Ta-Nehisi Coates vs. Cornel West Hardly Qualifies as Debate

They both think racism explains disparities today, and they seldom engage with those who disagree.

Cornel West speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Sept. 15, 2016.
Cornel West speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, Sept. 15, 2016. PHOTO: ZACH GIBSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Remember that scene in “The Blues Brothers” when the dimwitted siblings, portrayed by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, enter a honky-tonk where they plan to play a show?

“What kind of music do you usually have here?” says Mr. Aykroyd.

“Oh, we got both kinds,” replies a chirpy barkeep. “We got country and western.”

The exchange came to mind last week when the best-selling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates quit Twitter in a huff after an argument with fellow black author Cornel West. Both men are committed liberals, but Mr. West, the veteran activist and Marxist academic, thinks that Mr. Coates’s writings don’t go far enough. Hard as it may be for some readers to fathom, Mr. West critiques Mr. Coates from the left.

What so upset Mr. Coates was a recent op-ed for the British newspaper the Guardian in which Mr. West praises his younger rival’s use of books and essays to highlight “the vicious legacy of white supremacy—past and present” and its “plundering effects” on black people. But he faults Mr. Coates for not connecting “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.”

Ultimately, Mr. West writes, “Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.” Mr. Coates’s focus on white absolution, in Mr. West’s view, is necessary but insufficient. “The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, U.S. military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading.”

Mr. Coates’s defenders in academia and the media dismiss these attacks as little more than jealous rage. Back in the 1990s, they contend, Mr. West was one of liberalism’s black intellectual darlings, but his star has since faded (along with his scholarly output), and now he’s lashing out in frustration at a younger generation of black thinkers.

But Glenn Loury, a black economist at Brown University and a longtime critic of both men—“People get mad at you for saying the obvious thing,” he once said of Mr. Coates, “but the brother is not that deep”—rejects this amateur psychoanalysis. In a recent Bloggingheads.tv discussion with another black academic, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, Mr. Loury said that invidious speculation about motives is not only unwarranted but also damaging to civil discourse. Better to “give West the benefit of the doubt” and “meet his arguments” with counterarguments.

Mr. Loury’s approach is clearly the right one, but it’s also true that the details of the Coates-West dust-up are less important than the parameters in which such discussions tend to take place. When liberals call for more honest conversations about race in the U.S., what they have in mind are discussions very narrowly focused on certain premises that fellow liberals have accepted and don’t want questioned.

There is no daylight, for example, between Mr. Coates and Mr. West on whether racial discrimination explains economic and social disparities today. They agree that black-white gaps in, say, academic achievement, employment, incarceration and homeownership are mostly the product of who’s in charge of teaching, hiring, policing and money lending. Seldom do they and their fellow travelers on the left express any interest in engaging people who challenge such notions, regardless of how much empirical evidence and logic those challengers might bring. In short, trying to discuss racial issues on terms that liberals find acceptable is akin to attempting to discuss music with that “Blues Brothers” barkeep. Only it’s not as funny.

In his exchange with Mr. Loury, Mr. McWhorter noted that black intellectuals didn’t always focus on white victimization to the extent they do today. In the early 1900s, leading black thinkers of all political stripes, from W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington on down, spoke regularly and with great pride about what blacks had accomplished despite slavery, Reconstruction and Supreme Court rulings that countenanced segregation. In the 1960s that perspective lost currency among black elites, but Mr. McWhorter argued that a more responsible course of action for black leaders today would be to try to revive that earlier mind-set.

Mr. McWhorter said that “there’s an intellectual case to be made, not to mention a moral one, for getting back to the idea that yes, the past sucked; yes, the past was not all that long ago, but our only job as self-directed human beings in the only world we’re ever going to live in . . . is to make the best of what we’ve got.”

That advice is as sound as it is unlikely to make an impression on anyone who gives a hoot about a spat between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West.

Appeared in the December 27, 2017, print edition.



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