Harvard scholar called Coates ‘neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle’. West’s Guardian column provokes furious debate in black and activist circles
Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates has deleted his widely followed Twitter account after a public row with fellow intellectual Cornel West.
Coates tweeted: “peace y’all. i’m out. I didn’t get in it for this,” to his 1.25 million followers before quitting the social media site.
The Harvard scholar, author and activist West described Coates as “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle” in a Guardian column on Sunday, launching a furious debate about the two men in black, activist and liberal circles.
West – a leading and outspoken American philosopher, activist and social critic – argued that Coates, who has arguably become the most popular and widely read black intellectual on race in a generation, writes from a worldview that “fetishizes” white supremacy. According to West, that preoccupation clouds Coates’ perception of other factors that shape modern society.
“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,” West wrote. “So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.”
The specific trigger for West’s Guardian column was Coates’ newest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays from the Obama presidency, which takes a generally celebratory tone about the 44th president and his administration.
“Coates praises Obama as a ‘deeply moral human being’ while remaining silent on the 563 drone strikes,” West wrote, spelling out his long list of grievances with Obama from the political left.
Before deleting his Twitter account, Coates had responded to West’s column in a thread of tweets pointing out occasions when he had, in fact, criticized Obama over some of the issues, specifically US militarism, that West raised.
In an October conversation with the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill, for example, Coates said of Obama and drone warfare: “Maybe the presidency in terms of what it is, we shouldn’t think of people who have that job as great, ever. Like, it’s not possible to be great. Implicit in it are certain things that are not possible to salute. Are not possible to reconcile.”
In another now unavailable tweet Coates pointed to pieces he had written that critically examined how Obama addresses black audiences, on “the specific oppressions of black women”, and on abortion and choice.
“In general, I think the public itself can sort this out. But I don’t expect people to be familiar with everything I’ve written and said. So here’s just a bit of it,” Coates wrote, pointing to times he had engaged with most of this issued that West accused him of ducking.
The debate also pulled in other high-profile black intellectuals like the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb who said that “no one is above critique”, but that he was “frankly embarrassed by West’s threadbare commentary”. Cobb pointed to West’s fervent support for Bernie Sanders, who had a tough time connecting with black voters and was hesitant to discuss race, as an example of West’s hypocrisy.
“In your obsequious stanning for Bernie you must’ve overlooked the part where he dismissed the idea of black reparations,” Cobb wrote. “Moreover, those demands were kept alive in the black nationalist grassroots tradition – not the interracial left you so idolize.”
This is hardly West’s first public fracas with another high-profile black intellectual. In 2015, fellow author Michael Eric Dyson wrote in the New Republic that West’s attitude toward Obama had as much to do with personal feelings of betrayal as it did actual political differences.
After actively campaigning for Obama in the 2008 campaign, West “felt spurned and was embittered” by Obama, and that marked his shift from supporter to ardent detractor.
West has since accused Obama of political minstrelsy, insinuated that he was a race traitor and called him a “neoliberal opportunist” and a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”.
This kind of “not radical enough” ideological pugilism has long been a feature of the black freedom struggle. West v Coates is eerily reminiscent of arguments that date back over a century.
Historically speaking, as black intellectuals gain any degree of institutional credibility or popular acceptance, they face criticism from more radical thinkers of traitorous capitulation. The same type of charges were once levied by WEB DuBois at Booker T Washington, and by Marcus Garvey at DuBois. A generation later, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were famously caught up in a similar dynamic.
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