In the Guardian [Dec. 17, 2017] Cornel West, academic and civil rights leader, recently published a harsh critique of TaNehisi Coates, writer for the Atlantic, labeling the latter the “neo-liberal face” of Black struggle.
The critique interests me because it perpetuates yet another fissure in the coalition required to resist Trump, because it recapitulates debates among Black leaders during the Harlem Renaissance (an era I have published in and taught courses on), and because it also reminds me of the position James Baldwin took in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; that position was of a writer first, although if you know about Baldwin, have read him, and have seen videos of him, you know he didn’t use that position to back away from struggles, attacks, and controversies.
There’s no getting around the fact (nor would I want to) that West has been a speaker and writer of titanic stature over the past three decades, and I agree with many of his positions. That said–caveat lector--I’m very sympathetic to Coates and Baldwin.
The West piece isn’t that long, so I thought I’d reprint it and take up some of its points as we move through it.
“Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?
- I think West begs the question here. That Coates isn’t political in the way West would like doesn’t mean he is apolitical. That he is pessimistic about matters of race seems rationally grounded in his experience and what America looks like today, with Trump at the top.
Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.
2. I think it would be more helpful for West to explore what concrete differences exist between Coates and him, rather than merely labeling Coates “neo-liberal.” Further, until very recently, Coates had had a tough time making a living. Then he got hired by the Atlantic and published two successful books. Making a living as a writer isn’t the same as “reaping rewards from the neoliberal establishment.” Further, writing about his own experience, writing “to” his son with the reader “looking on” (as Baldwin wrote to his nephew in The Fire Next Time), and focusing on White Supremacy does not equate with “silence” about these other issues; rather it suggests that Coates is writing about what he knows.
The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.
3. The disagreement is one West has invented. To my knowledge, Coates has not attacked (or even disagreed with) West in print or on video. And after this piece by West was published, igniting a Twitter storm, Coates simply left Twitter, viewing the spectacle as a distraction. I would speculate that Baldwin would have done the same, except Baldwin would never have joined Twitter. His carefully wrought, enduring nonfiction simply wasn’t in that 140 (or more) character genre. –Not to mention all the silliness and propaganda (some of it Russian) that saturates the land of Twitts.
Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.
4. Again, Coates’s focusing on a few things, including White Supremacy, isn’t the same as ignoring the other issues; indeed, Coates has made it plain that, in his view, one can’t understand American without understanding White Supremacy, thereby suggesting that it (White Supremacy) vitiates all institutions and informs most irrational, hateful prejudices. West’s logic reminds me of the New Left’s logic: everything must be about class, therefore don’t bring up race, and therefore if you don’t always concentrate on class, I can’t support you.
In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.
5. Coates does perceive White Supremacy to be implacably powerful (if not “almighty”), and, like Derrick Bell (as West notes later), doesn’t see that situation changing soon if ever. It is hard to gainsay Coates’s realism. Further, Coates sees his calling to be that of a nonfiction writer, a witness in prose to racism and White Supremacy. He prefers not to be a leader, and he seems to know and respect his own limits. West wants him to be West, Jr., it seems, and Coates wants to be Coates.
When he honestly asks: “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?”, the answer should be clear: they claim you because you are silent on what is a threat to their order (especially Wall Street and war). You defy them when you threaten that order.
6. For me, this comes way too close to blaming the victim. White Supremacy’s effect on Coates, his family, his home city and neighborhood, and so on, does not spring from his being silent, nor has he been silent; he just doesn’t write what West wants him to. Calling out White Supremacy is as much a threat to the “order” as calling out Wall Street.
Coates tries to justify his “defiance” by an appeal to “black atheism, to a disbelief in dreams and moral appeal”. He not only has “no expectations of white people at all”, but for him, if freedom means anything at all it is “this defiance”.
7. Given American history then and now, Coates’s position of expecting nothing of white people (except more of the same) seems rational. It occurred to be that West, for all his anti-neoliberal writing and preaching, may be caught up in the American narrative of progress: in American, things must and will get better. In fact, things “must” do nothing, and they are getting worse, suggest the data. For me, Coates’s position, like that of Derrick Bell, is refreshingly contrarian and honest.
Note that his perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neoliberal. Racial groups are homogeneous and freedom is individualistic in his world. Classes don’t exist and empires are nonexistent.
8. I need to be persuaded that Coates’s view of white people is tribal. Based on his experience, Coates simply doesn’t trust white people to change themselves or the country fundamentally, and he didn’t invent the white homogeneity that has forged American history and that informed Trump’s election. Neither is he a Black Nationalist. I wouldn’t presume, nor should West, to say what Coates’s view of freedom springs from, although Coates himself has made it clear that he’s interested primarily in making a living to support his family. First things first isn’t “neoliberal.”
This presidency, he writes, “opened a market” for a new wave of black pundits, intellectuals, writers and journalists – one that Coates himself has benefited from. And his own literary “dreams” of success were facilitated by a black neoliberal president who ruled for eight years – an example of “Black respectability, good Negro government.”
9. President Obama tried to change things within the “neoliberal” system. West has chosen a different way, and Coates yet another one. If anyone expected any president, let alone the first Black one (whom the GOP tried to “break,” even using that loaded language), then that person was delusional. President Obama probably could have done more in some areas and done things differently in others so as to satisfy West and others. He also came very close to doing all that was possible, given the circumstances. And if he had presented himself in the radical way West seems to have desired, he would not have been elected. Period. He could have been radical, or he could have been president, but not both. As things stood, the GOP effectively turned him into a radical in the eyes of the rabid, racist base.
There is no doubt that the marketing of Coates – like the marketing of anyone – warrants suspicion. Does the profiteering of fatalism about white supremacy and pessimism of black freedom fit well in an age of Trump – an age of neo-fascism, US style?
11. I don’t want to get into an ad hominem attack, but the way West and his booking agents have marketed him and the way he has created a Cornel West “brand” (going so far as to appear on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly, contributing, one might argue, to a fascist spectacle) suggests he may want to tread lightly with regard to Coates’s moderate success. Coates’s first book sold 1.5 million copies. Why not be happy for him? Further, even a cursory reading of Coates’s essays and books shows that they oppose the worldview of Trump and his followers.
Coates wisely invokes the bleak worldview of the late great Derrick Bell. But Bell reveled in black fightback, rejoiced in black resistance and risked his life and career based on his love for black people and justice. Needless to say, the greatest truth-teller about white supremacy in the 20th century – Malcolm X – was also deeply pessimistic about America. Yet his pessimism was neither cheap nor abstract – it was earned, soaked in blood and tears of love for black people and justice.
12. So now Coates’s bleak worldview is wise, not neoliberal? Further Coates’s pessimism has been earned: chiefly by growing up in a very hard neighborhood in the very hard city of Baltimore. Also, his writing is the opposite of cheap and abstract: it is deliberate, serious, and above all concrete. There is a reason Toni Morrison, who knows a thing or two about writing, compared Coates to Baldwin. It’s fine with me if West wants to critique the comparison between Malcolm X and Barack Obama, but that comparison was a one-off, and it is in no way central to Coates’s writing. Obama inspired him: is that so horrible?
Unfortunately, Coates’ allegiance to Obama has produced an impoverished understanding of black history. He reveals this when he writes: “Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as ‘our living, Black manhood’ and ‘our own Black shining prince.’ Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama.”
This gross misunderstanding of who Malcolm X was – the greatest prophetic voice against the American Empire – and who Barack Obama is – the first black head of the American Empire – speaks volumes about Coates’ neoliberal view of the world.
13. I’m getting close to thinking West hasn’t read Coates, whose writing reveals that he has an expansive, patiently developed view of American and black history. In fact, he credits his time at Howard University with disrupting and correcting his facile view of history. Moreover, his father, a former Black Panther, literally forced Coates to read books. That Coates’s worldview may differ from West’s does not mean that Coates understands American history less than West does.
Coates praises Obama as a “deeply moral human being” while remaining silent on the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of US citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550 Palestinian children killed with US supported planes in 51 days, etc. He calls Obama “one of the greatest presidents in American history,” who for “eight years … walked on ice and never fell.”
14. I agree with both West and Coates on this one. True, there’s not all that much competition (and no competition from Trump), but Obama will likely be known as one of the better presidents, especially given the stiff headwind into which he had to sail. That said, Obama no doubt approved immoral tactics.
It is clear that his narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty. For example, there is no serious attention to the plight of the most vulnerable in our community, the LGBT people who are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, neglect and disrespect.
15. West has made no attempt to back up the charges of “tribalism” and “neoliberalism.” He just keeps trying to apply the labels, hoping they’ll stick. And concentrating on White Supremacy doesn’t imply indifference to the most vulnerable or those affected by violence, poverty, neglect, and disrespect. Coates grew up among the most vulnerable and has written about that.
The disagreements between Coates and I are substantive and serious. It would be wrong to construe my quest for truth and justice as motivated by pettiness. Must every serious critique be reduced to a vicious takedown or an ugly act of hatred? Can we not acknowledge that there are deep disagreements among us with our very lives and destinies at stake? Is it even possible to downplay career moves and personal insecurities in order to highlight our clashing and conflicting ways of viewing the cold and cruel world we inhabit?
16. Maybe others have attacked West’s “career moves,” but Coates hasn’t, so I’m not sure what he’s getting at. If anything, West seems to have gotten a bit personal with Coates, slapping labels on him with a certain amount of glee and a glaring absence of evidence. As to insecurities–well, in this particular piece and in his dust-up with Michael Eric Dyson, West sometimes reminds me of academics who attain a certain stature in their field, and as in West’s case, who attain celebrity. They often view another’s success as an implicit threat to their fame and influence. West has earned his stature. I just wish he could thank Coates for his contributions and congratulate him for his modest success. I think, too, that it would be more productive for West to view an array of critiques of white (or “neoliberal,” if you will) as necessary and, we hope, effective. Instead he seems to want all Black intellectuals to get in line, his line.
I stand with those like Robin DG Kelley, Gerald Horne, Imani Perry and Barbara Ransby who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle. We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others.
The same cannot be said for Ta-Nehisi Coates.
17. True enough. Coates decided to go his own way, but by focusing on white supremacy, he hasn’t ignored class. He writes a lot about his own struggles in and with class. Further, concentrating on white supremacy seems crucial in America’s current predicament, and as Coates pursues that line, others can, should, and will pursue the others that West mentions. A productive division of labor.