Cornel West’s attacks on Ta-Nehisi Coates, explained

Ta-Nehisi Coates appears on Meet the Press.
NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

A public feud between two of America’s top black intellectuals has led one of them to abandon Twitter.

Cornel West, author of the well-known Race Matters, has been increasingly critical of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic writer and author of Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power. This culminated on Monday night, when Coates left Twitter — a day after West published an op-ed in the Guardian that called Coates “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.”

At face value, this might seem like just another feud between some famous men. But there are deeper issues going on here — rooted in Coates’s and West’s approaches to racism and, in particular, West’s own views of former President Barack Obama.

Central to all of this is West’s critique that Coates is a “neoliberal” who isn’t critical enough of Obama — especially on issues that are important to the left, such as Wall Street and drone strikes.

Coates has countered that he does not write about these other issues because they are simply not his area of expertise. His writing focuses on issues and policies that are directly linked to race, including his well-known case for reparations and recent essays about Obama and President Donald Trump. That’s not to say he doesn’t care about other issues, but he says he simply doesn’t have the expertise to give them the kind of coverage they deserve.

West, however, argues that leaving out these other issues means Coates fails to fully address important topics that can help lift up disadvantaged black communities.

It’s actually not clear how much Coates and West disagree here. (Neither responded to requests for comment about these specific issues.) But the feud has transformed into a bit of a proxy war in a broader debate about how America should confront its history of racism — an issue that became more prominent with the 2016 Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, which elevated questions about identity politics’ role in left-wing American politics.

Before we get into all of that, though, let’s start with what West said about Coates.

What Cornel West said about Ta-Nehisi Coates

West’s criticism of Coates goes back years. In 2015, he described Coates as “a clever wordsmith with journalistic talent who avoids any critique of the Black president in power.” In this way, West has long characterized Coates as a protector of “neoliberalism,” a term commonly used by the left to describe the market-friendly, globalist policies of the Democratic Party, including Obama, over the past few decades.

But West’s criticisms resurfaced in the past month when he brought up Coates in an interview with the New York Times Magazine. In discussing the “black elite leadership” that has tried to fit into “a neoliberal world,” West cited “[d]ear brother Ta-Nehisi Coates” as an example. Commenting on Coates’s book, We Were Eight Years in Power, West remarked, “Who’s the ‘we’? When’s the last time he’s been through the ghetto, in the hoods, to the schools and indecent housing and mass unemployment? We were in power for eight years? My God. Maybe he and some of his friends might have been in power, but not poor working people.”

West further elaborated on this point in his op-ed in the Guardian on Sunday, arguing that Coates’s analysis of white supremacy neglects some of its worst crimes.

“He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible,” West wrote. “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.”

He added, “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.”

West takes particular issue with how Coates has described Obama. In his book, Coates claims that Obama, like Malcolm X, exemplifies “‘our living, Black manhood’ and ‘our own Black shining prince.’”

West rejects this: “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.”

Coates occasionally defended himself from these types of attacks on Twitter. But on Monday, after facing an onslaught on social media — which included white nationalist Richard Spencer approving of West’s criticism — Coates shut down his Twitter account altogether.

At the center of this: West’s criticism of Barack Obama

To really understand why West is going after Coates, it’s important to understand that West has long been one of Obama’s top critics on the left — and, by extension, a harsh critic of anyone who he perceives as defending Obama.

In 2011, West described Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” And in 2015, he called Obama “the first niggerized black president.”

“A niggerized black person is a black person who is afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy,” West said on CNN. “So when many of us said we have to fight against racism, what were we told? ‘No, he can’t deal with racism because he has other issues, political calculations. He’s the president of all America, not just black America.’ We know he’s president of all America, but white supremacy is American as cherry pie.”

In short, West argued that Obama didn’t do enough to dismantle white supremacy. Some of that was rooted in Obama’s timid public response to police killings and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed. But it was also rooted in issues that people might not at first link to white supremacy — including Obama’s campaign support from Wall Street, the US’s ongoing wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, and America’s support of Israel in its conflict with Palestine.

“I don’t view good negro government as policies that don’t highlight poor people, that have drone strikes, that’s tied to Wall Street, that reinforces surveillance,” West said in an interview with the Root.

From West’s perspective, neoliberalism — the kind, in his view, upheld by Obama and enabled by Coates — has not only kept black Americans worse off compared to their white counterparts; it has also taken the oppression of nonwhite groups to a global scale, as demonstrated by the exploitation of Africa and wars against predominantly brown populations in the Middle East and Central Asia.

This isn’t a totally fair characterization of Obama’s record. The Affordable Care Act, for one, helped millions of low-income people get health insurance. The stimulus package of 2009 helped lift the economy in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Dodd-Frank enacted new regulations on financial institutions in Wall Street.

But West has been leveling this criticism against US policy, wrapping it all in the mantle of what he views as white supremacy, for years. Coates isn’t even the first fellow black intellectual to come under West’s fire because they wrongly praised, from West’s view, Obama.

As Michael Harriot explained in the Root, West has also gone after Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Michael Eric Dyson. In 2012, West said that Obama was a “Republican in blackface.” Then he blasted Sharpton, Harris-Perry, and Dyson:

I love Brother Mike Dyson. But we’re living in a society where everybody is up for sale. Everything is up for sale. And he and Brother Sharpton and Sister Melissa and others, they have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves. But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kinds of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people. And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way, given the kind of critical background that all of them have had at some point.

There is a lot of public questioning about West’s motives here. Harris-Perry, for one, has argued that West’s beef with Obama is “more personal than ideological,” citing West’s complaint that even though he heavily campaigned for Obama, he couldn’t get tickets for the 2009 inauguration.

Still, the fact is that West has long been critical of many of the policies that Obama enacted, from allegedly loose regulations on Wall Street to the continuation of drone strikes around the world.

Coates’s argument about Obama is more nuanced than West lets on

Much of West’s criticism of how Coates describes Obama, however, seems to come from a misunderstanding of Coates’s point.

West has criticized the title of Coates’s book, We Were Eight Years in Power, because he interpreted it to suggest that the book means black Americans were, through Obama, eight years in power. In reality, the title of the book comes from a quote from a black Reconstruction-era politician, Rep. Thomas Miller.

Miller said, “We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided education for the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it on the road to prosperity.”

In this, Miller points out that when black leaders were elected in the post–Civil War era, they managed to govern without the kinds of catastrophes that racists warned of.

It’s this quote and context that opens and drives Coates’s book. When he says that Obama was an example of “good Negro government,” Coates is not saying that he agreed with every single thing that Obama did. (Indeed, Coates criticized Obama for dodging issues of race throughout his presidency.) What he is arguing, instead, is that Obama showed, with a relatively conventional, scandal-free government, that a black person can lead the US — and that alone dealt a big blow to white supremacy.

Columnist Charles Mudede explained in the Stranger: “The concept, which West should have given a little more consideration even if he disagreed with it, is this: Whenever blacks show they can rule, white supremacists freak out and do everything they can to bury the evidence of ‘Good Negro Government.’”

This doesn’t contradict or even speak to West’s criticisms of Obama, because much of West’s qualms are rooted in specific policies and outcomes. The symbolism of Obama’s victory is less of an interest to West than whether Obama stopped wars in the Middle East and lifted people out of poverty.

But Coates argues in his book that the symbolism alone is important: “Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing ‘mere’ about symbols. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.”

So Obama did some things that people — on the right and left — will find fault with. But in running a stable government, he presented a big challenge to a foundation of white supremacy. That, Coates argues, is worth lifting up.

Coates’s and West’s work focus on different aspects of white supremacy

Behind all of this is an underlying debate about how America should confront its long history of racism.

In his work, Coates has focused on the politics, history, and direct impacts of white supremacy within the US, from his case for reparations to his look at mass incarceration. This is the area he, by his own admission, has the most knowledge of.

Coates is pretty open about the limitations of his knowledge, always cautioning in his blog posts and interviews that he is still learning a lot — and only tries to write about what he knows about. When Daily Show host Trevor Noah asked Coates why he doesn’t write about Wall Street and foreign policy, Coates said, “Because I can’t. I can’t. And I think those people who have specialties on Wall Street and I think those people who have specialties on foreign policy probably can’t write with the depth that I can about race. … I’ve been thinking about this all my life, and I’ve been literally covering it for the past eight years.”

West writes about white supremacy more broadly, focusing on the role of neoliberalism in disadvantaging black Americans and other people around the world.

Like seemingly every other issue in America currently, this loops back to the 2016 Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Since then, Democrats have been caught in a debate over identity politics and how to deal with issues of race: Is a universal approach that focuses on lifting everyone up — but doesn’t emphasize race, since that might exclude white working-class voters — the right approach? Or does the issue of race need to be directly confronted, up to and possibly including reparations?

In a Politico column arguing for Sanders over Clinton, West made the case for a broader approach because, in his view, such an approach would be better for black Americans:

The battle now raging in Black America over the Clinton-Sanders election is principally a battle between a declining neoliberal black political and chattering class still on the decaying Clinton bandwagon (and gravy train!) and an emerging populism among black poor, working and middle class people fed up with the Clinton establishment in the Democratic Party. It is easy to use one’s gender identity, as Clinton has, or racial identity, as the Congressional Black Caucus recently did in endorsing her, to hide one’s allegiance to the multi-cultural and multi-gendered Establishment. But a vote for Clinton forecloses the new day for all of us and keeps us captive to the trap of wealth inequality, greed (“everybody else is doing it”), corporate media propaganda and militarism abroad—all of which are detrimental to black America.

This again shows the common thread in West’s writing: Anything that fails to include all of these issues, from wealth inequality to militarism, simply fails to address the full scale of white supremacy. That’s why he views Coates’s focused work as inadequate.

Notably, Coates supported Sanders over Clinton too, explaining that Sanders’s views on policy, including on criminal justice, were more representative of his own views.

But that came with caveats.

“Folks need to be aware the history of how racism actually injures universalist policy,” Coates said on Democracy Now. “Every time we’ve had to put forward universalist social policy in this country, at every moment we’ve had to contend with the fact that there is a relatively large population of Americans in this country that are concerned about black people being included in those policies too. That was true in the New Deal. It was true in Obamacare. And it likely would be true with President Sanders also.”

That’s, in short, the argument for why it’s important to focus directly on race as its own issue: Even if you believe that universal policies can lift everyone up in theory, the reality is those policies have often left black people behind — sometimes explicitly, as was the case in Social Security’s exclusion of largely black farmers and service workers — as the country has failed to reckon with its history of racism.

None of this is to say that Coates or West — or anyone in the Democratic identity politics debate, for that matter — thinks the other side is totally wrong. Coates, after all, backed Sanders, and West supports reparations.

Instead, this is more about what should be emphasized in public discussions about race and US policy.

So it’s not just a feud between two prominent black thinkers, but rather about deeper issues — particularly among liberals and the left — of how the country should deal with the systemic racism that has long plagued its politics and policies.

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