Understanding Coates-West Conflict Clarifies Many Issues

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Above Photo: From bostonreview.net

Note: The conflict between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West over white supremacy, race, Obama and more, brings into focus issues that impact many of the concerns of the broader movement for economic, racial and environmental justice as well as peace. Robin D. G. Kelly summarizes the positions of both, finds their common ground and propels the issues to practicalities of change by concluding with a focus on Jackson, Mississippi. There are lots of lessons for all of us in this commentary. KZ

Coates and West in Jackson

When the emails started coming in, I ignored them. By day’s end, my voicemail and email inboxes were filling up with links to the Guardian, followed by links to Facebook pages and blogposts devoted to Cornel West’s takedown of Ta-Nehisi Coates. I felt like I was being summoned to see a schoolyard brawl, and, now that I no longer use social media, I was already late. By the time I read West’s piece, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle,” it had become the center of international controversy. Perhaps because West named me as an ally, the New York Times requested a comment, followed by Le Monde, and then a slew of publications all trying to get the scoop on the latest battle royale among the titans of the black intelligentsia.

The discourse about the piece descended to the level of celebrity death match, which is never about the celebrities but rather our collective bloodlust. Reactions are still coming in from all corners, calling out West for being dishonest and jealous, and for lobbing ad hominem attacks unrelated to his critique. Meanwhile Coates-haters are delighting in what they take to be the dethroning of the liberal establishment’s literary darling. Coates, to his immense credit, has bailed out of the fray, initially engaging but then exiting Twitter with a sigh of disgust. One can only hope he is reading and working and enjoying the holiday with his family. So to even call this a “feud” is something of a misnomer.

I, too, would prefer to stay out of it. I need to get a Christmas tree, a trampoline for my youngest, and finish grading papers. But I can’t, partly because West named me in his piece and partly because I believe it is irresponsible of us to allow this kind of spectacle to, once again, obscure crucial political and philosophical issues. Black intellectual infighting is hardly a new thing, as Peniel Joseph recently reminded us. But social media encourages its rapid devolution, as many “followers” would rather tweet and retweet than actually read the subject of the latest Twitterstorm. As I wrote in these pages in 2016, there is a growing reluctance to read and engage arguments carefully, especially those with which we disagree. Besides, social media always loves a fight; the more personal and vitriolic, the more spectators.

For my part, I see value in putting Coates’s and West’s perspectives in dialogue. To be clear, I am not interested in repeating or endorsing West’s critique here, and Coates needs no one to defend him, certainly not me. Readers of Boston Review know that I have taken issue with parts of his Between the World and Me (2015)—yet, even when I disagree, I find Coates’s writing generative, thoughtful, and startlingly honest, and he pushes me to think harder and deeper about the depth of racism in both the public and inner life of black America. Rather, I want to offer brief reflections on what I find valuable in both Coates’s recent book, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017), and in West’s insistence on the transformative power of social movements. I believe that the reconciliation of their respective insights might open new directions. My mother raised my siblings and me to be Hegelians (even if his 1807 The Phenomenology of Spirit is not exactly bedtime reading), and that means the purpose of critique is dialectical, to reach a higher synthesis, which in turn reveals new contradictions demanding new critique.

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West’s position should not surprise anyone, nor should his ideas be reduced to a couple of interviews and a short piece in the Guardian. He has always combined the black prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power with what he identifies as the anti-foundationalism of young Marx—a critical observation central to West’s book, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991). West’s Black Prophetic Fire (with Christa Buschendorf, 2014) consists of dialogues that consider the lives and work of black prophetic figures, including Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells, and Ella Baker. His insights into these figures are acute and often original, and he refrains from hagiography. For example, he is sharply critical of Douglass, whom he castigates for his relative silence on Jim Crow once he became a fully enfranchised and powerful voice in the Republican Party. The book also contains a subtle indictment of President Barack Obama, implying that his two terms as president, and the emergence of a black neoliberal political class, represent a betrayal of the principles basic to the black prophetic tradition. His criticisms of President Obama are not personal but directed at policies that reflected both the neoliberal turn and the persistence of U.S. imperialism.

Coates found his calling during a particularly combative period for black intellectuals. In March of 1995, West was the target of a scurrilous attack by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, an essay promoted on the issue’s cover with the headline “The Decline of the Black Intellectual.” A month later Adolph Reed, Jr., followed with a piece in the Village Voice titled, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual” which names West, Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, and yours truly. In the essay, Reed characterizes us as modern-day minstrels and attacks us for being “translators” of black culture to white folks, and thus palatable to fawning white liberals. Reed’s piece left a deep impression on Coates. As he recalls in We Were Eight Years in Power, “I was determined to never be an interpreter. It did not occur to me that writing is always some form of interpretation, some form of translating the specificity of one’s roots or expertise or even one’s own mind into language that can be absorbed and assimilated into the consciousness of a broader audience. Almost any black writer publishing in the mainstream press would necessarily be read by whites. Reed was not exempt. He was not holding forth from The Chicago Defender but from The Village Voice, interpreting black intellectuals for that audience, most of whom were white.”

Those “feuds” of twenty-two years ago also generated an important Boston Review forum that centered on a provocative essay by Reverend Eugene F. Rivers III, “Beyond the Nationalism of Fools: Toward an Agenda for Black Intellectuals” (1995). In it, Rivers drops a dose of reality that is still relevant today:

The debate about responsibility [of black intellectuals] has degenerated into star-worship and name-calling, the stuff of television talk shows. The issues are too serious for that. It is time to get back on track. The Black community is in a state of emergency; Black intellectuals have acquired unprecedented power and prestige. So let’s quit the topic of salaries and lecture fees, leave the fine points about Gramsci on hegemony to the journals, and have a serious discussion of how intellectuals can better mobilize their resources to meet the emergency.

Few took up Rivers’ call, especially as black public intellectuals gained greater access to mainstream media outlets. Coates benefited but could not shake Reed’s diatribe, wondering, “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?” For West, however, “the answer should be clear: they claim you because you are silent on what is a threat to their order (especially Wall Street and war). You defy them when you threaten that order.” I don’t believe the answer is so clear. The truth is, you cannot control who embraces your work, but you can call out those who are simply riding the fad or who are unwilling to act to change the realities that your work engages. This, I believe, is West’s major point: how do we translate critique into action as opposed to readers’ self-pity or self-satisfaction with being “woke?”

But even more importantly, not all white folks are the same. West and Coates know this, but given what passes for commentary on the Internet, I have to conclude that most people don’t know this. No one’s ideology or political stance is fixed at birth; ideas, perspectives, and movements are always in flux. Part of the task of mobilizing requires ideological work, changing minds, challenging received wisdom, revealing hidden structures of oppression and the possibility of human liberation. So even if Coates says he has very little hope, many read him and see for the first time the deeply entrenched and hidden processes that reproduce inequality within the United States. And they’re not all white! I’ve had literally hundreds of students—black, white, Latinx, Asian American—read Coates’s work on reparations or Between the World and Me (which was core reading for most first-years across our campus) and come running to my courses, questioning their liberalism, seeking out more radical critiques of racial capitalism, some even jumping headlong into groups such as Refuse Fascism (an organization with which West is associated).

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So what are the substantive differences between West and Coates?

At the end of his Guardian essay, West writes that we cannot afford “to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination—be it ecological, sexual, or others.” Coates would agree. He treats these forms of domination as deeply intertwined but not synonymous: “I have never seen a contradiction between calling for reparations and calling for a living wage, on calling for legitimate law enforcement and single-payer health care. They are related—but cannot stand in for one another. I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and even war finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal—a world more humane.” He may not map out what that “fight” for a more humane world might look like, but I don’t think his perspective can be reduced, as West does, to “narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism.”

It is true that We Were Eight Years in Power does not give us a sustained critique of Wall Street or the global War on Terror, or keep “track of our fightback.” In fairness, that is not Coates’s project. Rather, the book offers personal reflections on the Obama years and the period leading up to Obama’s political ascendance, interspersed between eight previously published essays that explore a wide range of topics: the rabbit hole of black bourgeois respectability politics; race and Civil War history; the case for reparations; the impact of mass incarceration on black families and communities; the prophetic voice of Jeremiah Wright; the devastating price that Shirley Sherrod, a powerful advocate for small farmers, paid when Obama succumbed to right-wing pressure to fire her; and the constraints and contradictions of the Obama presidency.

Importantly, Coates’s title is a reference not to Obama’s administration, as many seem to suppose, but rather to Reconstruction and the white backlash that followed its tragic overthrow. Coates quotes Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935): “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.” Du Bois’s insight is key here; he recognizes that it was the success of Reconstruction in creating arguably the world’s first social democracy that posed the greatest threat to white supremacy. History has a long life: the ways in which formerly enslaved people not only helped overthrow the Confederacy but immediately went to work building a new society—armed, organized, and fighting back—is the story that haunts and illuminates Obama’s presidency.

Coates is certainly attentive to the forces arrayed against the Obama administration, and to the extraordinary hope black people had invested in him, but he is no apologist for Obama. He writes:

Obama was elected amid widespread panic and, in his eight years, emerged as a caretaker and measured architect. He established the framework of a national healthcare system from a conservative model. He prevented an economic collapse and neglected to prosecute those largely responsible for that collapse. He ended state-sanctioned torture but continued the generational war in the Middle East. . . . He was deliberate to a fault, saw himself as the keeper of his country’s sacred legacy, and if he was bothered by his country’s sins, he ultimately believed it to be a force for good in the world. In short, Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth. And that was always the problem.

Coates chose the word “caretaker” very carefully. “Good Negro government” here might be described more precisely as “good Negro in government,” especially since the Obama years were a far cry from Reconstruction, when black legislators were empowered to rewrite state constitutions and were ubiquitous at virtually every level of local government. Coates also describes what he calls a “theory of personal Good Negro Government,” or the theory that if black people comport themselves respectably, dress and speak well, they can gain citizenship and acceptance. Historian Kevin K. Gaines, in his classic text Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996), called this “uplift ideology.” But as Coates correctly argues, this theory “denies the existence of racism and white supremacy as meaningful forces in American life. In its more nuanced and reputable form, the theory pitches itself as an equal complement to anti-racism. But [my argument] is that Good Negro Government—personal and political—often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat.” The takeaway is that what passes as “Good Negro Government,” the maintenance of the neoliberal order in black face, will not free us. On the contrary, it reinforces hegemony of the ruling racial regime, patriarchy, class domination, and U.S. empire. So Obama did good for a segment of the ruling class, but the ruling bloc is also composed of white people outside of elite circles whose deeply entrenched racism obscured their class anxieties and saw in Obama a symbolic threat to their status.

“For now,” Coates writes, “the country holds to the common theory that emancipation and civil rights were redemptive, a fraught and still-incomplete resolution of the accidental hypocrisy of a nation founded by slaveholders extolling a gospel of freedom. This common theory dominates much of American discourse, from left to right. Conveniently, it holds the possibility of ultimate resolution, for if right-thinking individuals can dedicate themselves to finishing the work of ensuring freedom for all, then perhaps the ghosts of history can be escaped.” This theory is an illusion, one liberals continue to hold on to: the belief that we are on the right track, we just need time and patience and a reminder of the ideals upon which the nation was founded. But this is the same democracy that sanctions the violence of the state, the Second Amendment, the castle doctrine, stand your ground laws, militias, vigilantes, and lynching as a form of popular justice (and entertainment). In other words, Coates rejects the American myth of democracy’s promise and the notion that liberalism is incompatible with slavery and white supremacy. It is a perspective found in Cedric Robinson’s writings on democracy, powerfully elaborated by Lisa Lowe’s Intimacies of Four Continents (2015), and one Coates culled from reading Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), as well as the work of Barbara J. Fields and David Roediger. For these thinkers, the liberalism that grounds U.S. democracy was founded on a definition of liberty that places property before human freedom and human needs: it permits (if not promotes) various forms of unfree labor, dispossession, and subordination based on “race” and “gender.”

This is where West and Coates part ways. It is not so much their understanding of history, though. West understands that U.S. “democracy” was built on slavery, capitalism, and settler colonialism. But he also recognizes its fragility or malleability in the face of a radical democratic tradition.

This radical democratic tradition cannot be traced to the founding fathers or the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Instead, it is manifest in the struggles of the dispossessed to overturn the Eurocentric, elitist, patriarchal, and dehumanizing structures of racial capitalism and its liberal underpinnings. It is manifest in the struggle to restore the “commons” to the commonwealth, which has been at the heart of radical abolitionism—or what Du Bois called the Abolition Democracy. West knows that social movements, or what he calls “our fightback,” have and will alter history. West believes that we can win. While I wouldn’t call Coates’s vision fatalistic, it is deeply pessimistic because his focus is on structures of race and class oppression, and the policies and ideologies that shore up these structures. He is concerned that we survive.

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Our movements have had to do both—find ways to survive and dare to win. Political mobilization and a vision of a liberated future matter, but so does a sober assessment of the forces arrayed against us (and by “us,” I mean all oppressed people everywhere). Sometimes we confront power directly; other times, we struggle to build power where we are—through collectives, mutual aid, community economic development, and the like. All of this is happening now, in Jackson, Mississippi, America’s most radical city, where a genuinely revolutionary movement is building our first cooperative commonwealth dedicated to the principles of democracy, human rights, workers’ power, environmental sustainability, and socialism.

The movement in Jackson embodies the best of West’s prophetic vision and Coates’s concern with building power amidst white supremacy. Although the struggle to make Mississippi a safe, livable, and sustainable place for black people has deep roots in Reconstruction, the promise of Jackson didn’t come on the radar of most progressives until 2013, when the late Chokwe Lumumba, a radical lawyer and leader in the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), was elected mayor. Lumumba had come to Mississippi from Detroit in 1971 with the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika, a movement for black self-determination that envisioned the South as the site for establishing an independent black nation. The PGRNA initially demanded that the U.S. government hand over the territory to black people and recognize the PGRNA as a government in exile. In addition to the transfer of land, the PGRNA called for reparations from the U.S. government in the amount of $400 billion in order to sustain the new nation during its first few years. Although the demand for reparations never disappeared, the group eventually purchased land, set up cooperative farms, built institutions, and, despite relentless state repression, took root in the city of Jackson.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the MXGM developed the “Jackson Plan,” which included establishing a “solidarity economy,” akin to the Mondragon Corporation in Spain’s Basque region, through worker cooperatives; eco-friendly community gardens; building inexpensive, energy-efficient housing; and developing community and conservation land trusts to make land available to the community and house the homeless—an effort to restore the “commons.” But the plan also included a political strategy of creating People’s Assemblies, open meetings to discuss community needs, ensure full democratic participation, and mobilize working people to win political power. The People’s Assemblies were not only responsible for Chokwe Lumumba’s victory and the recent mayoral election of his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, but for creating a structure for participatory budgeting.

The city’s latest initiatives focus on addressing the needs of Jackson’s poor and working-class communities through cooperative economic strategies. In other words, concern with survival and the creation of new democratic institutions can consolidate power and move the city toward a sustainable future. Rather than see Jackson’s immense poverty and revenue shortfalls as barriers to building a radical movement, the People’s Assemblies and veteran organizers realized that the city’s ongoing crisis demanded a radical response.

The struggle for Jackson is certainly no cakewalk. State government is trying to strip the predominantly black city council of local control, has already reallocated revenues from the city’s 1 percent sales tax to other state initiatives, and has introduced legislation that would strip Jackson’s control of the airport and related commerce.

So I propose that we turn away from the latest celebrity death match, and turn our attention to Jackson, Mississippi. Read Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi (2017), edited by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, and revisit the work of West and Coates and others wrestling with the critical issues of our times. I stand with West and his unwavering commitment to the power of collective resistance, his optimism of the will. And I stand with Coates and his insistence on a particular kind of pessimism of the intellect that questions everything, stays curious, and is not afraid of self-reflection, uncomfortable questions, or where the evidence takes him.

And above all, I stand with the people of Jackson, who have built the country’s most radical movement, mobilized new forms of political participation, and elected a people’s government committed to building a socialist commonwealth. Free the Land!

  • iowapinko

    Dialogue accompanied by action; this is a strategy for progress. Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates represent valid perspectives.

    But it’s the people of Jackson, Mississippi whose movement to create a more just community manifests salient threads of both narratives to come to a social fruition that leads to revolutionary change.

    We, the people, aren’t obliged to determine “winners” in this dialogue; that’s capitalist/competitive framing. The insights inherent to both perspectives can be utilized to promote progress.