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Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, and the debate over America’s soul

It is Coates, not West, who emerges as the radical.

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates during an interview with Late Night host Seth Meyers on January 24, 2017.
Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The ongoing discussion that was, until a few days ago, taking place between Ta-Nehisi Coates, a columnist for the Atlantic and best-selling author of We Were Eight Years in Power and Between the World and Me, and Cornel West, author of the seminal book Race Matters (which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year), was purportedly about former President Barack Obama.

West, in a searing critique, argued that the “the neoliberal” Coates has been insufficiently critical of Obama’s legacy, with a particular focus on Obama’s foreign policy decisions and the impact of his domestic policy on black Americans. He accused Coates of “fatalism about white supremacy and pessimism of black freedom,” and offered a critique that “omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America.”

Coates disagreed, linking on Twitter to dozens of his own articles focused on criticisms of Obama’s drone policy and his presidency overall. And he added that if he hasn’t written on a topic, that’s more indicative of a lack of knowledge than a lack of concern. “If you see something missing in my work, some deep moral problem that I'm not writing on,” he said, “it may not be that I don't think it's a problem. Might be that I don't know enough about, and probably shouldn't be speaking on it.”

The debate between the two men fits into a long and consequential tradition. What does it mean to be both a black American and markedly privileged, subjected to, say, racist police tactics but largely protected from financial ruin at home and drone warfare and bombings abroad? Is America’s promise salvageable through a class-based populism that unites the white and black working class, or do the wounds of slavery and ongoing racism require a particularist response that will always engender white backlash?

But that’s not how the debate between Coates and West has been characterized. Instead, their genuine disagreement over policy and practice has been positioned as one between two titans of black intellectualism — the new guard versus the old guard in a battle for ultimate supremacy.

And West’s piece could, of course, be part of a more personal grudge. But even so, it’s worth trying to see the substance of the disagreement: This is a crucial conversation about what America is and what it can or should be for black Americans — and everyone else too. And, surprisingly given the rhetoric, it is Coates, not West, who emerges as the radical.

Is America’s promise redeemable?

There’s long been tension between two differing interpretations of America, and America’s meaning, within and among black Americans.

Since before the Civil War, black Americans have wrestled with the notion of an America built on a foundation of slavery that still claimed to champion equality — an America, in short, built by us but not for us. In 1852, civil rights luminary Frederick Douglass told a crowd at a Rochester, New York, celebration of the Fourth of July, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

The question is what that meant at the time, and what that means today: whether racism and racial inequality, and the policies birthed by racism that subjected millions of American citizens to murderous mob rule and economic subjugation (with government support), rendered the promise of America unfulfilled or altogether worthless.

For Martin Luther King Jr. and many civil rights luminaries, America was deeply flawed, but perhaps redeemable. America had broken a promise to black Americans, and it was up to black Americans to force America to keep it. In King’s words, the United States had “given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’"

In Coates’s conversation with my colleague Ezra Klein earlier this year, he seemed to take that almost literally, saying that closing the wealth gap between black and white Americans would persuade him that white supremacy could be conquered. In short, a check with sufficient funds, so to speak, could make a real difference, even though a process by which that check is given seems almost unimaginable.

But for others, America was — and is — inherently broken. In their view, while the United States was subjecting black Americans to second- and third-class status at home, it was launching bombing campaigns and destabilizing democratic governments and killing thousands of people around the world. To demand full equality within that superstructure is to sanction those efforts. As Stokely Carmichael told a crowd at Berkley in 1966, “I do not want to be a part of the American pie. The American pie means raping South Africa, beating Vietnam, beating South America, raping the Philippines, raping every country you’ve been in. I don’t want any of your blood money. I don’t want it — don't want to be part of that system.”

As Carmichael pointed out in that same speech, white Americans in the 1950s and ’60s had to literally be instructed by the federal government not to discriminate against black Americans. Why, then, were he and others being told to embrace nonviolence while the American government was in the midst of a violent campaign in Vietnam? Why should he support a country that spied on him and his allies and supporters, and killed others? He and figures from Malcolm X to more radical voices of the 1960s who denounced gradualist approaches to civil rights believed that the problem was endemic to America, requiring black Americans to “move the struggle from a civil rights-based rebellion to a full-fledged revolution.”

That revolution would take on not only racism but economic inequality as well. To Carmichael, and to other black thinkers — including West — the role of class and poverty is critical to any understanding of America and American politics.

West’s critique of American culture rests heavily on the deleterious impact of poverty on black Americans, and the need for full-scale revolt to eliminate it. When asked about the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, West said that the goal of the movement should be “a transfer of power from the oligarchs to ordinary citizens, beginning with the poor children of all colors and the orphans and the widows and the elderly and the working folk, that we connect the prison-industrial complex with the military-industrial complex, with the Wall Street-oligarchy complex and the corporate media multiplex.”

To West, then, Barack Obama’s presidency was a failure almost from the beginning — because in West’s view, Obama, in his embrace of Wall Street and corporate interests, seemed to desire to be an integral part of an inherently oppressive political, social, and economic structure rather than fomenting its destruction.

It’s Coates, not West, who stands outside the political system

When Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote We Were Eight Years In Power (the title of which, to be clear, is a quote from an 1890s black South Carolina Congress member), he was discussing Obama’s presidency as a means of discussing the lives of black Americans in the 21st century, and his own career. From West’s perspective, Coates was fawning and obsequious towards Obama. But in Coates’s writing, his understanding of Obama was not based on what Obama did, but on what he meant.

As Coates told the Intercept earlier this year, Obama existed as a “conservative revolutionary” — someone who believes thoroughly in American institutions and ideas and in their inherent power for good. Obama believed in the promise of America, even as that America seemed to reject it (and him — “birtherism” being only the most readily obvious example). By using Obama as a lens, Coates then is able to talk about black life in America, where a black man could be president and find himself replaced by someone who believes that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer.

West is focused on Obama’s actions as a political figure, not as a cultural touchstone. In his denunciation of Coates in the Guardian, he notes the Obama White House’s use of drone strikes and massive bombing raids in majority-Muslim countries. He views Obama not as a lens toward a larger examination of blackness, but as yet another figure in a long line of black elites who play down the need for revolutionary change in exchange for a share of power.

But ironically, though West casts Coates’s largely positive views of Obama as an attempt to embrace mainstream liberalism (and thus, an effort to gain the support of mainstream white liberals), West is actually the more mainstream of the two. He, unlike Coates, still believes in the power of revolutionary politics in America, advising numerous presidential candidates since 2000 and supporting first Bernie Sanders (who added him to the Democratic National Convention platform committee) and then Jill Stein in the 2016 presidential election.

His politics are largely mainstream within left-leaning circles. He wants to limit US military interventions abroad, champion the rights of the working class, and divert wealth away from American elites towards lower-income people, particularly people of color and LGBTQ people. One could readily imagine Elizabeth Warren or Sanders voicing these views — in fact, they already have.

But Coates remains largely pessimistic about the possibilities of politics, and that’s in part because he knows the policies he believes in lie far outside the mainstream. In We Were Eight Years in Power, he reflects on the radicalizing power of realizing reparations are necessary to his vision of justice, and unthinkable within the context of American politics:

The reparations claim was so old, so transparently correct, so clearly the only solution, and yet it remained far outside the borders of American politics. To believe anything else was to believe that a robbery spanning generations could somehow be ameliorated while never acknowledging the scope of the crime and never making recompense. And yet that was the thinking that occupied mainstream American politics.

When asked by Stephen Colbert in October of this year whether he has hope for a “better country,” Coates said no. He’s not a politician, nor is he a political figure, and he is aware that the ideas he believes could push America forward in terms of our understandings of race — reparations, for instance — are too radical to take place. America, a country in which, in his words, “racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life,” is too far gone. It is West, ultimately, who is the optimist here, who still believes in America’s redemption, who is calling for policy changes that are supported by major American politicians.

The difference, then, between Coates and West cannot be summarized as one based on, in West’s words, “a vicious takedown or an ugly act of hatred.” Their debate matches those between and among black Americans of all political stripes over the past century as they reckon with the nature of race and the power of racism in this country. Is this country’s promise available to black Americans too? Is there promise? Can we be a part of the American system, or should we work to deconstruct that system entirely? Is there hope? And what does it mean to be black in this country in the first place?

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