Abstract of Cornel West’s “Nihilism in black America”
By Jenny Lowry
Description of Article
West argues that the dilemma of African Americans is divided into two groups: the liberal structuralists who “highlight the structural constraints of the life chances of black people” (275) and the conservative behaviorists who “stress the behavioral impediments to black upward mobility” (275). West contends that these arguments do not come close to understand the problem with African Americans, that the real problem is the threat of nihilism.
Nihilism, according to West, is the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (277). African Americans are threatened by the lack of hope and the “absence of meaning” (277) in their lives.
Historically, blacks were armored against this threat through culture and community, but something happened along the way that changed this. West believes that this change occurred because of “the commodification of black life and the crisis of black leadership” (278). His solution to the nihilistic threat in black America is take “collective responsibility” and to play an active role in politics that includes many leaders.
Comments and Questions
West argues that “structures and behavior are inseparable”; that people act a certain way according the situation or circumstance they are in. So, a black man raised in the “hood” will act a certain way, while a black man raised in the suburbs will act a different way. He also argues that culture is “structural” like “economy or politics”; that culture is influenced by economy and politics. In this sense, it seems that culture is inseparable from politics and economy; that culture is often times made by politics and economy.
He argues that “economic deprivation and political powerlessness” (276) are not the only reasons for the nihilistic threat to black America. Both the liberal structuralists and the conservative behaviorists ignore the nihilistic threat, and the conservative behaviorists add to it. He argues that this threat is invading black America, but the only example he gives is that of commodification of goods in poverty ridden communities. It sounds like he is arguing that those people are being threatened by nihilism because they cannot afford what other people can. So, without certain commodities they are doomed to have no meaning in their lives. This is ridiculous; every culture and every race goes without something, but that does not mean that they are devoid of meaningful lives
West blames history for the problems of black Americans today for their loss of meaning in life. Slavery and white supremacy are prime examples of where nihilism started in America. He argues that while black criminals should be punished for their crimes, capitalism is to blame for the poverty and lost culture that leads them to nihilism and thus criminal behavior. This argument is ludicrous. What about white criminals? Is capitalism to blame for their criminal deeds as well? How can capitalism be the problem for all crime?
He also feels like black politicians, particularly Jesse Jackson, only serve to halt progression toward eliminating this threat. He sees black politicians as narrow minded and over the top; that politicians like these only serve to further repress black Americans and leave them powerless.
While I am not a black American, this article is rather disturbing to me. It seems like West is dooming black Americans with this incurable disease. The black Americans I do know do not seem depressed or void of meaning in their lives. I agree that political progress should be made within black culture, as it should be in many other cultures in America. West’s argument that meaning is lost in black America seems farfetched to me. The fact that he offers no real evidence of his claim or a solution is problematic.