"The economic front is inseparable from the cultural front," said West during his address, titled "The Future of the Race." He warned that cities with large numbers of urban poor like Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston are "a ticking time bomb and we try to forget that."
West, professor of religion and Afro-American Studies at Harvard University and one of the nation's most prominent spokesmen on race and culture, pleased the crowd of more than 800 with a free-form presentation dotted with historical, literary and cultural references.
Cornel West greets students at a campus reception following his lecture at St. Ignatius Church on March 18. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Race remains the "raw nerve" in American democracy, West said, but racial healing cannot be achieved without ending economic injustice. Describing himself philosophically as "a Christian, radical democrat - with a small 'd,'" West blamed many of America's current ills on the "spiritual impoverishment" of a "market culture run amok," which he said places a premium on "stimulation and titillation" while affording little place for intangible "non-market values" such as love and tenderness.
Referring to the recent murders of so-called "gangsta" rap singers Tupac Shakur and Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, West criticized "the 'gangsta' mentalities shot through American society." He cited a prevailing "win at any cost" attitude among American leaders, as well as a "market Christianity," which he said "sells Jesus like a bar of soap."
West urged listeners to examine their own beliefs and prejudices as a necessary first step toward working for social justice and rolling back racism, nationalism, sexism and homophobia.
"I think it was one of the most exciting intellectual engagements we've had in a long time," said College of Arts and Sciences Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ, who introduced West to the audience at St. Ignatius. "I was impressed by his injunction to try to see the good in people, while retaining the right to criticize. He's a wonderful role model, not just for black students, but for all students, because of the breadth of learning he demonstrates. He's clearly a man of great learning and of great compassion."
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