Cornel West, Ph.D., speaks at the VCU Siegel Center.<br>Photo by Gregg Johnson, College of Humanities and Sciences

Cornel West visits VCU, discusses Black Lives Matter, racial justice, Obama and Trump

Share this story

Cornel West, Ph.D., one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals and a champion of racial justice, visited Virginia Commonwealth University on Thursday, calling for a more just and fair society, one in which racism and poverty are eliminated, jobs pay a living wage, decent housing is available and quality education is accessible to all.

“I come from a tradition of a people, of a great tradition of folk terrorized for 400 years,” West told the crowd of hundreds in the Siegel Center. “Ferguson’s nothing new. Staten Island’s nothing new. Baltimore’s nothing new. Been wrestling with it for 400 years of trauma and staring in the face of it, and still mustering the courage to raise some of the most crucial questions about what it means to be human.”

“When we say Black Lives Matter, that doesn't exclude anybody,” he added. “That just means if you're going to talk about all lives, then make sure you’re not excluding the chocolate ones.”

West, a Princeton University professor and the author of 19 books, including “Race Matters,” “Democracy Matters,” and his new memoir, “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud,” urged the crowd to “learn how to die,” meaning that they must critically examine themselves and shed assumptions and preconceived notions in order to come to terms with the past and make a better future.

“The unexamined life is not worth living for the human,” he said. “What kind of human being will you choose to be?”

As an educator for 40 years, West said, he always opens every class by telling students that they have come to learn how to die.

“I’m not talking about cheap schooling,” he said. “Save that for the marketers. Save that for those who think that somehow education is just a matter of gaining access to a skill so you can get some job and live in some vanilla suburb and no longer have to wrestle with what kind of human being you really are. Yes, you want a skill. Yes, you want schooling. But you come here for something more than schooling. You come here for deep education and deep education is about learning how to die so that you learn how to live because when you examine certain assumptions that you have, certain presuppositions that you’re holding on to, when you let them go, that’s a form of death. And there’s no growth, there’s no development, there’s no maturation without learning how to die and giving up certain dogma, giving up certain doctrine.”

Cornel West, Ph.D., poses for a photo with Idella Glenn, Ph.D., director for diversity education with VCU's Division of Inclusive Excellence.
Cornel West, Ph.D., poses for a photo with Idella Glenn, Ph.D., director for diversity education with VCU's Division of Inclusive Excellence.

“The dogma of white supremacy cuts so deep in America, past and present, that if America doesn’t learn how to die and critically examine that doctrine all the way down, America could lose its democratic possibilities. And that is real,” he said. “That is very real.”

West cited a number of statistics that show racial disparities in society, notably including several related to the criminal justice system.

“Poor people, no access to quality education or jobs with a living wage, rendered more and more superfluous. Sixty percent of [people incarcerated] in there for nonviolent offenses. Drugs in a war on drugs that became what? A war on poor people, disproportionately black and brown people.”

Twelve percent of young black people use drugs every week, he said, and 12 percent of young white people use drugs every week. And while the rates are roughly the same, blacks represent roughly 65 percent of drug convictions.

“That is a racist criminal justice system,” he said. “And we've seen a quadrupling of it since 1980.”

West asked the audience to imagine if whites were imprisoned at the same rate as black people.

“Let's just assume that,” he said. “What would be America’s dominant response? Do you think America would allow the quadrupling of the prison system if the vast majority [of prisoners] were white? Let’s assume they were white and upper middle class. What would America do? There would be town meetings every week saying ‘We need psychological services. We need rehabilitation centers. We’ve got to have quality education. We need jobs with a living wage. You’ve got to make sure every church, every mosque, every synagogue has some place so that when they come in, they have someplace to go because these are precious folk.’”

Forty-six percent of black children in America – the richest nation in the history of world – living in poverty. That is a moral disgrace.

“All I’m saying is that black folk is just as precious as they are! That’s all,” he said. “Same need for rehabilitation. Same need for psychiatric. Same mental illness. All the same things that we know need to be dealt with, but that we don’t have the need when it comes to black people.”

He also spoke at length on economic justice and equality.

“Forty-six percent of black children in America – the richest nation in the history of world – living in poverty. That is a moral disgrace. It is spiritually profane,” he said.

“Twenty-two percent of our children of all colors are living in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world,” he said. “That's morally obscene, spiritually profane.

“One percent of the population holding 42 percent of the wealth,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago, that 1 percent – not the same 1 percent, but 1 percent 25 years ago – had 22 percent of the wealth. The 1 percent has doubled the amount of wealth they have.”

“‘Brother West, are you calling for redistribution of wealth?’ I say there’s been a redistribution of wealth from poor and working people to the 1 percent,” he said.

West, who has been an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama, said he faults the president for not doing enough to stand up for the poor and working class and for expanding the use of drones to kill terrorism targets, which sometimes carry civilian casualties.

“I’m not going to say too much, you’ve heard me [criticize the president] for the last eight years,” he said. “People say, ‘Brother West, how can you hate the brother so?’ I don’t hate that brother at all! I hate when he’s indifferent and callous to poor people. I hate when he’s indifferent and callous to working people.”

West, who has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, also briefly mentioned Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, suggesting that Trump is appealing to conservative voters dissatisfied with the establishment.

“One thing I love about Brother Trump? He is himself,” he said. “That’s fresh compared to the superficial, managed, market-driven, dollar-sponsored candidates that usually can’t speak from their souls at all. The problem with Brother Trump is … That’s another lecture.”

West’s lecture, titled “Invoking Our Collective Memory,” sought to put the struggles of African-Americans in a historical context, one in which a people faced down discrimination and racism with dignity and forgiveness.

I pride myself on being part of a black tradition that has always been willing to look forms of death in the face and still not allow hatred to have the last word.

“I pride myself on being part of a black tradition that has always been willing to look forms of death in the face and still not allow hatred to have the last word. What a great tradition,” he said. “The history of the American empire, they’re going to have to say something, they’re going to have to say a whole lot about a people who were hated for 400 years and still taught the world so much about love.”

“They’re going to have say something about a people that for 400 years were treated so unjustly, they taught the world so much about justice,” he continued. “That we’re on intimate terms with terrorism, but decided not to engage in counter-terroristic activity, but decided to call for the freedom of everybody, even though we were being terrorized for 244 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim and Jane Crow, lynching every two-and-a-half days for 50 years.”

West said he believes the founding fathers were hypocritical when it came to slavery.


“How could it be that 22 percent of the 13 colonies, whose very labor produced the wealth that was a precondition of any talk about American democracy, any talk of the American public?” he said. “Well, the historians say: ‘Professor West, there was a conspiracy of silence. That the founding fathers had internal conflict and they couldn't reach a consensus and therefore there was always going to be some kind of gap between their principles and their practice.’ I say, ‘No. Let us speak frankly. It was mendacity. It was hypocrisy. It was unwillingness to come to terms with the social death [brought about by slavery].’”

West wrapped up his talk with a quote from W.E.B. DuBois, in which DuBois wrestles with four questions: How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And how does virtue meet brute force?

“The tradition that I have been outlining tonight puts all four pillars at the center of what it means to be human,” he said. “Integrity, honesty, decency and virtue. And in America today, to opt for integrity makes you countercultural. To opt for decency makes you cut against the grain. To opt for sense of virtue means that you become part of a new spiritual and moral awakening, grounded on memory, subversive memory, the best of the past.”

West’s talk was sponsored by the VCU Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Office of the President, the Division for Inclusive Excellence and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

It was the first of a series of lectures titled “Race, Citizenship, and Memory in the South” that are organized by the Humanities Research Center. Richard Godbeer, Ph.D., director of the Humanities Research Center and a professor in the Department of History, said the series aims to engage with the nation’s legacy of racism and slavery in an open and thoughtful way.

“The central message of this series is that if we are going to move forward beyond the dark legacy of our past and build a better future, silence will not help. Denial will not help. Euphemisms will not help,” he said. “I believe passionately that we have to summon up the courage to talk about the difficult and painful issues that have faced and continue to face our society.”


Subscribe to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday.