA: To identify someone as black, Latino, or anything else, one has to appeal to a tradition of naming and categorizing in which a question like that can make sense--and be answered with a yes or a no. In the United States, where unambiguous, color-coded identities are the rule, Cornel is clearly a black man. Traveling someplace else, perhaps in Africa, Cornel would not necessarily be identified as black. He might be seen as someone of mixed African descent, but that's different from being identified as black. Cornel is only black within a certain reductionist context. And that context, where color is made to represent not so much the hue of one's skin as a set of denigrated experiences--and where these experiences are applied to everyone who ever had an African ancestor--is one I consider to be extremely negative.
WEST: I think when I say I am a black man, I'm saying first that I am a modern person, because black itself is a modem construct, a construct put forward during a particular moment in time to fit a specific set of circumstances. Implicit in that category of "black man" is American white supremacy, African slavery, and then a very rich culture that responds to these conditions at the level of style, mannerism, orientation, experimentation, improvisation, syncopation--all of those elements that have gone into making a new people, namely black people.
A hundred years ago I would have said that I was a "colored man." But I would still have been modem, I'd still have been New World African, I'd still have been dealing with white supremacy, and I would still have been falling back on a very rich culture of resistance, a culture that tried to preserve black sanity and spiritual health in the face of white hatred and job ceilings. I think Jorge and I agree that we're dealing with constructs. And I think we agree in our objections to essentialist conceptions of race, to the idea that differences are innate and outside of history.
KLOR DE ALVA: What advantage has it been, Cornel, for blacks to identify themselves as blacks?
WEST: For one, that identification was imposed. We were perceived as a separate people--enslaved, Jim Crowed, and segregated. To be viewed as a separate people requires coming to terms with that separateness. This category "black" was simply a response to that imposition of being a separate people, and also a building on one's own history, going back to Africa, yes, but especially here in the United States. So when I say, for example, that jazz is a creation of black people, I'm saying that it's a creation of modem people, New World African people. And we've come up with various categories, including black, as a way of affirming ourselves as agents, as subjects in history who create, initiate, and so forth. So in that sense there have actually been some real benefits.
KLOR DE ALVA: When the Europeans arrived in Mexico, they confronted people whose level of social organization was not unlike that of the Romans. Before millions died from newly introduced diseases, the Europeans called them naturales, or "natural people." Afterwards the survivors came to be called "Indians," a term the natives did not use until the nineteenth century, preferring to identify themselves by their tribal group. And to the extent that they were able to do that, they managed to maintain a degree of cultural integrity as separate groups. When that ended, they were all seen as despised Indians.
The general label only helped to promote their denigration. Now, I agree that group designations help build a sense of community, but as free and enslaved Africans took on the general labels that oppressed them, they also helped to legitimize their being identified as one irredeemable people. In the United States this unwillingness to challenge what has come to be known as the one-drop rule--wherein anyone who ever had an African ancestor, however remote, is identifiable only as black--has strengthened the hand of those who seek to trap them, and other so-called people of color, in a social basement with no exit ladder.
WEST: When we talk about identity, it's really important to define it. Identity has to do with protection, association, and recognition. People identify themselves in certain ways in order to protect their bodies, their labor, their communities, their way of life; in order to be associated with people who ascribe value to them, who take them seriously, who respect them; and for purposes of recognition, to be acknowledged, to feel as if one actually belongs to a group, a clan, a tribe, a community. So that any time we talk about the identity of a particular group over time and space, we have to be very specific about what the credible options are for them at any given moment.
There have been some black people in America who fundamentally believed that they were wholehearted, full-fledged Americans. They have been mistaken. They tried to pursue that option--Boom] Jim Crow hit them. They tried to press that option--Boom] Vanilla suburbs didn't allow them in. So they had to then revise and recast their conception of themselves in terms of protection, association, and recognition. Because they weren't being protected by the police and the courts. They weren't welcome in association. Oftentimes they were not welcome in white suburbs. And they weren't being recognized. Their talents and capacities were debased, devalued, and degraded. "Black" was the term many chose. Okay, that's fine, we can argue about that. But what are the other options? "Human being?" Yes, we ought to be human beings, but we know that's too abstract and too vague. We need human communities on the ground, not simply at the level of the ideal.
KLOR DE ALVA: Nobody is born black. People are born with different pigmentation, people are born with different physical characteristics, no question about that. But you have to learn to be black. That's what I mean by constructedness.
WEST: But are people born human? Is "human" itself constructed, as a category?
KLOR DE ALVA: Certainly as a category, as a social, as a scientific category, of course it's a construct. The species could have been identified in some other fashion. Since Columbus's landfall you had very extensive debates as to whether indigenous peoples in the Americas were human, like Europeans, or not. The priest Montesinos posed that question to the Spanish colonists in 1511, and Las Casas, a fellow priest, and the theologian Sepulveda debated the issue at mid-century before Emperor Charles V.
WEST: You see, this historical process of naming is part of the legacy not just of white supremacy but of class supremacy. Tolstoy didn't believe his peasants were actually human until after he underwent conversion. And he realized, "My God, I used to think they were animals, now they're human beings, I have a different life and a new set of lenses with which to view it." So it is with any talk about blackness. It's associated with subhumanness, and therefore when we talk about constructed terms like "black" or "peasant" or "human," it means that the whole thing's up for grabs in terms of constructedness. And if that's so, then all we have left is history.
KLOR DE ALVA: All identities are up for grabs. But black intellectuals in the United States, unlike Latino intellectuals in the United States, have an enormous media space within which to shape the politics of naming and to affect the symbols and meanings associated with certain terms. Thus, practically overnight, they convinced the media that they were an ethnic group and shifted over to the model of African-American, hyphenated American, as opposed to being named by color. Knowing what we know about the negative aspects of naming, it would be better for all of us, regardless of color, it those who consider themselves, and are seen as, black intellectuals were to stop participating in the insidious one-drop-rule game of identifying themselves as black.
WEST: If you're saying that we are, for the most part, biological and cultural hybrids, I think you're certainly right. But at the same time there's a danger in calling for an end to a certain history if we're unable to provide other options. Now, because I speak first and foremost as a human being, a radical Democrat, and a Christian, I would be willing to use damn near any term if it helped to eliminate poverty and provide adequate health care and child care and a job with a living wage, some control at the workplace, and some redistribution of wealth downward. At that point, you can call all black people colored. That's fine with me.
SHORRIS: Are you saying hat you're willing to disappear?
WEST: Well, I would never disappear, because whatever name we would come up with. we're still going to have the blues and John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan and all those who come out of this particular history. And simply because we change the name wouldn't mean that we would disappear.
KLOR DE ALVA: I think that's the wrong emphasis. I think what has happened is that much of the cultural diversity that Cornel mentions has, in fact, disappeared behind this veil that has transformed everybody with one drop of African blood into black. That reductionism has been a much more powerful mechanism for causing diversity to disappear.
WEST: Well, what do you mean by disappearance at this point?
KLOR DE ALVA: Let me answer your question from a slightly different perspective. We have, in the United States, two mechanisms at play in the construction of collective identities One is to identify folks from a cultural perspective. The other is to identify them from a racial perspective. Now, with the exception of black-white relations, the racial perspective is not the critical one for most folks. The cultural perspective was, at one time, very sharply drawn, including the religious line between Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Protestants, Jews and Catholics, Jews and Christians. But in the course of the twentieth century, we have seen in the United States a phenomenon that we do not see anyplace else in the world--the capacity to blur the differences between these cultural groups, to construct them in such a way that they became insignificant and to fuse them into a new group called whites, which didn't exist before.
WEST: Yes, but whiteness was already in place. I mean, part of the tragedy of American civilization is precisely the degree to which the stability and continuity of American democracy has been predicated on a construct of whiteness that includes the subordination of black people, so that European cultural diversity could disappear into American whiteness while black folk remain subordinated.
KLOR DE ALVA: But everything, even whiteness, must be constructed and is therefore subject to change.
WEST: Categories are constructed. Scars and bruises are felt with human bodies, some of which end up in coffins. Death is not a construct. And so, when we're talking about constructs having concrete consequences that produce scars and bruises, these consequences are not constructed, they're felt. They're very real. Now, in light of that, I would want to accent the strengths of the history of black resistance. One of the reasons why black people are so integral a part of American civilization is because black people have raised a lot of hell. That's very important, especially in a society in which power and pressure decide who receives visibility. By raising hell I mean organization, mobilization, chaos-producing capacity, as in rebellion. That's a very important point. Why is it important? It's important for me because what's at stake is the quality of American civilization, whether it actually survives as a plausible idea.
That's why a discourse on race is never just a discourse on race. Richard Wright used to say that the Negro is America's metaphor. It means you can't talk about one without talking about the nature of the other. And one of the reasons we don't like to talk about race, especially as it relates to black folk, is because we're forced to raise all the fundamental questions about what it means to be an American, what it means to be a part of American democracy. Those are exhausting and challenging questions.
The best of the black intellectual and political tradition has always raised the problem of evil in its concrete forms in America. People like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and Ella Baker never focused solely on black suffering. They used black suffering as a springboard to raise issues of various other forms of injustice, suffering, and so forth, that relate to other groups--black, brown, white workers, right across the board, you see. During the Eighties, the major opposition to right-wing Reaganism was what? Jesse Jackson's campaigns. Opening up to workers, gay brothers, lesbian sisters, right across the board. Black suffering was a springboard. Why? Because a question of evil sits at the heart of the American moral dilemma With the stark exception of its great artists--Melville, Faulkner, Elizabeth Bishop, Coltrane, Toni Morrison--American society prefers to deny the existence of its own evil. Black folk historically have reminded people of the prevailing state of denial.
ANGLO MAY BE OF ANY RACE
SHORRIS: We've just demonstrated one of the tenets of this conversation. That is, we have discussed almost exclusively the question of blacks in this society. But we started out saying we would have a black-brown dialogue. Why does that happen? And not only in the media Why did it happen here, among us?
KLOR DE ALVA: Part of the answer, as Cornel was pointing out, is that blacks are the central metaphor for otherness and oppression in the United States. Secondly, in part I take your question, when focused on Latinos, to mean, Don't Latinos have their own situation that also needs to be described if not in the same terms, then at least: in terms that are supplementary?
I'm not sure. The answer goes to the very core of the difference between Latinos and blacks and between Cornel and myself: I am trying to argue against the utility of the concept of race. Why? Because I don't think that's the dominant construct we need to address in order to resolve the many problems at hand. Cornel wants to construct it in the language of the United States, and I say we need a different kind of language. Do you know why, Earl? Because we're in the United States and blacks are Americans. They're Anglos.
WEST: Excuse me?
KLOR DE ALVA: They're Anglos of a different color, but they're Anglos. Why? Because the critical distinction here for Latinos is not race, it's culture.
WEST: Speaking English and being part of American culture?
KLOR DE ALVA: Blacks are more Anglo than most Anglos because, unlike most Anglos, they can't directly identify themselves with a nation-state outside of the United States. They are trapped in America. However unjust and painful, their experiences are wholly made in America.
WEST: But that doesn't make me an Anglo. If I'm trapped on the underside of America, that doesn't mean that somehow I'm an Anglo.
KLOR DE ALVA: Poor whites similarly trapped on the underside of America are also Anglos. Latinos are in a totally different situation, unable to be captured by the government in the "five food groups" of racial classification of Americans. The Commerce Department didn't know what to do with Latinos; the census takers didn't know what to do with Latinos; the government didn't know what to do with Latinos, and so they said, "Latinos can be of any race." That puts Latinos in a totally different situation. They are, in fact, homologous with the totality of the United States. That is, like Americans, Latinos can be of any race. What distinguishes them from all other Americans is culture, not race. That's where I'm going when I say that Cornel is an Anglo. You can be a Latino and look like Cornel. You can be a Latino and look like you, Earl, or like me. And so, among Latinos, there's no surprise in my saying that Cornel is an Anglo.
WEST: But it seems to me that "Anglo" is the wrong word.
KLOR DE ALVA: Hey, I didn't make it up, Cornel.
WEST: "Anglo" implies a set of privileges. It implies a certain cultural formation.
KLOR DE ALVA: I'm trying to identify here how Chicanos see "Anglos."
WEST: But I want to try and convince those Latino brothers and sisters not to think of black folk as Anglos. That's just wrong. Now, they can say that we're English-speaking moderns in the United States who have yet to be fully treated as Americans. That's fine.
KLOR DE ALVA: My friend, Cornel, I was speaking of one of the more benign Latino names for blacks.
WEST: Let's hear some of the less benign then, brother.
WHAT COLOR IS BROWN?
KLOR DE ALVA: Do you think of Latinos as white?
WEST: I think of them as brothers and sisters, as human beings, but in terms of culture, I think of them as a particular group of voluntary immigrants who entered America and had to encounter this thoroughly absurd system of classification of positively charged whiteness, negatively charged blackness. And they don't fit either one: they're not white, they're not black.
SHORRIS: What are they?
WEST: I see them primarily as people of color, as brown people who have to deal with their blackness-whiteness.
SHORRIS: So you see them in racial terms.
WEST: Well, no, it's more cultural.
SHORRIS: But you said "brown."
WEST: No, it's more cultural. Brown, for me, is more associated with culture than race.
SHORRIS: But you choose a word that describes color.
WEST: Right. To say "Spanish-speaking" would be a bit too vague, because you've got a lot of brothers and sisters from Guatemala who don't speak Spanish. They speak an indigenous language.
KLOR DE ALVA: You have a lot of Latinos who aren't brown.
WEST: But they're not treated as whites, and "brown" is simply a signifier of that differential treatment. Even if a Latino brother or sister has supposedly white skin, he or she is still Latino in the eyes of the white privileged, you see. But they're not treated as black. They're not niggers. They're not the bottom of the heap, you see. So they're not niggers, they're not white, what are they? I say brown, but signifying culture more than color. Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, El Salvadorans all have very, very distinctive histories. When you talk about black, that becomes a kind of benchmark, because you've got these continuous generations, and you've got very common experiences.
Now, of course, blackness comprises a concealed heterogeneity. You've got West Indians, you've got Ethiopians. My wife is Ethiopian. Her experience is closer to browns'. She came here because she wanted to. She was trying to get out from under a tyrannical, Communist regime in Ethiopia. She's glad to be in a place where she can breathe freely, not have to hide. I say, "I'm glad you're here, but don't allow that one side of America to blind you to my side."
So I've got to take her, you know, almost like Virgil in Dante's Divine Comedy, through all of this other side of America so that she can see the nightmare as well as the dream. But as an Ethiopian, she came for the dream and did a good job of achieving it.
KLOR DE ALVA: So you are participating in the same process as the other Americans, other Anglos--to use that complicated term--that same song and dance of transforming her into a highly racialized American black.
WEST: It wasn't me. It was the first American who called her "nigger." That's when she started the process of Americanization and racialization. She turned around and said, "What is a nigger?"
KLOR DE ALVA: And you're the one who explained it.
LBJ'S OTHER DILEMMA
SHORRIS: How do you see yourself, Jorge?
KLOR DE ALVA: I'm an American citizen. What are you, Cornel?
WEST: I am a black man going to be an American citizen.
KLOR DE ALVA: I'm an American citizen trying to get rid of as many categories as possible that classify people in ways that make it easy for them to be oppressed, isolated, marginalized. Of course, I'm a Chicano, I'm a Mexican-American. But for me to identify myself that way is not much help. More helpful is my actually working to resolve the problems of poor folks in the United States.
If I were black, I would heighten the importance of citizenship. Why? Because every time we've seen huge numbers of immigrants enter the United States, the people most devastated by their arrival, in terms of being relegated to an even lower rung on the employment ladder, have been blacks.
SHORRIS: Are you defining "black" and "Latino" as "poor"?
KLOR DE ALVA: No, no. I'm not defining them that way at all.
WEST: What's fascinating about this issue of race is the degree to which, in the American mind, black people are associated with instability, chaos, disorder--the very things that America always runs from. In addition, we are associated with hypersexuality, transgressive criminal activity--all of the various stereotypes and images.
SHORRIS: We all know LBJ's comment about affirmative action. He said that it's the right thing to do but that it will destroy the Democratic Party. There certainly is every likelihood that it has destroyed the Democratic Party as it's traditionally been understood, that the Democratic Party's base in the South has disappeared, that the white South now votes Republican and many blacks don't vote at all. What does this mean about America and the likelihood of any kind of affirmative action, or any program for social justice, succeeding, either for blacks or for Latinos?
KLOR DE ALVA: No matter what kind of policy you set in place, there has to be something in it for everybody or the policy is not going to last very long. And I'm not even going to get into the issue that affirmative action has been essentially an African-American thing, not a Latino thing.
WEST: But who have the major beneficiaries been? White women. And rightly so. More of them have been up against the patriarchy than black and brown people have been up against racism.
KLOR DE ALVA: If you're right that white women are the main beneficiaries, and if I'm right that African-Americans were meant to be the primary beneficiaries, then we have to ask if affirmative action is an effective strategy for the resolution of the Latinos' problems. And has the failure of class organization been due primarily to the racial divisions in the society? If so, then race is a lamentable category for any kind of progressive organization, and we need an alternative to affirmative action. I would remove the government from participation in the naming game and its divisive racializing of identities.
WEST: To the degree to which the Democratic Party cuts against a strong white supremacist grain in America and identifies with black people unequivocally, it will be destroyed. That's essentially what the Republican strategy has been since 1968. The question then becomes, How do we talk about these issues of class while also recognizing that any silence with respect to the de facto white supremacy results in institutions that ought to be changed because they have little moral content to them? If you're going to have a spineless, milquetoast Democratic Party that can't say a word against racism, it doesn't deserve to exist anyway.
KLOR DE ALVA: Affirmative action has had the capacity to create a black middle class. Many of these folks also have been the dominant group in the civil rights arena and in other human rights areas The net effect has been to create a layer, essentially of African-Americans, within the public sphere that has been very difficult for Latinos to penetrate and make their complaints known.
WEST: That's true, and I think it's wrong. But at the same time, blacks are more likely to register protests than Latinos are. That's what I mean by raising hell, you see. Black people are more likely to raise hell than brown people.
KLOR DE ALVA: But having been blocked from the public sector, I am concerned that Latinos turning to the private one will buy deeply into U.S. concepts of race and will be even less willing than Anglos to employ blacks. So for me, any new social or public policy must begin with dismantling the language of race.
WEST: It's important not to conflate overcoming racial barriers with dismantling racial language. I'm all for the former; I'm not so sure about the latter, because it ignores or minimizes the history of racism. Most of human history is a history of oligarchs, unaccountable elites, manipulating anger, rage, setting working people against one another to enable those elites to maintain their position. That's why democracies are so rare in human history.
SHORRIS: Let me ask you a question about oligarchies. There are wealthy blacks, middle-class blacks, and many poor blacks. There are wealthy browns, middle-class browns, many poor browns. Are we talking about two groups or six? Are we talking about economic self-interest being greater than any kind of cultural or racial self-interest?
WEST: There is always going to be self-interest operating. The question is, How does it relate to the common good and contribute to the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services that there's some relative equality? Now, the six groups that you're talking about have to do with class divisions within brown and black America. The class divisions are there. And they're going to increase, there's no doubt about that. We're going to see more conservatives in black America, more conservatives in brown America, because the country in general is tilting in that direction and it's' nice to be on the bandwagon. Even though we claim to be with the underdog, it's very American to want to be with the winners. So as those class divisions escalate, you're going to get class envy and class hatred within brown America as well as within black America. One of the purposes of a black-brown dialogue is to head off precisely these kinds of hatreds and various forms of bigotry.
KLOR DE ALVA: At the level of the working class, we're seeing a great deal of cooperation, but as you move up the economic scale you have progressively more turf wars--how many slots blacks get for this, how many slots Latinos get for that. Once you get to mayors of towns or cities, you have Latinos who aren't going to do terribly much for the black community or, if they're black, not very much for the Latino community. Hence my emphasis on a solution that addresses economics rather than race.
WES7: We do have some data in terms of voting behavior when it comes to brown-black contrast. Ninety percent of whoever votes in the black community still votes Democratic, right? Cubans, a million Cubans in America, vote for Republicans. We have 2.8 million Puerto Ricans. They vote for Democratic roughly 60-40. We have 17.1 million Mexicans. They vote, the majority, for the Democratic Party. Black Americans tilt much more toward the Democratic Party than any other group, a la LBJ's idea: It's going to destroy this party, all these black folk over here. You see, once you get that racial divide, you can promote white anxieties and white fears, and you can use that for all it's worth. And the Republicans are going to use that into the twenty-first century. There's no doubt about it.
KLOR DE ALVA: Cornel, you're going back to the question of this evil empire.
WEST: No, it's not evil. It's a civilization in which there is a problem of evil.
KLOR DE ALVA: All civilizations have a problem with evil.
WEST: But some--like the United States--are in sustained denial even as they view themselves as the embodiment of good.
KLOR DE ALVA: I don't agree with that. I would say that one of the significant ideological possibilities, a door that's always open in the United States-and it goes back to that old contrast between Mexico and the United States--is that the United States has an epic vision, a vision of good against evil. Latinos supposedly have a tragic vision--a conflict between two goods. But in the United States, evil is always right there, and its defeat, like its creation, can therefore be imagined. Cornel, you represent evil if you take off your three-piece suit and walk out into the street at three o'clock in the morning.
WEST: Brother, I represent evil now, as a savage in a suit. Because this is black skin, what we started with. So I don't need to take off my suit. But the difference is this: The tragic view--of Unamuno or Melville or Faulkner or Morrison or Coltrane--is a much more morally mature view of what it is to be human. The triumphant view of good over evil, which is Manichaean, is sophomoric, childish. It has been dominant in America because our civilization is so spoiled.
KLOR DE ALVA: I would like to agree with you were it not for the fact that that tragic vision is also a kind of Hamlet vision. It makes it very difficult to move, to overcome evil.
WEST: But better Hamlet than Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. And that's precisely what Melville was getting at--this tremendous voluntaristic view of the world in which a will to power, based on an absolute conception of good over evil, allows one to lead toward what? Nihilism, self-destruction. I'd go with Hamlet any day.
KLOR DE ALVA: Not me, not at the price of indecision and paralysis.
WEST: Now, Martin Luther King was neither Hamlet nor Captain Ahab, you see. King was something else. King actually comes out of a black tradition with a profound sense of the tragic. When he has Mahalia Jackson sing "Precious Lord," that's not triumphalism. That is the deepest sense of the tragic nature of this civilization, the same tragic sense at work in the spirituals and the blues and jazz. King was not in any way a triumphalist. The great King insight is that because he rejects triumphalism he knows that the evil is not simply external, that it's in him. He knew that there was white supremacy in him. That's what allowed him to love Bull Connor even as he opposed Connor's white supremacy. That's the great Christian insight.
KLOR DE ALVA: I agree with you. The evil is here in the United States, but it can be challenged.
ONE NIGHT OF LOVE
SHORRIS: Cornel, what do you most worry about in the future?
WEST: I think my fundamental concern is the disintegration of American civilization as black people become more and more insulated, isolated, targeted, and hence subjected to the most brutal authoritarian rule in the name of democracy. And that's exactly where we're headed, so it's not just a fear.
KLOR DE ALVA: I would say that what you've described for America would be true of just about any nation I know, particularly any multicultural nation. It's not something that's unique to the United States. My biggest fear, as this nation moves into an inevitable browning, or hybridization, is that there will be a very powerful minority, overwhelmingly composed of Euro-Americans, who will see themselves in significant danger as a consequence of the way democracy works: winner-take-all. And they will begin to renege on some of the basic principles that created the United States and made it what it is.
SHORRIS: We've been talking about conflicts. Let's stipulate, unless you disagree, that the advantage to the people in power of keeping those at the bottom at each other's throats is enormous. That's the case in all societies. So we have blacks and browns, for the most part, at the bottom. And they are frequently at each other's throats. They're fighting over immigration, fighting over jobs, and so on. A group of young people comes to you and says, "Tell us how to make alliances, give us a set of rules for creating alliances between blacks and browns." What would you answer?
WEST: I'd appeal to various examples. Look at Ernesto Cortes and the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas or the Harlem Initiatives Together in New York City, which have been able to pull off black-brown alliances of great strength, the "breaking bread" events of the Democratic Socialists of America. Or I'd talk about Mark Ridley-Thomas in South-Central Los Angeles and look at the ways in which he speaks with power about brown suffering as a black city councilman, the way in which he's able to build within his own organization a kind of black-brown dialogue. Because what you really see then is not just a set of principles or rules but some momentum at work.
SHORRIS: But how do you do that? What's the first step?
WEST: Well, it depends on what particular action you want to highlight. You could, say, look at the movement around environmental racism, where you have a whole host of black-brown alliances. With Proposition 18? you had a black-brown alliance among progressives fighting against the conservatives who happened to be white, black, and brown. In the trade-union movement, look at 1199, the health-care workers union, here in New York City. You've got brown Dennis Rivera at the top, you've got black Gerry Hudson third in charge, running things. That's a very significant coordinated leadership of probably the most important trade union in the largest city in the nation. So it depends on the particular issue. I think it's issue by issue in light of a broad vision.
SHORRIS: What is the broad vision?
WEST: Democracy, substantive radical democracy in which you actually are highlighting the empowering of everyday people in the workplace and the voting booth so that they can live lives of decency and dignity. That's a deeply democratic sensibility. And I think that sensibility can be found in both the black and brown communities.
KLOR DE ALVA: Unless there's a dramatic shift in ideology, linkages between people who are identified as belonging to opposing camps will last only for the moment, like the graffiti I saw during the L.A. riots: "Crips. Bloods Mexicans. Together. Forever. Tonite (sic)," and then next to that, "LAPD" crossed out and "187" underneath. That is, the alliances will work only as long as there's a common enemy, in this case the L.A.P.D., whose death the graffiti advocated by the term "187," which refers here to the California Criminal Code for homicide.
As long as we don't have a fundamental transformation in ideology, those are the kinds of alliances we will have, and they will be short-lived and not lead, ultimately, to terribly much. Clearly, the progressive forces within the United States must be able to forge ideological changes that would permit lasting linkages. At the core of that effort lies the capacity to address common suffering, regardless of color or culture. And that cannot be done unless common suffering, as the reason for linkages across all lines, is highlighted in place of the very tenuous alliances between groups that identify themselves by race or culture.
SHORRIS: Let's see if anything happened in this conversation. Cornel, are you a black man?
WEST: Hell yes.
SHORRIS: Jorge, is he a black man?
KLOR DE ALVA: Of course not.
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