Leftist criticisms of Ta-Nehisi Coates have become their own weird cottage industry in the last year or so. Cornel West has been part of the genre, and today published a blistering attack on Coates in The Guardian. (I very carefully phrase this as an attack on Coates, personally, and not a review of Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years In Power, because I don’t think that West actually read that book and is not engaged in good faith with it.)
The gist of West’s take is that Coates focuses so much on the totalizing oppressiveness of white supremacy and fetishizes the Obama presidency so significantly that he offers us nothing of value in service of the struggle. And, because we live in 2017 and it’s cool for leftists to call other leftists neoliberals if their political worldviews don’t conform exactly to their own expectations, West accuses Coates of being part of a larger neoliberal agenda that is preventing the One True Revolution (TM) from coming to fruition.
West is right about this: Coates’ writing “generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.” Liberals do love Coates, and to the best of my knowledge have done little to translate their subsequent angst into action.
He’s wrong about pretty much everything else.
My basic critique of West’s critique is that he isn’t even arguing with Coates’ work in anything approaching good faith. Anyone that has read Coates understands that he is deeply cynical about America, and that his animating preoccupation is white supremacy’s central role in constructing our society. West sees this as giving too much power to white supremacy and not enough agency to the courageous struggle against it — what West calls the black “fightback.” West is doing two things here: 1) he is ignoring the attention that Coates has paid to black freedom fighters within the scope of his work (to claim the most obvious among many examples, We Were Eight Years in Power takes its title from and begins with the words of Reconstruction-era political leader Thomas Miller, who fought back — however unsuccessfully — against the rising tide of white supremacy in late-1800s America); and 2) he is demanding that Coates write something completely different than what Coates set out to write. Critiquing something for what you wanted it to be, rather than for what it is and what its author wanted it to be, is a common problem in academia. And so here too, it is in the world of social analysis and political thought. Because Coates has written books about the power of white supremacy rather than writing books about how to upend white supremacy (which are two related but very different projects), West deems Coates worse than useless.
This leads to a series of terrible takes. West is particularly aghast at what he sees as Coates’ overly sympathetic stance toward Obama (with whom West has also had public though ultimately unrequited beef). West tries to cast Coates as a starry-eyed and uncritical lover of the Obama presidency, based upon the pieces of We Were Eight Years in Power that West may have read or skimmed. But a central piece of that book, and of all of Coates’ writings on Obama, lies in Coates trying to reconcile the promise that many of us saw in Obama — that his election maybe signaled the best of us and that his presidency might shepherd the same — with the realities of what he did in office. No one who consistently read Coates over the years, or read his recent book entirely, could honestly cast him as an uncritical Obama lapdog.
The same could be said for West’s accusation that Coates’ “narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty.” It’s true that We Were Eight Years in Power doesn’t have a lot of specific analyses of American empire, even though it — as with most of Coates’ work — proceeds from the acknowledgment that America was built on stolen lands and labor and thus was, in many ways, imperial from the jump. But beyond that, this is essentially West critiquing Coates for not writing a Cornel West book. Why is Coates expected to write about “black elite indifference to poverty?” In what way is that a condemnable offense? And, for that matter, what about Coates’ relentless, deeply researched writing on poverty and exploitation? And, relatedly, given that Coates’ entire intellectual framework for thinking about America’s racial (racist) history could be distilled to the word “plunder,” how can West argue that capitalist greed isn’t part of his analysis? In general, how, in good conscience, can West write that sentence?
The answer, of course, is that West can write that sentence because he see Coates as part of a huge cross-section of the left that is a nail in need of hammering with the “neoliberal” stamp. Cornel West considers anything that doesn’t have the Cornel West “proper revolutionary politics” seal of approval to be illegitimate, and that’s unfortunate. The truth is that we have always needed chroniclers as well as street-marchers, researchers as well as revolutionaries. James Baldwin was a chronicler. Kenneth Clark was a researcher. Their impacts on the black freedom struggle were significant. West criticizing Coates because he makes the power of white supremacy more intelligible for hundreds of thousands of readers, but doesn’t instruct white readers explicitly on how to relinquish their power and give forth their wealth, is the definition of bad-faith arguing. It’s not unexpected from Cornel West these days, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.