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Cornel West sounds off

Superstar philosopher talks Trump, capitalism and loving the sinner at Congress 2017
By: Will Sloan
June 01, 2017
Cornel West

Photo: Public intellectual Cornel West visited Ryerson as part of Congress 2017.

Provocative, incisive, incendiary, inspiring… these words together can only mean one thing: Cornel West has been to campus. On May 29, the iconoclastic philosopher delivered a rousing lecture at the Ted Rogers School of Management, sounding off on Trump, Obama, capitalism, the responsibilities of academics, and everything in between. One of the United States’ most visible public intellectuals, West is the author of 20 books (including the classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters), a regular TV panellist (on CNN, C-Span, Real Time with Bill Maher, and others), teacher (at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and others), and spoken word artist.

“An Evening with Cornel West” was part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2017, external link, Canada’s largest academic gathering, hosted by the Faculty of Arts from May 27 to June 2.

For those who missed it, here are a few of his choicest comments…

Donald Trump

“Let us never, never fetishize Donald Trump. He’s not some isolated individual who dropped out of the sky—no, he expresses deep, deep tendencies in American culture, in the American empire. He’s a fellow citizen of mine, he’s a fellow human being of yours, and therefore the question will become: can you deal with the Trump elements inside of you? I don’t want to hear the self-righteousness. Trump is a gangster: gangsters grab a woman’s private parts; it’s a gangster that seeks oil in another country to think somehow you have access to it… that’s what it is to be a gangster.”


“What is neoliberalism? Well let’s just put it this way: it facilitates the massive transfer of wealth from poor and working people to the one per cent that leave them more and more rootless, feeling helpless and hopeless and unable to act as citizens or feel as if they’re agents of the world while the one per cent breakdances on the way to the bank with millions and millions and billions and billions of dollars and them saying… ‘That’s normal. That’s natural.’”

The financial crisis

“In 2008 in the United States, they called it a catastrophe, but it was nothing but criminality on Wall Street. Insider trading, market manipulation, predatory lending, fraudulent activities. How many Wall Street executives went to jail? Not one. Not one. And yet let Jamal get caught with a crack bag; let Shaniqua get caught; let Juanita get caught; let Carlos get caught; let a poor white brother—John McGillicuddy—or a poor white sister get caught. The rule of law, all against poor people. Where were the voices? Hardly heard.”


“Quit calling it ‘universal’ if 21 million fellow citizens are still not getting health care. Just call it what it is: market-driven Obamacare modelled on a project coming out of the Heritage Foundation adopted by Mitt Romney is Massachusetts. That’s what it was. Is it better? Of course it’s better! Yes, it’s better—20 million folks … what about the 21 million, what about the profits still going up, what about the premiums still going up? It’s still market-driven and doesn’t talk about health care as a right—it’s still a privilege.”


“You hate the sin but still love the sinner. They say, ‘Oh, brother West, I’m a Marxist Communist too,’ and they say, ‘You can’t love Trump—he’s a gangster.’ I say, ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait now. I was a gangster too before I met Jesus, and now I’m a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities! Did you not love me when I was a gangster? Did you not love Malcolm Little when he was a gangster?’ ‘Malcolm Little was a gangster?’ ‘Hell yes he was! Elijah loved him in the cell!’”

Catching up to the ’60s

“‘Oh, brother West, your style is so outdated, that sounds like the ’60s. When’re we gonna get beyond ’60s?’ We’ve got to catch up with the ’60s—what’re you telling me, ‘Get beyond the ’60s’? Capitalism’s still in place, wealth inequality’s still in place, white supremacy’s still in place, male supremacy’s still in place, homophobia’s still in place, losin’ sight of the physically challenged is still in place... Oh, we’ve made some progress, yes we have made some progress. But what does brother Malcolm say? You don’t stab open the back nine inches, pull it out three inches, and celebrate your progress!”

The example of W.E.B. Du Bois for academics

“He was a humanistic scholar—he was not a ‘professional… who studies texts… in order to engage in career possibilities.’ Don’t deodorize Du Bois! Like Martin Luther King Jr., like Malcolm X, they were love warriors, they were justice warriors, they were not college professionals. There’s a difference. Nothing wrong with getting your professional skills together, but if you view life as a gold rush, you’re going to end up worshipping the golden calf. And if all you do is fetishize your professional skills for your career opportunities, you’re going to end up being well-adjusted to injustice.”

What can we do?

“I want you to never forget that the Kingdom of God is within you and everywhere you go you ought to leave a little heaven behind. And that heaven has to do with how you treat people: are you tender? Are you kind? Are you sweet? It has to do with: are you willing to tell the truth and shatter your popularity? It has to do with: are you willing to join with groups that might be highly unpopular—noble but seemingly lost causes—but you don’t care?”

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