West – Race and Social Theory

Cornel West proposes that a genealogical materialist methodology is necessary in order to understand African American oppression. West’s vocabulary is tremendous, and he can be quite loquacious, assuming his audience is as well read and well spoken as himself. “Genealogical” and “materialist” are two terms with specific philosophical definitions that he fails to explain. If one is not familiar with the philosophical definition of these terms, West’s use of these terms is confusing.

Nietzsche created a genealogical approach to morality. Philosophers before him used reason to arrive at moral conclusions. Nietzsche, as a philologist, researched the moral values and power relations of different societies through Western history, allowing him to show the role temperaments and class relations (i.e. non-moral factors) played in shaping each philosopher’s morality. Foucault continued this tradition. 
Marx used the term “materialism” as a rejection of Hegel,, who described history as a struggle between ideas removed from the material world (NOTE: I think Marx failed to recognize the “materialism” already in Hegel’s philosophy). Marx studied history as a series of social relations grounded on evolving economic relations. In order for humans to survive and reproduce they naturally act out a “mode of production” appropriate to their conditions. Philosophers, on the other hand, according to Marx, have attempted to make universal claims about justice, unaware of the fact that their ideas can be reduced to their economic conditions (i.e. wealth, or potential wealth). By studying materialism, Marx is able to point out how bourgeois philosophers developed bourgeois philosophies as if the spoke the universal Truth.

The genealogical materialist methodology for understanding African American oppression incorporates Nietzschean/Foucoultian historical analysis with Marxist historical analysis, and pulls from neo-Fruedian thinkers, in order to understand how discursive () and extradiscursive () factors determined individuals and each other, and were determined by individuals and each other. This causes one to ask questions like the following: how has Christianity allowed and/or encouraged African American oppression? In what ways has poverty in African American communities been a result of white supremacist values internalized by the African American community as a consequence of the War on Drugs? How has fear of the other disproportionately caused mass incarceration of young Black men?

In “Race and Social Theory” Cornel West explicates several approaches to African American oppression. West rejects all of them, proposing a genealogical materialist analysis. After understanding the benefits and failures of each, one can appreciate West’s genealogical materialist methodology.


Many Americans accept conservative values. The Conservative perspective may or may not disapprove of racism. Conservatives focus on discrimination in the marketplace, and treat racism as something rooted in the minds of individuals. Those who disapprove of racism say that racist people have bad “taste” when they prefer to hire white employees. (1) Market Conservatives, like Milton Friedman, claim racism is irrational, harming market efficiency. They claim educating white employers is a better solution than governmental intervention. (2) Sociobiologist Conservatives believe racist taste is rational and can be justified by scientific evidence that suggests African Americans are genetically inferior. (3) Culturalist Conservatives argue culturally black people do not have the habits of hard work and patience, and will not overcome oppression until they change their habits. Conservatives presume the market is rational, and rational self-interest motivates human action. They ignore historical structures, such as slavery, and believe governmental intervention does more harm than good.


Liberals recognize racist institutional barriers in the marketplace. (1) Market Liberals are very similar to Market Conservatives, although Liberals believe government intervention can help stop African American oppression in the marketplace. (2) Culturalist Liberals focus on programs that improve the habits of African Americans, helping them get and keep well paying jobs.

Left Liberals

Left Liberals differ from liberals because they have a sense of history. They are suspicious of neoclassical economic perspectives, like those of Locke and Adam Smith, grounded in the changing realities of the Industrial Revolution. They put institutional barriers in a historical context.

Left Liberals borrow insights from Conservatives and Liberals. From Conservatives they accept that African Americans must become self-reliant, improving their habits, in order to move upward socially. From Liberals they accept government regulation of employment practices and introducing culture to black communities. Left Liberals seek full employment and equal pay.


Cornel West recognizes that Marxism has failed, but argues that there are many things that those wanting to understand African American oppression can learn from Marx. He clarifies that he is not promoting neither vulgar Marxism, reduced to a “monocausal, unilinear philosophy of history predicting historical outcomes, ” nor “actually existing” communist regimes. West’s interest is in Marxist theory as a methodology for understanding social and historical realities. History is a complex web of individual and group choices determining and determined by economic, religious, governmental, social, philosophical, and artistic factors.

Marxist theory places too much emphasis on economics as the determining factor of human action. By doing so, it oversimplifies one’s understanding of racism. Marxist theory almost exclusively holds that capitalism invented racism. Cornel West argues that racism existed in the Middle Ages.

Marxist theory helps one understand racism by placing Conservative “bad taste” into a historical context. Conservatives say some people just hold racist opinions, (some) Marxist theory says capitalism creates conditions in which people will turn to racism in order to preserve their interests. Liberals identify the goal of overcoming institutional barriers as a primary objective. (Some) Marxist theory says capitalism created the institutional barriers, and overcoming capitalism is the only way to overcome the barriers. Left Liberals want higher income and social mobility for African Americans. (Some) Marxist theory argues that African Americans need freedom from unending class exploitation.

Genealogical Materialist

But, as said above, Cornel West holds that Marxist theory places too much weight on the economic sphere. He proposes a genealogical materialist approach to understanding African American oppression. “Genealogical” and “materialist” are described above. In short, Cornel West uses a decentralized Marxism, moving the focus from primarily economics, to a model roughly distributed between all formal and informal, micro and macro institutions in society, supplemented by Nietzsche and Foucault. Most importantly, we must examine specific historical events, institutions, and social practices.

West goes one step further by bringing in neo-Freudian sociological theory. Racism is a complex problem, and requires complex analytical tools in order to understand and overcome it. He gives a few specific examples. (1) The deep human desire for existential belonging and self-esteem results in a gut-level commitment to some of the illusions of the present epoch. None of us escape this. Many of us rely on ideologies of race. This is seen in many countries, not only the United States, especially in times of crisis. (2) Identity formation and self-image production develops ideological subjects (Ex: “colored”, “black”), and promotes an internal struggle of negative self-conceptions. While these last items offer the take away of Cornel West’s approach, he only briefly mentions them, as will I, so as to avoid making my summary any longer.


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