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Cornel West's Low Blow

By Adam A. Sofen, Crimson Staff Writer

Is Cornel West a bigot? Depends on whose standards you’re using. A professional victimologist would immediately red-pencil a statement like this one: “I think in one sense that Larry Summers is the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” After all, Summers is Harvard’s first Jewish president, and the metaphor seems to hint at Jewish collusion and conspiracy, a lurid pact by powerful Jews to oppress minorities.

Or, you might just say it was Cornel West mouthing off again. There isn’t a whit of evidence West is an anti-Semite; he even coauthored a book entitled Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin with his good friend Rabbi Michael Lerner. A reasonable person would give him the benefit of the doubt.

The point, of course, is not that the former Fletcher University Professor is a closet racist, but rather that when one goes looking for racism, it seems to pop up everywhere. Better to reserve condemnation for those who truly merit it—“racist” is too serious an epithet to be tossed about offhandedly.

Unfortunately, that didn’t stop West from doing just that to his erstwhile boss. When National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley asked him whether he thought Summers’ criticism was motivated by race, West declared primly, “Of course, I have not invoked this particular factor as an explanatory one”—then immediately added, “But at a certain point you say to yourself, Good God, if it quacks like a duck and it walks like a duck, there’s a very good chance that it is a duck, and so there could be actually some unconscious or conscious elements at work here, and I would leave that up to the soul of Summers himself.” At another point he said, “His attack on me was the wrong person, the wrong professor and the wrong Negro.” While he never outright called Summers a Klansman, the message was perfectly clear.

West is playing an ugly game. He would prefer that the petty bickering of two headstrong academics be seen as a parable about a white power structure uniting to silence a noble black truth-teller. That might satisfy some of his apparently endless penchant for self-pity, but it threatens to poison legitimate racial progress at a university he claims to love.

In their now-infamous meeting last year, Summers allegedly criticized West’s inattention to serious scholarship, his frequent leaves of absence and his overly generous grading policies. Whether or not you count yourself among West’s detractors, these are all at least debatable criticisms. And while West certainly isn’t unique among Harvard professors for his professional slumming (ask Marge Garber, fresh off a book about sex and real estate, or Alan Dershowitz, who took time off to defend O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson), his relentless pursuit of celebrity and insatiable appetite for publicity sets him apart from the field—look at Friends of Cornel like P. Diddy and Mumia Abu-Jamal. That Summers chose to begin cleaning house with West might have been ham-handed and politically inept, but it wasn’t inconsistent or, God help us, racist.

In short: Cornel West is black. He is also a daffy, dubious academic. Is it really so unlikely that Larry Summers had the latter, and not the former, criterion in mind?

The sad part is that West’s rhetoric may leave a lasting blot on Harvard’s image. Harvard may have given rise to epochal black scholars like W.E.B. DuBois, but it has had to struggle for decades with its reputation as a lily-white pedestal for the privileged. One of the few great accomplishments of former Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine’s tenure was his dogged emphasis on diversity, which succeeded in erasing much of the stain of that history and making the university a genuinely welcoming place for black students. Ironically, the highest-profile symbol of that success is the Afro-American studies department, whose “dream team”—a Rudenstine treasure—has been famous as a nexus of celebrity scholars, if not quite of groundbreaking scholarship itself. West’s intemperate allegations on his way out the door are not just an insult to Summers. They leave an uneasy cloud hanging over the University, which will be far harder to dispel than it was for West to create.

Henry Kissinger ’50, a Harvard man and no stranger to the polite street brawl, once quipped that “university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” The actual stakes of the West-Summers clash could not be tinier. But West’s race-baiting could ensure that the venom lingers for years to come.

Adam A. Sofen ’01 is a former Crimson executive.

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