In recent days, Cornel West – a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and an outspoken voice for decades on issues of race and class in the United States – has made clear his discontent with the thought and work of a younger African-American scholar, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Coates is the author of Between the World and Me, a personal look (2015) on the issue of reparations for the history of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow. More recently, Coates has published We Were Eight Years in Power (2017), a collection of his essays written during and about the Obama era.
It was his We Were Eight Years that set off West. Reviewing the book in The Guardian, West said that Coates “represents the neoliberal wing [of the black freedom struggle] that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible.” Those are fighting words.
West made analogous observations in an interview with the New York Times. In that less formal context he riffed on the title of Coates’ new book. “Who’s the ‘we’? When’s the last time he’s been through the ghetto, in the hoods, to the schools and indecent housing…We were in power for eight years? My God.”
Left Wing View
Almost no one in politics in the U.S. has called himself a “neoliberal,” or been given the term by anyone else in a favorable sense, since the 1990s. In those days it was still a sometimes-affectionate label for the likes of Mickey Kaus and Gary Hart, a usage that had arisen in the era of the Carter presidency.
In more recent years, “neoliberal” has been an accusation; usually thrown at the center-left by the further-left, at the Clintonians by the Sanders’. It refers roughly to people who profess leftward ideas but who propose to leave capitalism in place – who either see it as part of the solution or who fail to see it as part of the problem. Thus from a West it means, in a word, “sell-outs.”
Cornel West believes that former President Barack Obama, too, is a neoliberal, that is, a sell-out. He has elsewhere written that though Obama “did not produce the nightmare of Donald Trump,” the former did contribute to the latter, and “those Obama cheerleaders who refused to make him accountable bear some responsibility.” Obama, in West’s view, continued the project of American imperialism he inherited, and if that proposition entails supporting the Israeli army as it kills Palestinian children, so be it. Obama “said not a mumbling word about the dead Palestinian children but he did call Baltimore black youth ‘criminals and thugs,” runs part of West’s indictment.
Right Wing View
The term “right wing view” has to be understood in relative and tentative terms, here even more than usually. Obviously, Coates doesn’t consider himself right wing, or neoliberal for that matter. But he and others on his behalf have answered West’s critique.
Charles Mudede, a Zimbabwe-born filmmaker, in a piece clearly written more in sorrow than in anger, writes that West’s “hatred of Obama has made it impossible for West to subject Coates’ work to an analysis that (be it negative or positive) is productive.”
Coates himself responded by linking his twitter followers to many of the articles he has written critical of Obama’s drone policy and other aspects of the presidency – his discussions of the issues that West claims he has ignored. Unfortunately, Coates has since cancelled his twitter account.
Jamil Smith, a contributing opinion writer for the L.A. Times, called West’s article in The Guardian “personal vendetta masked as intellectual debate… If West’s true intent was ‘fightback’ … then a broadside like this seems a waste of time.”
Likewise (and, for us, this will serve as a final word), Tre Johnson, plainly a Coates admirer, says that West comes across as “a caged, aging fighter still hungry for the type of gladiatorial battles that spawned the thought generation he came from,” and unsuccessfully trying to draw Coates into that cage.