Neither Cornel West nor Ta-Nehisi Coates is giving us his best
Black intellectual debate should be about more than name-calling
For the two of you not in the know, Cornel West scribed a scathing indictment of Ta-Nehisi Coates, blasting him for his supposed failures as a prominent black intellectual. Coates’ initial defiant response on Twitter gave way to him leaving the social media platform altogether, deleting his account.
Should older thinkers like West cede the black public intellectual landscape to younger cohorts like Coates? I’ve heard this question posed in personal interactions and have spotted people answering yes on social media.
The idea, to be honest, repulses me — telling a brilliant person like West to shut up and let others take the mic smacks me as downright odd. I believe this idea flows from the fraudulent and destructive notion that we black folk need representatives to stand on the mountaintop and air our grievances to white America. West, so this argument goes, prosecutes the wrong case, and thus he must be locked in a closet while others, who sing songs resonating better with our hearts, occupy center stage.
I could see if West engaged in racial betrayal, was a duplicitous Negro who could never be trusted to serve as an honest participant in our national race conversation. But that’s not the argument I’m wrestling with here. So, no, I can’t co-sign telling West to shut up, and neither should anyone else.
We should deal with West’s arguments as warranted. If his arguments hit with a whimper, as many claim, then defeating them should be easy, no?
Concentrate on that.
While seeing how black writers have responded to West’s piece, I have focused on one of the various tantalizing threads regarding this ordeal. I want to pull on it here.
Some maligned West for supposedly being fueled by petty jealousies and charged to Coates’ rescue like an overprotective parent. Since I have little way of determining what spurred him to compose his screed and don’t think his motives matter much, I will ignore this issue. If jealousy inspired his critiques, they could still be right. People fall victim to a basic logical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem: seeking to discredit an argument by discrediting the person making it.
I think many attacked West personally, in part, based on a belief that many black folk endorse: that we should eschew arguing in public, fearing how ill-intentioned white folk might employ secrets learned from internal debates to harm our interests. I’ve written about this at length before, so I feel free not to belabor the point. But, simply put, black folk must cease acting like we need to agree in public or reserve some conversations for times when nonblacks cannot hear us. This distorts intraracial dialogue, inhibiting our ability to debate strategies for full emancipation.
One issue I have noticed about black thinkers living today, as opposed to black thinkers who have long since died, is the unwillingness to critique black people in public. To read many black writers today is to get the sense they have nothing of note to utter to other black people beyond white supremacy debilitates us in this or that way.
I want to yell, “Do you have anything critical to say of your people? Do you think we are getting everything right? Can we improve our situation with any changes? Have you even contemplated these questions? If not, why are you even here?” A race writer whose every piece fits the black-folk-as-victim narrative needs to search for other stories reflecting the full complexion of our people.
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “We must frankly acknowledge that in the past years our creativity and imagination were not employed in learning how to develop power. We found a method in nonviolent protest that worked, and we employed it enthusiastically. We did not have leisure to probe for a deeper understanding of its laws and lines of development. Although our actions were bold and crowned with successes, they were substantially improvised and spontaneous. They attained the goals set for them but carried the blemishes of our inexperience.”
Here, King examines himself, the movement to which he belonged, and his people. He noticed some good, some bad and some areas of improvement. And he put pen to paper and shared his thoughts with the world. This sort of thinking, regrettably, is in shorter supply now, to our people’s detriment.
I think those who most stridently defended Coates did so, at least in part, because they fail to understand the full role of the black intellectual: One must train the microscope outward as well as inward.
Many black folk are catching hell right now, writhing in pain, searching for an avenue for an improved future. We will never help those of us struggling most if we fail to examine ourselves critically and be willing to chastise when necessary.
Now let’s examine West’s piece on the merits. On the whole, I found it to be sloppily written and sloppily argued. He makes two basic points. One undeniably fallacious. One undeniably correct.
First, he argues that Coates represents the “neoliberal wing” of the “black freedom struggle.” He fails to define what he means by neoliberal. I know the term as a purely economic one, but he’s using it in a newer sense as reflected in recent scholarship. According to Michael Harriot of The Root, West once defined neoliberal as such:
Well, “neoliberal” is somebody of any color who sees a social problem and does three things; privatize, financialize and militarize. You’ve got a problem in the schools, privatize the schools, push back public education. Bring in the financiers, the profiteers. Make money on the test, make money on the teachers while you push out the teachers unions, and then you militarize the schools. You bring in security. We’ve got precious young brothers and sisters in the ‘hoods going to schools like you and I going through the airport. That’s the militarization of the schools. Police, the same way. Outsource, militarize right across the board, so that a neoliberal is somebody who is obsessed with markets.
If that’s the definition, West must demonstrate how Coates meets it. He founders.
West writes that Coates remains silent on drone strikes, the assassinations of U.S. citizens with no trials, bombings in Muslim countries, further adding that in Coates’ writing, he sees “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.”
Let’s just say for the sake of argument that West captures each characterization correctly, although he doesn’t. West still hasn’t proven Coates is a neoliberal. How does Coates support privatization, financialization and militarization? By West’s own admission, Coates is guilty of silence — that is, Coates does not write sufficiently about these topics. Coates can only be a neoliberal by articulating the neoliberal viewpoint, not by insufficiently critiquing it. West’s argument fails on basic logic grounds.
Second, West contends that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy.” He does, and this comes from someone who once, arguably, committed the same sin.
Merriam-Webster defines a fetish as “an object (such as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner.” This line of thought hurtles through many of Coates’ pieces. He actually described white supremacy and whiteness as “eldritch energies,” a cartoonish way of describing anything that exists in the real world. By depicting white supremacy as some unearthly power, he glosses over the day-to-day processes by which white supremacy was created and is sustained. It is not of a celestial origin but distinctly human in inception and continuation. And that which humans create, humans can destroy.
Coates harbors pessimism regarding white supremacy, believing its life will continue unimpeded. Time may prove him right. But he commits a logical error of his own in believing that black life cannot improve if white supremacy holds steady. White supremacy does not determine the status of the race. To contend otherwise is to deny that black people are moral agents. Perhaps if Coates understood that white supremacy lacks the power he infuses it with, he would perceive this, and other things, too.
I hope, for the future, Coates and West can dedicate themselves to giving us their best, because we aren’t getting it right now from either.