Abstract of Cornel West’s “Nihilism in Black America” 1992
By Bridgett VanDerwalker
Description of Article:
West begins his article by explaining the two camps of thought who are trying to deal with the “plight of African Americans” those two camps are the liberal structuralists and the conservative behaviorists. West then tells us why these two camps fail to make progress against black nihilism. West then explains what black nihilism is and why it continues to persist. West claims that it is a result of the breakdown in community; a community that was weakened by the abolishment of slavery and further perpetuated by consumerism.
West feels as though blacks are jealous of whites, which then turns into anger that is turned on their own kind in acts of violence which causes more depression and lower self-esteem. West proclaims that it is through love and caring that nihilism can be curved. He closes his article by calling for strong black leadership. This leadership must start at the local level than at the national by doing so reforms can be passed that will help those who need it but it must start at the local level if any reform is to work. Community strength builds hope, a hope for a better future, and an end to the nihilistic cycle.
Familial/Communal Networks of Support
Politics of Conversion
Discussion, Comments, and Questions:
West indentifies two camp of thought. The liberal structuralists think government programs will mead the ill of the blacks. The conservative behaviorists purpose “self-help programs, black business expansion, and cultural revival” (275). West suggests that the bigger issue of black nihilism is overlooked in three ways by the two camps. One aspect that is overlooked is the idea that “institutions and values go hand in hand” (275). They can’t be separated by taking positive actions this will not elevate living conditions for those living in black society. The second aspect is that one needs to look at all kinds of contributing structures not merely the political and economic ones. One question on this idea is, are mainstream values compatible with black values? I think West’s idea on strong black leadership can bridge mainstream values and those of blacks in particular but only if there are black leaders to speak for their needs which hasn’t happened as of yet. The third aspects that both camps ignore are the feelings of black people the deep-rooted despair and neglect they feel throughout all aspects of their lives. This type of problem is not easily solved and can’t be repaired with a quick patch up job in the form of political or economic reforms.
West explores where these two camps fail in their particular approaches. The structuralists fail to acknowledge the supporting structures like family, churches, and media and their role in reform these structures have to be in cooperation with the political and economic reforms if real change is to occur. Another failure of this camp is they “neglect the battered identities rampant in black America” (276). If the reform makers are white upper-middle class they can’t relate in any meaningful way to the troubles of lower class black citizens.
Conservative behaviorists fail in three aspects in their reforms. They fail to acknowledge that behavioral and political/economic factors contribute to the nihilistic attitudes prevalent among black citizens. The black attitude is one can’t succeed regardless their efforts so they feel cursed and hopeless. A second failure is admitting that they can’t relate to the blacks’ situation and that blacks are victims which only continue the bad feelings towards politicians. Thirdly, their lack of enforcement in policies results in cutbacks which furthers their nihilistic attitudes.
West defines what he means by black nihilism. He says it is the cumulative result of “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness and (most important) lovelessness” (277). This condition results in detachment from others and society as a whole; West remarks that this affliction is a “distinctive form of the Absurd” (277). I think Camus would agree that without hope the world is indeed Absurd and there is no point in fighting because it is futile in the end. A depressing thought for sure especially if a whole segment of the population feels that way and nothing is being done but denying it exist at all.
West explains that past generations of blacks had “cultural armor” which protected them from threats from the outside and that when the institution of slavery was abolished so to was black culture. West seems to be puzzled as to the reason why this would be but doesn’t reach a clear explanation. West goes on to claim that “Black people have always been in America’s wilderness in search of a promised land” (278). This may be so, in that black people have been neglected by American society as a whole but this doesn’t really explain the last 40 years. They have had the right to vote since 1968, and fought extremely hard to do so; then they seemed to stop fighting and thus disappeared into the underbelly of society. West seems to overlook this fact which weakens his overall argument that they never had fought and have never had self-pride. West explains that nihilistic attitudes “contribute to criminal behavior- a threat that feeds on poverty and shattered cultural institutions” (278). This point is hard to argue against given the statistics that blacks are less likely to go to college than all other minority groups, the highest murder victim rate, and the highest suicide rates in the country.
West’s argument that corporate market institutions are to blame for blacks feeling anger is besides the point in that the media affects everyone especially the disenfranchised which is a fifth of the US population. West claims that corporate institutions try to shift blame back upon blacks but West lacks conviction and evidence in supporting this claim. West says that violence, poverty, and hopelessness are signs “of cultural decay in a declining empire” (279). I think this is true, if a section of American society is decaying than the rest of society will eventually follow. A good example of this is the Katarina/New Orleans fiasco. Why didn’t we don’t we do more to help? Simple answer is 70% of the population of New Orleans was/is black. As a result of this disaster blacks feel more alone and helpless that they have ever did before. And the sad truth of the situation is no one cares. If this disaster had happened in New York or Washington D.C., they would have received more support financially and emotionally and the reason is a big percentage of the population is well-off whites.
West is on the right path when he suggests his politics of conversion. This politics of conversion is a call for strong black collective leadership in and at every level of government. His second idea for improvement is a self-sustaining circle of love and caring for oneself and others by doing so will produce political resistance within the community. West says “The politics of conversion proceeds at a local level then spreads when grass root organizations push for reform at the state and national level” (280). West proclaims that the politics of conversion meet the threat of nihilism head on and connects with everyday people it is trying to help. This is an idealistic vision but one that offers a real chance of hope.
West has three critiques of black leadership. His example of Jesse Jackson, who got caught up in his own politics and that of his party’s resulted in lack of follow through. Others focus too much on race neglecting other disenfranchised people or the bigger issues. West says “black leadership at the national level tends to lack a moral vision that can organize (not just periodically energize) subtle analyses that enlighten (not simply intermittently awaken), and exemplary practices that uplift (not merely convey status that awes), black people” (281). Can Obama do the above things? I don’t know, however, he is concerned with universal healthcare which would benefit everyone and particular blacks. West’s last claim is the lack of strong black leaders reinforces that blacks can’t make a difference just isn’t true. Blacks have the second largest percentage of voters in the US, so that makes them very powerful if they vote it will make a substantial difference. In the 2008 elections, black voters will have 15 million votes and 60% of those voters are Democrats so Obama could have a good chance of being elected. West points out that the real change must occur at the local level because that is where the biggest changes can occur.
West closes the article by saying that a leader must have a genuine want for equality, freedom and responsibility. It is this hope in good civic leadership that the war against nihilism can be won.