Why Cornel West is hopeful (but not optimistic)

Since this summer’s racial justice protests began filling the streets, the one public figure I’ve wanted to talk to more than anyone else is Cornel West.

A professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard, he’s one of the most prominent and provocative Black intellectuals alive. He’s known for calling out racism, predatory capitalism, and unjust policies wherever he sees them. And judging by his new podcast, The Tight Rope (co-hosted by Tricia Rose), I was sure he’d have a sharp analysis of the twin epidemics pummeling America today: white supremacy and Covid-19.

So I was thrilled when West agreed to come on Future Perfect’s limited-series podcast, The Way Through, which is all about mining the world’s rich philosophical and spiritual traditions for guidance that can help us through these challenging times.

West and I talked about some potential tools for dealing with white supremacy and Covid-19. We discussed Black liberation theology, which took off in the 1960s and emphasized that God’s primary concern is for people who are being oppressed. West is a Christian who’s steeped in that theology.

But West is also steeped in a bunch of secular philosophical traditions — from Marxism to existentialism to pragmatism — so I asked him what those traditions can teach us about how to handle our current crises.

We covered questions like: Is the pandemic weakening or strengthening white supremacy? What’s the difference between optimism and hope — and why does West say he’s not optimistic but is hopeful?

By the end of this talk, I felt more hopeful myself. You can hear our full conversation in the podcast here. A partial transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

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