Ta-Nehisi Coates vs Cornel West: Nobody Wins When The Family Feuds

Ta-Nehisi Coates has beat an unconventional path for a black intellectual: a college dropout who unabashedly quotes hip hop lyrics, fuelled by his own innate curiosity about race. Progressing from an unemployed writer to the upper echelons of the state to interview the first black president, in eight years Ta-Nehisi has come a long way to become one of the foremost black intellectuals of this generation. Yet, while a case study about Ta-Nehisi’s rise through the Obama era could illustrate the very audacity of hope, his own writing packs a much more pessimistic punch.

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates compiled as an examination of the events of the Obama era, tested notions of racial progression against history to explore how it played out during this unique presidency. Featuring 8 previously published articles from the Atlantic, one for each year of the Obama administration, Coates’ choice of essays and new explanatory material accompanying each year, gave this book a heart an otherwise simple collection would have lacked.

But a blistering attack by eminent black academic and activist, Dr. Cornell West in the Guardian thrust Ta-Nehisi into the epicentre of an unexpected controversy and set off a raging Twitter storm. West accused Ta-Nehisi Coates of being “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle, for his apparent omission of the centrality of Wall Street power; US military policies; and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America.

In context, West charge that Coates “fetishizes White Supremacy” had little basis when considering Coates’ essay ‘“The Case for Reparations”, which he saw as: ‘the critique of respectability politics, the realization that history could be denied and could not be escaped, the understanding of the Civil War’s long shadow, the attempt to discover my own voice and language, and, finally, the deeply held belief that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.’

Connecting the American economy directly with “predatory capitalist practices”, Coates wrote, that ‘Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting black communities at every level’. By arguing for a radical and modern redistribution of wealth, Coates saw reparations as the only viable solution to counter generations of black poverty, while acknowledging that ‘the idea of reparations threatens something much deeper – America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world’. 

“To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism a la carte”

It was hard not to come away from the Guardian article feeling Cornel West had not even read the collection of essays, the book, or understood Coates’ journey as a writer. But regardless his accusations gained ground on social media, and risked ultimately undermining the book and the legacy of his entire body of work. After an endorsement from Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer of Cornel West’s critique, Coates ultimately had had enough and exited Twitter with a “peace, y’all. i’m out. i didn’t get in it for this”,  finally tweeting in disdain, “feminists, white supremacists, and leftists all in agreement. wow”.

On reflection, it is fair to say Cornel West’s critique of Coates represented flagrant whataboutery. West may have widely become known as an “Obama hater” calling him a “neoliberal opportunist” amongst other stinging labels but this was only after a few years into his presidency. In 2007, In 2007, he had endorsed Obama calling him “my brother… companion and comrade”, while Obama had welcomed West’s support on 65 engagements for the presidential campaign, ‘because he is a juggernaut of the academy and an intellectual icon among the black masses’.

It may also be no uncanny coincidence that Cornel West’s best-selling book, ‘Race Matters’ was reissued as a 25th Anniversary edition recently, and around the same time as his article for the Guardian. Somewhat ironically in the piece he sought to preempt a backlash to his critique of Coates, by downplaying any accusations that this was a calculated “career move” in response to his own “personal insecurities”.

The ensuing fallout and debate across social media in some ways, recalled a piece in 1995 in the Village voice about ‘The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual’, which at the time had also included Cornel West in it’s critique while acknowledging the challenges: “Each of these discursive moments, however, was haunted by the problem of speaking for the race – how to delineate the characteristics and warrants of black leadership, how to authenticate it, the difficulties associating with assuming the racial voice, the conundrum of undertaking social and cultural critique without accepting the role of racial spokesperson”. But for Coates, who had at also one time had a job as a writer at the Village Voice, he was clear where he wanted his place to be, writing in Eight Years, that “the tradition of black writing is neccesarily dyspeptic, necessarily resistant. That tradition was the house in which I wanted to live..”

Those Eight years that Ta- Nehisi Coates’ had referenced in the chosen title for his book were related to an episode from the Reconstruction era, not the Obama era. On the first page he quoted black South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller, who in 1895, sought to defend his eight-year term in office with a litany of successes, saying, “We were eight years in power…. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity”.

Thomas Miller had hoped to avoid an incursion on emancipation rights on the pretext of the corruption and incompetency of ‘Negro Rule’, by citing the exemplary work completed by the “good negro government”. This made for uncomfortable listening for a state that had fought and lost an ideological war premised on the inferiority of the Black race. In spite of evidence to the contrary, they drafted the 1985 constitution in order to maintain white supremacy with a raft of disenfranchisement laws that reversed African-American gains.

The hard fought struggle for democratic freedoms did not survive long after the civil war due to a critical failure, which Coates addressed in his essay Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War. Rather than confront their racist past, Southerners were allowed to disguise their immoral battle to own humans as chattel, as a dispute over administrative controls to which slavery was incidental. The 40 acres and a mule, to be carved from confiscated land and distributed as compensation for unpaid slave labour, never materialised. Emancipation became secondary to preserving the union.

A truthful telling of the Civil War says Coates: “throws up the (North’s) failed legacy of appeasement of slave holders, the craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people, and unwillingness, in the Reconstruction years, to finish what the war started.”

Thus White Supremacist ideas, as observed by historian Ibram X Kendi in his 2015 National Book Award Winner Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America – were left intact to inspire ‘segregation’ and ‘assimilation’: racist policies based on biological and behavioural fictions.

Assimilation was especially insidious as it shackled black ambition with a need to disassociate with blackness.

Margo Jefferson, Professor of Writing at Columbia University, described in her memoir Negroland, the painful hair straightening procedures necessary to meet standards of 1950’s (Caucasian) beauty; in order to look deserving of the hard-fought privileges they enjoyed as the Black Elite. These were the “Good Negros” as such who had tasked themselves with banishing “racial traits” from their community that had long been established by whites as injurious to progress. They were to work twice as hard, lower their voices, be a paragon of virtue, and control their enthusiasm for popular music, dance and sport.

Chicago socialist E. Franklin Frazier called out the “Talented Tenth”, whose leadership W.E.B Du Bois hoped would usher in an era of equality. As arriviste’s they revealed an inferiority complex through a “pathological struggle for status within the Negro world and craving for recognition from the White world.” Margo Jefferson points out that Frazier’s sharp rebuke and the ascendancy of Black Power, thankfully led to an internal reform of the Black Elite that brought the scourge of White Supremacy back into focus.

Black identity and its treatment by white folks is where Eight Years excels. In ‘American Girl’, Coates’ study of Michelle Obama, we meet a self assured black woman with the charisma and restraint necessary to mainstream blackness to the taste of both black and white voters. Born into a stable home in the biggest black enclave in America, South Side Chicago, Michelle displays a comfortable pride common amongst middle class residents who have not been subject to a lifetime of ‘othering’.

Many successful black figures, including Bill Cosby, whose late activism represented a new conservatism, inspired Coates’ first essay in this collection ‘This is How We Lost to The White Man’. This form of ‘Black Conservatism’ while accepting White Supremacy as unyielding, shifted the onus from much needed state reform, to the sole responsibility of the black community. Thereby posing no real threat or discomfort to white privilege, the arguments were that both real segregation (e.g. restrictive covenants in housing) and implied (e.g. white flight) ultimately encouraged black self-sufficiency, cohesion and family values in the black community.

As noted by Coates in his essays, ‘Fear of the Black President’ and ‘My President Was Black’, Obama traded in and perhaps even believed in this notion of ‘white innocence, and when effectively deployed, it could absolve America of historic wrongs and make it possible to send an African American to the White House without actually “accept(ing) a Black Man as it’s president”. In and of itself, it also revealed “the false promise and double standard of integration”. 

Obama avoided racial issues to ease governing. On the few occasions that Obama attempted to address the problem of black poverty, police brutality, or mass incarceration of young black men, a screeching chorus would erupt undermining his presidency as anti-white. But despite a relatively raceless presidency there was no fleeing his indelible blackness as a symbol, evidenced by the unprecedented resistance from congressional Republicans resentful of a black presidency attempting healthcare reform.

In Stamped from Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi recalled the explosive occasion in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Whilst Black American’s were beside themselves with glee, South Carolina Senator  Benjamin R. Tillman chillingly responded: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger… will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again”.

Roosevelt learnt his lesson, and never invited a black person to the White House again.

Coates in his opening of Eight Years quoted W.E.B Du Bois’ observation on the Reconstruction era that, “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government”. Coates concluding his collection with an essay ‘The First White president’, understood that the symbol of the first Black presidency held such potency for White Supremacists, that with the election of Trump they would also ensure it would never happen again.

As far as feuds go, Coates himself traced the roots of ‘black America’s own intellectual divide’ to the early 20th century, when W.E.B. Du Bois (the first black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard) and a pre-eminent scholar Booker T. Washington (the most influential black powerbroker of his day), clashed over the direction of the civil rights effort. It was a split between black ‘conservatives’ and ‘radicals’; Washington argued that ‘blacks should advance themselves not by voting and running for office but by working, and ultimately owning, the land’; W.E.B in contrast was an integrationist and ‘saw Washington as an apologist for white racism’.

Paralleled against this new black American intellectual divide, West labelling Coates as a ‘Neo-liberal’ harks back to those historic criticisms of Washington’s ‘conservatism’. Washington sought compromise by rejecting so-called American democracy in pursuit instead of black self-sufficiency in an effort to compete economically with whites. Coates unconcerned with hope, saw ‘Whiteness in America’ as ‘a badge of advantage’. That badge was not presidential that badge was about economic advantage. Black self-sufficiency could never catch up to white privilege and so Coates made his case for reparations: an ancestral debt owed in lieu of a long legacy of systematic repression of black enterprise and discrimination of black people that ran to the present day.