Philosopher and author Cornel West urged Sacramento State students to put honesty and integrity above social status and financial success.
“These days, honesty and integrity taken seriously will make you countercultural,” he told an overflow crowd in the University Union Ballroom.
Thursday night’s lecture by the 63-year-old West, who grew up in Sacramento and graduated from John F. Kennedy High School, was part of the campus’s Constitution and Civic Engagement Week. A professor emeritus of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he is known as a provocative intellectual and speaker.
West recalled that he was kicked out of school in third grade because he refused to salute the flag. “It brought tears to my mama’s eyes,” he said. “That hurt me deeply.”
Now, West said, he stands for the national anthem, but he praised the athletes, led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who have knelt to protest discrimination and racism. They are “kneeling down in order to stand up,” West said.
“One of the reasons I stand for the national anthem is because I want fellow citizens to have the right not to stand,” he said.
West described himself as a libertarian when it comes to free speech. “I believe Rush Limbaugh has a right to be wrong,” he said.
West was critical of President Barack Obama as well as presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. During a news conference before the lecture, he said those who had great hope that Obama would significantly improve the lives of people who are disadvantaged missed their chance to hold the president accountable. He didn’t do anything about child poverty, or black poverty, West said.
He described Donald Trump as a neofacist and Hillary Clinton as a neoliberal but said Clinton is better than Trump.
West said he was encouraged by what he sees as social and spiritual awakening among young people. He urged them not to become disillusioned with politics and to be willing to take risks for what they believe. He called for people to pursue conversations about difficult issues such as race, discrimination and poverty, and to be open to listening to people with opposing views.
He encouraged his audience to consider how to stand for integrity in the face of oppression, how to respect each other’s voices, how to uphold decency in the face of insult and how virtue shall meet brute force.
West said Sacramento was an ideal place for him to grow up, saying there was “a lot of love across the races and genders.”
He began Thursday evening’s lecture by introducing his mother, Irene Bias West, and his brother, Clifton West. His mother was a teacher and principal, and Irene B. West Elementary School in Elk Grove is named for her. His father, Clifton Louis West Jr., was a Defense Department general contractor.
West said he lived in Sacramento’s Glen Elder neighborhood, where he attended Shiloh Baptist Church. The family later moved to South Land Park. Although the Glen Elder neighborhood was a lower income area, West said everyone looked out for each other. The “ghetto,” West said, was full of love and support, but a “hood” is not. “Never confuse a ghetto with a hood,” he said. “A hood is the survival of the slickest.”
A “hood,” he said, isn’t necessarily a neighborhood, adding that the same culture is seen on Wall Street, “where the 11th commandment is ‘Thou shalt not get caught.’ ”
He urged students not to sacrifice their values for success in the marketplace or to succumb to disappointment.
“You’ve got to learn to how to wrestle with disappointment and not allow disillusionment to have the last word,” West said.