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West writes: "His perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neoliberal. Racial groups are homogeneous and freedom is individualistic in his world. Classes don’t exist and empires are nonexistent."

Cornel West. (photo: Unknown)
Cornel West. (photo: Unknown)

Ta-Nehisi Coates Is the Neoliberal Face of the Black Freedom Struggle

By Cornel West, Guardian UK

18 December 17

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: his view of black America is narrow and dangerously misleading

a-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?

Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: 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. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

When he honestly asks: “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?”, 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.

Coates tries to justify his “defiance” by an appeal to “black atheism, to a disbelief in dreams and moral appeal”. He not only has “no expectations of white people at all”, but for him, if freedom means anything at all it is “this defiance”.

Note that his perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neoliberal. Racial groups are homogeneous and freedom is individualistic in his world. Classes don’t exist and empires are nonexistent.

This presidency, he writes, “opened a market” for a new wave of black pundits, intellectuals, writers and journalists – one that Coates himself has benefited from. And his own literary “dreams” of success were facilitated by a black neoliberal president who ruled for eight years – an example of “Black respectability, good Negro government.”

Coates reveals his preoccupation with white acceptance when he writes with genuine euphoria: “As I watched Barack Obama’s star shoot across the political sky ... I had never seen so many white people cheer on a black man who was neither an athlete nor an entertainer. And it seemed that they loved him for this, and I thought in those days ... that they might love me too.”

There is no doubt that the marketing of Coates – like the marketing of anyone – warrants suspicion. Does the profiteering of fatalism about white supremacy and pessimism of black freedom fit well in an age of Trump – an age of neo-fascism, US style?

Coates wisely invokes the bleak worldview of the late great Derrick Bell. But Bell reveled in black fightback, rejoiced in black resistance and risked his life and career based on his love for black people and justice. Needless to say, the greatest truth-teller about white supremacy in the 20th century – Malcolm X – was also deeply pessimistic about America. Yet his pessimism was neither cheap nor abstract – it was earned, soaked in blood and tears of love for black people and justice.

Unfortunately, Coates’ allegiance to Obama has produced an impoverished understanding of black history. He reveals this when he writes: “Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as ‘our living, Black manhood’ and ‘our own Black shining prince.’ Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama.”

This gross misunderstanding of who Malcolm X was – the greatest prophetic voice against the American Empire – and who Barack Obama is – the first black head of the American Empire – speaks volumes about Coates’ neoliberal view of the world.

Coates praises Obama as a “deeply moral human being” while remaining silent on the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of US citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550 Palestinian children killed with US supported planes in 51 days, etc. He calls Obama “one of the greatest presidents in American history,” who for “eight years ... walked on ice and never fell.”

It is clear that his 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. For example, there is no serious attention to the plight of the most vulnerable in our community, the LGBT people who are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, neglect and disrespect.

The disagreements between Coates and I are substantive and serious. It would be wrong to construe my quest for truth and justice as motivated by pettiness. Must every serious critique be reduced to a vicious takedown or an ugly act of hatred? Can we not acknowledge that there are deep disagreements among us with our very lives and destinies at stake? Is it even possible to downplay career moves and personal insecurities in order to highlight our clashing and conflicting ways of viewing the cold and cruel world we inhabit?

I stand with those like Robin DG Kelley, Gerald Horne, Imani Perry and Barbara Ransby who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle. We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others.

The same cannot be said for Ta-Nehisi Coates. your social media marketing partner


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+15 # PABLO DIABLO 2017-12-18 14:38
I fear "divide and conquer", but I stand with Cornel West in speaking the truth. As a BIG fan of Malcolm X, I believe we must confront our problems and ANY level of acceptance for Wall Street and the War Machine is intolerable. Obama fueled both.
-1 # babaregi 2017-12-22 02:28
I fear "divide and conquer", but I stand with Cornel West in speaking the truth. As a BIG fan of Malcolm X, I believe we must confront our problems and ANY level of acceptance for Wall Street and the War Machine is intolerable. Obama fueled both.

True enough but here is some information that you "Progressives" can't wrap our mind around that keeps the Black community (and other races down to a lesser extent too):
0 # Brice 2017-12-24 14:52
the posting of youtube links is lazy. write your point, stop using youtube links. if you cannot make your own point you should not be posting.
+7 # sqroot 2017-12-18 14:41
dead right. When I first read Coates, I couldn't understand what made him the bomb. He was nothing like Malcolm X; his understanding stopped at closing the door on struggle. I was appalled. Glad to see you are, too.
+4 # USADUDE 2017-12-18 15:27
+5 # Woody41 2017-12-18 15:39
You hit the nail on the head, Cornel, and pinned a nice needle through the neoliberal butterfly specimen. . But, please, make it "The disagreements between Coates and ME ....."
+6 # elkingo 2017-12-18 16:23
Yeah, Coates seems right as far as he goes, but doesn't take into account the global, structural and economic roots of racism, classicism, sexism, imperialism, the war psychosis, the gamut, and all the ongoing suffering and death issuing from these. And those roots can be summed up in one word: "capitalism".
-3 # 2017-12-18 17:50
this 'quest for truth' [Princeton U 'quest for truth' ??] seems motivated by pettiness..... don't divide
+9 # dandevries 2017-12-18 18:25
Well, as a very white person who has followed, and when I could participated in, the civil rights struggle of African-America ns from the early 60s on, I'm with Dr. West on this one.
+5 # AF38 2017-12-18 20:31
I agree with you Cornel that Obama should not be given a pass by Ta-Nehisi Coates on his war crimes and his catering to the neo-liberal forces of the banking industry and Wall St. On the other hand, Coates does not strike me as a neo-liberal, or he would not seriously be advocating Black reparations for the evils of slavery, which would take massive state action and require increasing taxes on major corporations and wealthy Americans (rather than just reducing them, the way the current Republican tax bill will do). Just how to dismantle institutional racism in the US is a difficult question, and it may require some Black nationalism as well as the new Unite and Fight strategy of the Poor People's Campaign announced by Rev. Wm. Barber for 2018. Surely there can be coalitions between folks who disagree on how important militarism, capitalism and imperialism are to institutional racism and vice versa. It would be great if you both could find some common ground--perhaps supporting a Black-led anti-militarist poor people's right campaign could be a start?
0 # Brice 2017-12-26 18:38
> Obama should not be given a pass by Ta-Nehisi
> Coates on his war crimes and his catering to the
> neo-liberal forces of the banking industry and Wall St.

I can agree in principle on that statement, Obama was
guilty of going along with the military industrial complex
like any "employee" is guilty of carrying out management's
agenda to keep their job and perks.

I keep saying what I am about to say and I keep getting
the thumbs-down for saying it, but in order to make change
the Left must prioritize and pick a beginning agenda and
focus on it to the exclusion of other things that are also

The first agenda the Left needs to acknowledge is that
its very existence, democracy, is threatened - from both
within and without.

What I mean by that is that Americans are stressed to
death as a matter of course. We have seen this with
blacks and native Americans ... in short the minority
genocide. This is where the strategy came from - in every
possible way break up the family, attack survival,
nutrition, education, health, community, income; do that
and there is no opposition that will ever disrupt the
establishment status-quo. PERIOD!

So, those issues must take precedence. Basically, the Bernie
Sanders agenda. Until Americans are gaining in all these
dimensions - leave the military alone. I don't say this because
I agree with American military adventurism, but because in
any project there are limits of time, resources and scope.
-15 # rprichard 2017-12-18 23:05
"Divide and Conquer" has long been Cornel West's bread and butter. That's become the M.O. of most of the professional hard left media. It gets them clicks and eyeballs, sells their shock-jock books, and gives them media status. We all know now whose purposes this also serves.
+5 # kalpal 2017-12-19 09:31
Truth irks you. Divide and conquer was a major part of Jim Crow laws which are are being resurrected in Southern states seeking to suppress any possibility that blacks will be able to support political opposition against the GOP.
+15 # intheEPZ 2017-12-19 10:03
MLK,Jr. would agree with West:
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

— “The three evils of society,” 1967

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

— Southern Christian Leadership Conference speech, 1967

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

— “Beyond Vietnam,” 1967
-3 # ansleypk 2017-12-19 23:20
I'd like to read some opposition to Mr. West. I don't know what he wants. Is he an anarchist?
I must admit, I stopped reading most of West's writings but I skimmed through this one because I've been impressed with Coates (not always agreeing). He makes me think. West makes me wonder what he wants. I gather he wants something that I would not agree with. I am bewildered. I'm sure I'll get a thousand thumbs down. But that's ok. :)
-1 # LionMousePudding 2017-12-21 19:19
There is an analysis of this in yesterday's Vox Sentences.
0 # Brice 2017-12-26 15:42
summarize in your own words

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