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