Cornel West On God And The Great Thinkers

The Christian socialist is a powerful foe of tribalism.


Cornel West’s academic career is long and storied, having taught religion, philosophy, and African-American studies at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Union Theological Seminary, where he recently returned. He has written or contributed to more than 20 books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters — but he recommends you start with Chekhov.

I met Cornel decades ago, when I interviewed him at Union Theological Seminary for a TNR piece I was writing on divinity schools. He has long fascinated me, and Race Matters had a real impact on me decades ago. Erudite, passionate, and deeply humane, he is an unapologetically leftist Christian, who is also a champion of free speech, civility and the classics. In other words: a rare and beautiful man.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips of my conversation with Cornel — on how he finds common ground with bigots and racists, and his take on CRT and the 1619 Project — pop over to our YouTube page.

Last week’s episode with Briahna Joy Gray elicited one of the biggest waves of email yet. Here’s the first of many readers to sound off:

This was, hands down, your best conversation on the Dishcast. Ms. Gray is brilliant, and you were, as always, a worthy interlocutor. It was refreshing to have two smart people with very different points of view converse about complicated issues rather than endure yet another diatribe against wokeness. That script has become predictable and boring, and none of us who admire your intellect (even as we often disagree with your views) want you to become boring. There are many thoughtful voices on the left — some of whom regard wokeness as a distraction, which it is, so bring more of them on to your show.

You can always drop us more guest recommendations at This next reader also enjoyed the “fascinating” debate with Briahna and throws a barbed dissent my way:

I admire your resolution to have on guests who clearly do not agree with you, and such guests are so much more interesting to hear than a sympathetic guest and you mutually endorsing each other’s dislike of Wokery, or congratulating each other on being Catholics. I must say I thought Gray had the edge on you in your arguments, and I found myself at times wanting to scream at your stubborn refusal to see her argument at its strongest. You are right in acknowledging the importance of two-parent households in raising healthy and well-adjusted young people, but you seem blind to the political and economic factors that have made that such a difficulty in the African-American community in the past 30 to 40 years.

To hear you lament the lack of father figures in the ghetto as if this was due to the unique moral failings of Black men reminded me of the way that the British used to talk about the Irish during the Famine and afterwards. Dark references to fecundity, waywardness, intemperance and passivity were all leveled at the Irish then, as they are to African-Americans today. Lo and behold, when the criminal British Imperial policy in Ireland changed, the economy began to develop and the Irish showed those tropes to be exactly what they were: prejudicial nonsense.

Until we stop the War on Drugs, reinvest in inner cities, begin to bring back industries and meaningful work opportunities, and reorient the police away from soldiering and into community care and treatment, these problems will persist, and people like you and others on the right will continue to blame the victims rather than face up to the logical consequences of the economic policies pursued by successive governments since the 1980s. Poverty is not a moral failing; it is an economic consequence of the system we have allowed to develop and until this is grasped, people like you are seeing the world with one eye closed.

Why, then, one wonders was the black family far, far stronger a century ago, when oppression was much greater and the welfare state so much more meager? Another reader is more critical of Briahna:

She set up a false dichotomy: “There are two options: Either you believe that Black men don’t care about their children, have some kind of fundamentally intrinsic cultural lack of interest in their offspring, or you think that there are structural factors that are making it more difficult for Black fathers to be in the home or for them to stay in relationships with the mothers of their children.”

No. Both factors can, and likely are, at play. The real question is the relative way of the two factors.

But Briahna simply refused to acknowledge ANY negative cultural effects. For her, it’s ALL systemic. And, as you pointed out, if it is all systemic, then that world has no individual agency — people are just helplessly subject to the whims of political and economic structures. If those structures were in fact the cause of all life-outcome disparities (an Ibram X Kendi notion), then those disparities may be solvable via government policy. And that is very likely the hope and belief of Briahna. She wants to solve the problems and thinks the entire solution is found in public policy.

But she acknowledged, “I can’t legislate grit.” And that is true. So, to admit that culture (or individual agency) plays ANY role in life-outcome disparities at a group level would be to admit that social policy cannot solve all of those disparities; it can only partially address those disparities. And that is a “defeatist” view that Briahna likely cannot — or refuses to — accept. This blinds here to the most difficult part of the solution: How can cultural change occur outside of the context of formal legislation and other public policy?

Perfectly put. Another reader continues that thread:

I loved the interaction when she said, “I can’t legislate grit,” when talking about the agency of black people to make decisions and run their lives and communities. Nobody denies they have this agency, but that doesn’t deny the structural issues and consequences driven by government and social policy. To the people who were able to overcome those issues, good for them! Doesn’t mean that the policy, or lack thereof, didn’t have an effect that needs to be addressed and repaired by policy as well, and it certainly doesn’t mean that enacting those reparative policies is an insult to the agency, abilities, and intellect of those who were left behind.

With the same “government and social policy,” and under neoliberal economics, other ethnic and racial groups have thrived — often in the very neighborhoods where my reader says the system prevents any substantive progress. How?

Another reader contends with the culture vs. politics debate:

I shared your obvious frustration with Ms. Gray’s unwillingness to acknowledge even the slightest contribution of cultural factors to the socio-economic struggles of black Americans. She kept responding to your inquiries about culture by asking what “policy” you propose to improve those cultural factors. Her question — and, to be fair, your response — reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how cultural change works. It is not an issue of governmental policy, but an incremental, glacial and unsexy policy of changing minds one by one. 

To be sure, there are governmental policies that can make marginal differences, such as subsidies, penalties and tax credits. Primarily, though, cultural change takes millions and millions of conversations and debates, discussions at the dinner table, social media messages, church sermons, parents setting an example for their children, etc. To make an analogy, you played a pivotal role in the dramatic cultural change in attitudes towards homosexuality. This, of course, did not happen because of a top-down law, but the bottom-up process I described.

Ultimately, this is what makes Ms. Gray’s unwillingness to admit the obvious so frustrating: In light of her remarkable intellect, she could make a lot of progress in changing cultural issues in the black community. Unfortunately, she has the typical leftist mindset that holds that economics determines everything.

And, in fact, the real effect of CRT as the successor ideology is that it insists that African-Americans have no chance of advancement until our entire liberal system is systematically dismantled and replaced by coercive racial and social engineering. It tells African-Americans that there is nothing they can do about their own plight. It contributes to a culture of failure and excuses for failure.

Another reader worries that discussions like these have become too siloed:

It is becoming standard practice in the media that only black people can discuss black people, only gays can discuss gays, etc. But this forces the black or gay person to acknowledge problems with their own culture, which often, as with Ms. Gray, makes them uncomfortable and they are unwilling to do so. She just refused to address the cultural issues of absentee fathers and extreme violence in the black community.

Ms. Gray also discussed redlining but I wonder if she read John McWhorter’s discussion (in the NY Times no less) on redlining and how it affected more white people. She did not want to address the growing black middle class or the incredible cultural contributions that black people have made. In the end, she advocated throwing money at the problem while admitting that throwing money at the problem in the past caused problems with black families.

That reader adds, “As a teacher, I’ve seen firsthand how massive amounts of money were given to ‘poor’ schools and how this influx of money had absolutely no positive effect on poor students.” Freddie DeBoer recently supported that point with a mountain of data. In my hometown of DC, the money spent on schools for black kids is staggering, and the results consistently appalling. On a similar note, another reader:

The problem with the utopian vision of addressing all problems with federal programs is that we have 60 years of experience watching the federal government lead a War on Poverty that it hasn’t yet come close to winning, in spite of massive anti-poverty programs in all the areas Briahna mentioned (housing, education, healthcare, etc). Were LBJ’s experts just completely wrong about how to go about it? Were the programs too small? Did Congress and/or subsequent administrations undermine them? 

If there’s a better way, I’m all for trying it — nobody wants a dystopian America —but it seemed as if Briahna was advocating essentially the same kinds of things we’ve been doing for decades. 

In the end, you and Briahna didn’t seem that far apart. Address inequality, provide a better safety net, invest in the future through infrastructure and education, take care of people who are being left behind, address the specific problems we know about (including weak families in both black and white America) with concrete policy rather than nebulous attacks on either black or white culture — these are the kinds of things all people of goodwill should be able to agree on.

Another reader dives deeper into the issue of absent parents:

One area where I wish you pushed harder is the role fathers play in parenting style. It’s not just economical, which is important, but it’s important in the parenting style differences between mothers and fathers. I grew up in Compton, California, and two areas that would have an impact on parenting style is, A) focusing on LONG-term goals (like college, delayed gratification) over short-term goals like drug sales and gang life. Mothering style is generally more focused on the here and now. Did you eat today? Is your jacket on when it’s cold outside? Dads are more focused on the long term (relatively speaking of course.

B) The ability to hear someone YELL at you, and you have to suck it up. Many of my Black friends growing up just frankly never really had a strong male authority figure “put them in their place.” Women just don’t command that much physical authority, even the very strong Black mothers raising these kids. When a Black kid hears his middle school teacher, or even a police officer, yell at him for the first time, it’s sort of understandable that he gets into a rage, since it’s an experience he is not that familiar with.

A podcast guest on this topic I highly recommend is the academic Warren Farrell, and his books are great. He brings to light these parenting styles in ways I can see clearly in my own experience. (I am a single father, raising two kids.)

As a side note, I don’t think any of the social safety nets will do much to change mobility. I highly recommend this podcast episode with Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman on mobility in Denmark — the safety net paradise of many of these lefties. Conclusion? Mobility there is exactly the same as in the United States. Guess why? The #1 factor is family dynamics. Fathers again. Government policy can’t change that. Period. 

I agree. I’d go so far as to say that if the black family had the same proportion of married parents in the home as the Asian-American family, racial inequality between the two would almost disappear. Our core question should be: what can we do to get African-American fathers to stay in the home and take care of their own kids, especially their own sons? We can’t legislate that, as Briahna notes. So how can we help?

Another reader shifts to the Universal Basic Income part of the episode:

When Briahna asked you if you would simply stop working if you had enough money, I found it totally unbelievable when you said you might. You and I both know you can’t stop. I can’t stop, either. Although my work is much less public, I don’t do it for the money. Certain people have a desire ... no, a *need* to do what they do, and we are of that ilk, Andrew. 

The fact of the matter is that once people have their foot on the rung of the ladder of advancement, human nature makes them want to keep climbing. We need not a guarantee of success, only the possibility to motivate us. So many people don’t feel like the possibility is there for them. And that’s not just in the urban African-American communities, but in the white rural communities, where “fuck it” is the mantra. 

The problem is many people don’t even get a chance to get their foot on that first rung. And that messes with pride. And maybe that’s the reason many of those folks abandon their families: they don’t want to be confronted with their own *lack* every single day.

This next reader takes stock of the Dishcast, coming up on its one-year anniversary:

Thanks for all these podcast episodes. They’re a brilliant addition to the Dish and have been a real delight. As with the content of the old Dish, I appreciate the great variety — from Michael Pollan’s lyrical tribute to the joys of gardening, to Tim Shipman on Boris, to David Frum’s careful introspection on what conservatives can learn from the woke, to Ross Douthat sharing his intimate journey with chronic illness, to the various up-close looks at gender issues (Dana Beyer’s, Julie Bindel’s, Buck Angel’s & Helena Kerschner’s, Mara Keisling’s) to many deep discussions of the Christian faith with many interlocutors (Caitlin Flanagan, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Antonio García Martínez), to Michael Wolff’s enlightening inside look at Trump — and that these conversations can go in almost any direction, and often far away from politics, to deeper matters of life and the heart.

I’ve really enjoyed and learned from them as well. A final reader looks ahead:

I enjoyed the episode with Briahna, and I like your idea of having more people you disagree with on the show, since it makes for interesting conversations. Please do the same with some people to the right of you; maybe Michael Anton again, Victor Davis Hanson, JD Vance, Chris Rufo, James Lindsay, Sohrab Ahmari, Michael Shellenberger, Dinesh D’Souza, Kim Strassel, Douglas Murray, Tucker Carlson, etc.

Ann Coulter has already agreed to come on. The guru of Brexit and iconoclastic wonk, the brilliant Dominic Cummings, is also on the schedule. The other suggestions are excellent. Stay tuned.