S.F. talk on race relations: Cornel West – Hopeful pessimist

From the back of the synagogue, a baby let out a squawk right in the middle of author Cornel West's humorous and impassioned speech.

West didn't miss a beat. "That's right!" he answered the baby, and turned the infant's cry to the subject at hand. Everyone — black, Jew, Hispanic, etc., West stressed, emerged first as babies from the same primordial soup.

Parallels and common problems among races were the focus of the evening when Cornel West, a leading commentator on race relations, spoke Jan. 23 to an overflowing, mainly black and Jewish audience of 1,700 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

His message about racial tensions in the United States was one of both hope and pessimism.

"We're not at the point of being able to build bridges," West said. "We have to lower the temperature to see what's going on."

It is difficult to engage in the issue of race "assuming it will be a rational discussion," West said.

A professor of Afro-American studies and philosophy of religion at Harvard University and author of 10 books including "Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin," which he co-wrote with Michael Lerner, West raced through a range of ideas during his talk, touching upon subjects as scattered as Henry James and Pat Buchanan.

A recurring theme, however, focused on parallels between the black experience in America and the Jewish experience in Europe.

Both blacks and Jews have suffered what West referred to as "unmerited pain, unjustified harm." Both groups have been degraded and devalued, and both have been "a problem people rather than people with a problem," he said.

West noted that Jews and Blacks have reacted to these difficult circumstances in similar ways, often with very positive results. For example, the best of the Jewish and black traditions infuse the tragic and the comic, facing their painful experiences with a sense of humor, he said.

Both blacks and Jews, he added, place high value on historical teachings; similarly, both groups have made enormous contributions to the arts.

Looking at the large number of black and Jewish names in American culture, West said, "I start to wonder what non-blacks and non-Jews have contributed in any substantive sense."

Conversely, citing that Jews are "still targeted and subject to attack," West called upon controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to account for his anti-Semitic remarks. He added, however, that to demonize Farrakhan and his language is to give his statements greater visibility and power.

West spoke in a lively, sometimes even excited way. But as one audience member pointed out during the question-and-answer portion after the speech, West offered no particular solutions — either to racial divisions or the myriad other problems he mentioned.

Instead, he spent his time outlining the key questions on these topics. As for the future, he said, "You've got to attempt to be a prisoner of hope, while calling optimism into question."

Blacks still face tremendous obstacles in America today, as the country seems far from the ideal of a color-blind society, he observed.

When a black man drops into a sea of white people, West noted, one can see the ripples even among the most well-intentioned.

At the same time, whites too often see blacks as a homogenous group, ignoring their broad range of opinions and concerns. Whites, he said, all too often assume that if they can get the opinion of one black person, then they can get a sense about what all blacks feel.

"`Who's the head Negro in charge?'" West said, mimicking facile attempts to understand blacks. The thinking is, "if we know what Jesse [Jackson] wants, we know what they want."

Meanwhile, with many corporations going global and leaving the domestic job market behind, young blacks are further threatened with shrinking economic opportunities, he said. Few politicians, he added, are paying heed to this yawning problem.

"At least Pat Buchanan is stumbling onto the question, in his own reactionary way, God bless him," West said, referring to the conservative political commentator and Republican presidential hopeful, whose recent campaign has taken on a populist edge.

After his tour through San Francisco, West next planned to give speeches in Miami and Texas.

Proceeds from West's Bay Area talk benefited "Back on Track," a free, after-school tutoring program founded cooperatively by Congregation Emanu-El and San Francisco's Third Baptist Church.