[Marxism] Past Debates Echo in Split Between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 22 16:56:35 MST 2017

NY Times, Dec. 22 2017
Past Debates Echo in Split Between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Shortly after the dawn of the 20th century, the scholar W.E.B. Du Bois 
took on a fellow black civic leader, Booker T. Washington, for what he 
described as submitting to white domination and accepting “the alleged 
inferiority of the Negro races.”

Decades later, Malcolm X criticized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for being 
used by white people “to teach Negroes to be defenseless.”

Those clashes took place without the gasoline that is Twitter — no 
@MalcolmX, no @MLKJr., no #WhiteShill.

But just this week, the Harvard professor Cornel West said that the 
writer Ta-Nehisi Coates “fetishizes white supremacy” and that Mr. Coates 
takes a neoliberal position “that sounds militant about white supremacy 
but renders black fightback invisible.” And Twitter had its say.

The drama unfolded online in a tabloid-like frenzy as Dr. West offered 
pointed criticism of Mr. Coates — and Mr. Coates soon decided to 
deactivate his Twitter account. It brought what historians consider a 
familiar occurrence in the black freedom struggle onto mobile phones 

“There have always been these debates between black male intellectuals 
about how much we should believe in the American project, about what is 
the path to freedom, and about the tenor of one’s agitation,” said 
Brittney Cooper, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies 
and Africana studies at Rutgers University. “How raucous, how disruptive 
should you be?”

The difference is wide in some cases. Malcolm X was more open to using 
violence as a form of self-defense than Dr. King, even though their 
beliefs were more nuanced and overlapping than the popular perception. 
Whereas Du Bois pushed for an expansion of civil rights, Washington was 
more compromising, urging black people to look within — get an 
industrial education, build wealth — in order to minimize the terror 
they faced.

With Dr. West and Mr. Coates, there does not seem to be much distance 
between their underlying views on racism and white supremacy, even as 
their arguments have different emphases.

This current dispute stems from Dr. West asserting in a column in The 
Guardian that Mr. Coates’s analysis of racism and white supremacy fails 
to account for broader factors like class and patriarchy, and that he is 
not critical enough of former President Barack Obama. Mr. Coates 
rebutted in a string of Twitter posts with excerpts from his work that 
included criticisms of Mr. Obama, and analyses of gender, poverty, war 
and other areas that Dr. West said he had failed to address.

“I can’t write on everything,” Mr. Coates wrote on Twitter. “I try my 
damnedest to be as grounded as I possibly can. And when I throw a punch, 
I try to have my feet set, and to swing with intention.”

In one of his most notable pieces, Mr. Coates, 42, laid out the case for 
reparations, and much of his writing explores the systemic structures 
that are detrimental to black Americans and that keep white people in 
power. Dr. West, 64, who came of age during the civil rights era and is 
equally dubious of the United States government, often highlights what 
he feels are the evils of capitalism and war, and regularly engages in 
direct action. He is from the tradition of liberation theology, contrary 
to Mr. Coates’s atheism.

Those who support Dr. West’s analysis have faulted Mr. Coates as 
unwilling to risk anything with what he writes and for being too kind to 
Mr. Obama. Supporters of Mr. Coates have noted the breadth of his 
writing and his willingness to openly grapple with concepts he is trying 
to master.

They also wonder whether Dr. West’s critique has been driven more by 
personality than policy. Observers have noted Dr. West’s feuds with 
other rising black scholars over the years, including Michael Eric 
Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and writer, and Melissa 
Harris-Perry, a professor at Wake Forest University.

The sniping continues, with Mr. Dyson suggesting that Dr. West is 
feuding because he is preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 
release of his book “Race Matters,” a best-seller that explores the 
broad swath of issues facing black communities.

“Intellectually, Cornel West has not been relevant,” Mr. Dyson said. 
“The best way to engage Ta-Nehisi is to write the book you think he’s 
missing. It’s no surprise that he is claiming some kind of public stance 
against Ta-Nehisi, which will generate enormous controversy, which will 
point to the reissue of his book.”

Dr. West’s criticism of Mr. Coates dates back a couple of years to what 
Dr. West saw as the writer’s soft handling of Mr. Obama. The latest 
iteration of their rift started when, in an interview published in The 
New York Times last month, he questioned Mr. Coates’s street cred and 
called him “the darling of the white and black neoliberal establishment.”

Then came the blistering Guardian essay and Mr. Coates’s response on 
Twitter in which his only mention of Dr. West was to congratulate him on 
the anniversary of the publication of “Race Matters.”

Reached by telephone this week, Mr. Coates declined to comment.

Dr. West, in an interview, rejected that his critique is personal, or an 
attempt to draw attention to himself.

“We must maintain the highest standard of the struggle for freedom 
because the suffering is so overwhelming,” Dr. West said. “It’s not 
about Coates. It’s not about West. It’s not about any individual. It’s 
about masses of people who are suffering.”

But he did express remorse that Mr. Coates felt he had to leave Twitter.

“I don’t want nobody to come at him,” Dr. West said. “He’s still my 
brother and he’s got his own brilliance. He’s a very important voice.”

While Dr. West said he was not that familiar with many of Mr. Coates’s 
policy positions (the one he knows well, reparations, he agrees with), 
they had crucial differences in philosophy. Dr. West has been highly 
critical of Mr. Coates, for instance, for not centering capitalism in 
his analyses of white supremacy. Without making that connection, Dr. 
West said it would be difficult to create effective policy solutions.

“White supremacy then ends up being some kind of magical force that 
floats above history and floats above society and, therefore, you can’t 
do anything about it,” he said.

Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said 
she agreed with Dr. West that analyzing capitalism was necessary to 
fully understand white supremacy. She also said she believed that Mr. 
Coates’s work does at least subtly delve into class issues, pointing to 
his article in the Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations,” which focused 
on poor and working-class black people as central to the demand for 

“What I hear in some of Ta-Nehisi’s critiques is a class analysis 
informed by an understanding of race, even though he may not articulate 
it as such,” said Dr. Ransby, who teaches African-American, gender and 
women’s studies.

To scholars, Dr. West and Mr. Coates are simply proxies for a broader 
intellectual tension that black people have long grappled with.

“The old debate is between black nationalism and black radicalism,” said 
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy 
at the Harvard Kennedy School, who is a friend of both men.

Mr. Coates is rooted in a tradition of black nationalism that is 
skeptical of the ability of white people to grant full equality to 
African-Americans, Dr. Muhammad said. Dr. West, meanwhile, is a leftist 
who sees black people, along with other marginalized groups and 
working-class white allies, leading a global fight against former 
colonial powers.

What scholars hope is that this dispute leads to a broader reckoning 
with what America means for black people and how to achieve equality. Is 
there a path forward for black people within the existing political 
structure through the anti-capitalist populism that Dr. West promotes? 
Or are there solutions — like reparations — that could dismantle the 
legacy of white supremacy that Mr. Coates often writes about? “I 
certainly think that those conversations feel especially urgent in this 
moment, in the Trump era,” Dr. Cooper, of Rutgers, said.

But many have found it distressing that in an age of renewed white 
supremacist rallies and unrest over police killings, an academic 
difference between two black male intellectuals who are solidly on the 
left is taking up so much oxygen. And they also lament that the frenzy 
surrounding these two men is overshadowing the critical work and insight 
of black women, who have been at the fore of the Black Lives Matter 
movement and other contemporary efforts to fight racism.

“I dream of black freedom and resistance that isn’t unduly occupied by 
and centered on some dudes being mad at each other and not liking each 
other and thus pinning the entire moral failing of American empire on 
other individual dudes and making us read about it,” Eve Ewing, a writer 
and sociologist, wrote on Twitter.

Ferrari Sheppard, a multimedia artist, wrote: “Black intellectuals 
coming for one another about social justice issues on white-owned 
platforms is chain smoking cigarettes while eating kale.”

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