Cornel West, The Justice Conference, and Why Race Still Matters

I squirmed as phrases like “nigga please” and “white supremacy” were spoken from the stage once graced by Booker T. Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimi Hendrix, Broadway musicals, and countless ballets. Just as the black keynote speaker had not come to offend, the predominantly white audience had not come to be entertained. Rather, all were gathered in the name of understanding and pursuing justice. It was my first time seeing Dr. Cornel West speak in person and, in reality, the first time I felt like I had witnessed something historical in person. His words were piercing, poignant and prophetic. Experiencing Dr. West deliver remarks is like attending church, school, and a protest all at the same time. It made me enlightened, embarrassed, emboldened, and infuriated.

Dr. West was the first speaker at the fourth annual Justice Conference held in Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre earlier this month. His message? Unmistakable: Race still matters and should continue to matter to the American church writ large. He began with a clarion appeal for younger Christians to not dismiss or overlook black plight in America by asking, “What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st Century? What does it mean to look back before you move forward? And can we, as Christians, allow those who suffer a voice to speak?”

Twenty-two years ago, in the aftermath of the L.A. riots of 1992, Dr. West wrote what remains a pillar of thought on race relations in America, Race Matters. The importance and relevance of Dr. West’s work may be experiencing a renaissance as matters of race have reached a breaking point as of late. A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll found that 62 percent of white Americans now say race relations are “generally bad” – a 27 percent increase since February 2015. Whether justified or not, the descent of race perceptions in America can be attributed to recent police force used against unarmed black men. As a result, views of police have declined as nearly half of registered voters say police officers “routinely make unfair judgments about people based on race or ethnicity.”

As I write these words from the city that President Obama calls home, I’m reminded of his stirring words at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: “…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America.”

While the merit of the states’ unity can certainly be probed, I find the state of unity within the American Church on topics of race to be much more compelling. Have we, as a Church, allowed those who’ve suffered and are suffering to speak? As people of faith and hope, are we too quick to dismiss personal, communal, and racial narratives? 

...Christians would fare well by reflecting on the facts about race in America that make white people like me uncomfortable.

Latasha Morrison, a self-proclaimed bridge builder, says the white Church has largely avoided topics of race out of fear, shame, and guilt. I am drawn to Morrison’s notion that oneness and unity “doesn’t mean me being one with everyone who looks like me, talks like me, acts like me, comes from the same community as me. We’re reconciled to Christ so that, in turn, we can be reconciled to each other.” This is why taking part in the Justice Conference is so refreshing. Of the more than 2,000 people present, I suspect that many of these practitioners, presenters, and participants might have similar proclivities towards how race is understood, discussed, and lived out within our society.

Yet, when I took to Google to see what was being written about the Justice Conference outside of Twitter, I came across a piece by Julie Roys titled, “Controversial Speakers Headline Justice Conference in Chicago.” By presenting the overall vision and mission of the conference, Roys says “some evangelical leaders…are expressing concern that those attending the conference may not be prepared to critically analyze the ideas they will hear.” Citing examples of “veiled black liberation theology,” Roys quotes individuals such as Chelsen Vicari, the Director of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, who believe that presenters such as Dr. West are misleading young Christians to believe that a “socialist utopia” is positive or even possible. I must ask how one prepares to critically analyze ideas they might hear. The hubristic notion that Christians seeking justice might be unable or ill-equipped to analyze ideas is pretentious and insulting to Christians attempting to look back before looking forward.

The speed in which prophets like Dr. West are negatively labeled, categorized, and warned of further suggests that Christians would fare well by reflecting on the facts about race in America that make white people like me uncomfortable.

For me, The Economist recently described this discomfort, “Many Americans feel a confused sense of guilt when the problems of poor black neighborhoods come to their attention, unsure whether the persistence of crime and poverty in such places is, in some convoluted way, their fault or the fault of the people who live there, and unsure what can be done about it.”

I don’t know what to do about the one third of black men in their 30s who have served time in prison. I don’t know what to do about the 71 percent of black babies born outside of marriage. And I don’t know what to do about the fact that black men are eight times more likely than white men to be murdered and seven times more likely to commit murder. I only know that I am to be a minister of reconciliation. It would seem that not much can be reconciled by ignoring the past, pretending to be colorblind, or presuming to understand present day challenges of races different than my own. As a seeker of truth, I suppose I will start by listening to those who actually have suffered. After all, it seems to have been what Jesus modeled in the religiously, politically, and ethnically charged climate of Palestine.

An excerpt from Dr. West’s, “Race Matters”:

Every historic effort to forge a democratic project has been undermined by two fundamental realities: poverty and paranoia. The persistence of poverty generates levels of despair that deepen social conflict the escalation of paranoia produces levels of distrust that reinforce cultural division. Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia despair, and distrust. In short, a candid examination of race matters takes us to the core of the crisis of American democracy. 

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay. Photo by Katie Thompson.