Campus News

Dr. Cornel West Wows Capacity Crowd at Morrell Gym

Story posted February 23, 2000

Dr. Cornel West, who has been fighting against social injustice for decades, admits he’s not optimistic about the future: "We’ve been around for thousands of years; it’s getting late." But what West lacks in optimism he makes up for in hope, a distinction he makes as he pursues his moral imperative to leave the world a better place then when he arrived. It is an imperative he tried to impart on the more than 1,700 people packed into Morrell Gym for a "Dialogue About the Value of Diversity" on Feb. 23.

West argues that there will be no true democracy until society comes to terms with the issue of diversity. And that diversity, and therefore democracy, cannot be realized until there is true and honest discourse.

"This is serious business, not cheap politically correct chit-chat. I hope I say something tonight that thoroughly unsettles you."

That kind of discussion entails great risk, he said, because Americans live in a "hotel society where the light’s always on and no one wants to talk about the darkness. How long can we take this for granted when we’re living in such a time of self-congratulation?"

To understand diversity, you need to understand that in a homophobic, patriarchal, narcissistic society, "people are wrestling with what it means to be dehumanized, to have their value questioned."

West said the discourse has to be inclusive, not only of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity, but of some core social issues:

1) Wealth inequality: 1 percent of the population owns 48 percent of the net wealth in this country; 9 percent owns another 37 percent; the three richest billionaires have more money than the poorest 48 countries in the world. At the same time, 21 percent of the country’s children live in poverty; "6.2 million Americans have four jobs between mom and dad, work more than 45 hours a week without taking one penny from the government and they’re still poor.

"How much wealth inequity can a democracy stand? There are only so many police, only so many prisons, so much despair."

2) The moral bankruptcy of America’s youth: "Littleton’s just the peak of the iceberg. Young people are rootless, lonely, sad, they have no community. 71 percent of high school students cheat on exams weekly; they live by the Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not get caught.’ "

3) Apathy about public life: "There’s a crisis here, and emergency here. We need a discourse that enacts the blues – a discourse that’s neither sentimental nor cynical."

West said Americans need to get beyond their belief that they are not responsible for the solution because they were not part of the problem: The feeling that their ancestors arrived here long after slavery ended, so oppression of blacks is not their fault. Their ancestors didn’t take part in the conquest of the American West, so the oppression of Native Americans is not their fault. They don’t beat their wives, so domestic violence is not their fault.

"The plight of any one of us is connected to the plight of all of us," he said. "We are in this together."

West stayed in Morrell Gym until 10 p.m. engaging the audience in a discussion moderated by Eddie Glaude, assistant professor of religion and Africana studies. Many of the students asked how to create an environment where the vital open discourse can take place. West challenged them to not be afraid to "fall on their faces," to take the lead and speak their mind, and eventually, others will follow.

One student, who said she came from a rich upbringing, asked how she should view her parents "who lived the American Dream. It’s hard to listen to your talk and not think that my parents aren’t doing it right."

West told her to appreciate the independence they gave her, and to do with it what she felt was right: "Be true to your heart and passion."

In the end, he urged people to look beyond the identities of race, gender, ethnicity, that people assign to themselves and each other. More importantly, "what is the moral context, and ethical substance of your identity? And what democratic consequences does your identity have?"

West’s visit to Bowdoin was sponsored by The Coalition for Bowdoin’s Activist and the Office of the President, with additional funding from the Hewlett Foundation.

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