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A conversation with Cornel West

October 22, 1995|Itabari Njeri

Itabari Njeri: How does the notion of healing fit into this multilayered strategy for social change that you and Lerner articulate? And where do blacks and Jews fit into it?

Cornel West: For me, this dialogue was just a very small first step in the healing. To me, healing means you have to recognize there is a wound and you try to understand what the sources of the wound are, which means you try to tell a story about how it came to be. So you have to engage in some historical interpretation. Your question to me is raised at the end of the text because the text is just the beginning of an acknowledgment of the wound, as opposed to laying bare what the dynamics of the healing actually are. I have much to learn [in that regard].

Njeri: Over the years, as I have talked to people involved in conflict resolution and efforts to make social change, I've always asked, what conceptual framework do you have for your work? Often, they can't articulate one. When I talk to social scientists who have looked at the literature on group conflict, they note there's relatively little literature on intra-minority group conflict. There is about dominant vs. subordinate groups but not between historical oppressed people like blacks and Jews.

West: That's true.

Njeri: But I recall a particularly enlightening interview with a scholar at the University of Oklahoma, Young Yun Kim. She looked at all the literature about conflict resolution and said basically what comes out of it is a three-part model. You look at inter-ethnic conflict and find there are the structural elements that are at the root of it, the cause of the nihilism and despair both you and Lerner lament.

West: Right.

Njeri: But that you can't really get to change the structural issues until you break through the nihilism and despair.

West: Right.

Njeri: She points out that the structural issues can broadly be divided into issues of economic inequality and social inequality, but there are psychological issues that form the the third part of this model: seeing those outside one's group as dangerous and hated "others," low individual and group esteem based on internalizing negative stereotypes generated by an oppressive dominant culture. It appears that you have to address those psychological issues in order to deal successfully with the structural issues, at least in any sustained way. But people involved in conflict resolution usually go after the structural issues. You emphasize that, too. You're talking about a redistribution of wealth.

West: Right. Right.

Njeri: That requires sophisticated political analysis and organization. How do you get to deal with those structural issues if you can't break through the pain, nihilism and despair you and Lerner describe in varying ways?

West: I have some notions that have people conceiving of themselves as capable of changing the world. That's why, for me, the issues of self-love, self-respect and self-regard are preconditions for human agency and especially black agency, given the fact that we have been and are such a hated and despised people. I mean, it's no accident that most of the great black spokespersons and leaders understood the centrality of self-affirmation, self-respect and self-love. Now, that's not a conceptual model per se. These are just particular categories that I think have to be talked about. The nihilism essay in Race Matters addresses how do you convince folk to generate levels of self confidence so that they can, in fact, shape the conditions of their destiny?

Njeri: You see the black church as being instrumental in part of that, correct?

West: At its best. At its worst, it's gotten in the way.

Njeri: How has it gotten in the way?

West: The black church often has reinforced certain self images that are damaging to black peoples' beauty, black peoples' confidence. At its best, it's been able to accent black humanity and thereby affirm black beauty, black intelligence, black character. The wonderful thing about the black church for me is that it forces you to come to terms with the centrality of love in the world. Even if they don't hit it head-on. When they talk about love ye one another with no qualifications, it means you got to love yourself. That becomes an act of black self-love, which at its best is genuinely subversive in a white supremacist society. The most dangerous thing in American society is a self-respecting and self-loving black person, because they're on the road to freedom and that means they're gonna run up against the powers that be.

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