"You can imagine to go back 50, 60 years at St. Ambrose and look at what is going on there now," said West, a noted author and commentator on the subject of race in America. "That's progress, brother."
Told Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in Davenport in 1965, West stopped to reconsider his initial impression.
"And he was actually there at St. Ambrose?" he asked, now clearly very impressed. "Wow. That was right after the Nobel Prize. So you all have been cutting edge for a long time. And when you have that kind of progress in your past, then you know (more) is possible. And that becomes wind at your back."
The election of the first African-American president four years ago likewise might be considered wind at our nation's back in the realm of race relations, West said. Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary, West also well knows that, where race matters, additional and significant progress always can be made.
The St. Ambrose community understands that, too. That is why "Race Matters" is the topic of the 2012 SAU project series.
West will deliver the annual Baecke Endowment for the Humanities Lecture at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 28. His talk, "Race Still Matters," is one of the initial events in the yearlong series of lectures, exhibitions, films and performances that will address the topic of race. West's participation is appropriate, considering the project takes its name from perhaps the best known of his 19 books.
"We want to ignite the discussion and stir enthusiasm for investigating these questions, and Cornel West is perhaps better equipped than anyone to do that," said Lisa Powell, PhD, an assistant professor of theology and the project director. "He will certainly get people thinking and talking; and hopefully he will also get people acting for racial justice."
West said nationwide progress in race relations has been "magnificent" and "undeniable" in the 21st Century. And he stressed, "It's not just a matter of Barack Obama in the White House. It is at the social and cultural level in terms of the wonderful relations that are invisible in our society between people of different colors, classes and sexual orientations."
On the other hand, he said, "We've got the underside, the night side." That is evidenced by long-existing stereotypes, but worse, by "escalating levels of poverty and inequality and how that brings out the worst in all of us, " he said.
Still, West argued that election year opposition to Obama does not seem to be rooted in racism, but in policy preferences instead. And that's progress, too, he said. Conversely, he added, "If the only thing that causes (Mitt) Romney to lose is an anti-Mormon prejudice, I still think we have a problem."
West said his talk will address how race matters at a micro-level, which is where true progress begins.
"What kind of person do you really want to be?" he asked. "What kind of community, what kind of nation, do we really want to be in terms of our ethical content, our moral substance and our democratic character? To talk about race and to talk about ‘Race Matters' is to raise one of the most fundamental questions of any humanistic education."