On Tuesday, December 19, Ta-Nehisi Coates quit twitter. A couple days earlier, Harvard Divinity Professor Cornell West published a sharp take-down of Coates in the Guardian, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”. In typical trolling fashion, the piece was endorsed by Richard Spencer.
There is lots to say about the substance of the disagreement between Coates and West. In the view of New Yorker writer Jelani Cobbs, the accusation that Coates is neoliberal is both outrageous and malicious, part of a broad range of attacks on Coates by Black intellectuals who resent the attention and accolades accruing to a HBC dropout. But West builds his argument with facts that are well known, and not easily dismissed. West draws on Coates’ own words to point out that Coates has become the most prominent black voice among the White elite of American society. This is not simply a guilt-by-association, but a natural consequence of Coates’ neglecting Capitalist profiteering in favour of White Supremacy as the primary driver of American life (and thus the primary source of injustice). This Duboisian emphasis on the colour line crowds out, for Coates, the intersectional nature of oppression in America, and so he fails to build hetero-patriarchy systematically into his analysis, and does not explore the ways race, gender, and sexuality work together to create a regime of control, a social structure which reinforces existing power by unevenly distributing violence. But worst of all, for West, Coates falls into a kind of knowing pessimism; by rendering White Supremacy both decisive and immovable, Coates paints a portrait of America which is doomed by its history.
West does not present these arguments carefully or sympathetically, and as such their persuasiveness is uneven. On the failure to centre capitalism, we have one the central pivots around which the modern left has struggled. Is racism a tool of capitalist exploitation, or does it have a life all its own? But we also have echoes of the 2016 Democratic Primary, when Coates voiced criticism of Bernie Sanders for his failure to address race issues early in his campaign. West was and remains a prominent supporter of Bernie.
As is demonstrated in his sharp critiques of George Packer’s coverage of the Trump campaign, Coates is carefully attuned to the ways that a focus on economic injustice elides issues of race, in ways that reinforce racial injustice. West is right to think that his attention to this problem leads Coates to be suspicious of the broad coalition-of-the-exploited politics that has been the lifeblood of social democratic left. As he explains in We Were Eight Years in Power, this rhetoric misses the possibility that working-class whites will (correctly) identify their interests not with their fellow-worker but their fellow-whites. It misses the fact that White Supremacy created the first mass-Aristocracy, building a society in which even the most destitute White man could rest assured of his rare and unearned social privilege. This, Coates suggests, is the true meaning of “Whites Only,” and he takes Trumps victory as proof that it is this set of interests which motivates the majority of white Americans – as it ever was.
The fact of the Trump presidency, with its intense culture warfare and its nostalgic “Make America Great Again” makes it difficult to disagree with Coates on this. And yet is it equally difficult to disagree with the proposition that things are more complicated, that everything cannot be explained by a single variable. (This is the substance of Packer’s rebuttal to Coates). In this sense the strongest charge against Coates is his failure to centre the most vulnerable – to build intersectionality into his analysis in a systematic way.
But it seems to me that what really motivates these prominent straight men to critique Coates is not the failure of his intersectional analysis but the central question of hope. West’s core charge against Coates is that he paints a world in which White Supremacy cannot be overcome, and that this has a de-mobilizing rather than an empowering effect. He ignores “black fightback”. He does not rally to the cause; instead he wants to be a writer, a truth teller.
The exploration of what it means to be a writer, a black writer – and eventually, a famous black writer – has always been a central thread of Coates thought, one which he has courageously put on display. There are two structuring threads of We Were Eight Year in Power. One is his gradual disillusionment with Hope and Change and his growing awareness of White Supremacy, traceable from his celebration of Michelle Obama in “American Girl” through his fascination with the Civil War to “Fear of a Black President”.
The other is a story of a Coates, a writer making it big. In his notes from each year, Coates documents his financial situation. What began with a heart-warming agreement for his father to subsidize an independent blog becomes, by Obama’s second term, real financial stability. By 2015, Coates was talking to Neil Drummond about how his wealth had transformed their friendship for This American Life.
These two threads are related. They are connected by the central question which Coates has posed for the last few years: why do white people like my writing? The shift in Coates analysis is pegged, in part, to his growing sense of his own responsibility. In WWEYIP, he tries to explain his rise to prominence, by exploring the proposition that the Obama presidency “created a market” for a certain kind of voice. With the election of a Black President, White America suddenly felt compelled to pay attention, in a way it never had before, to Black art and writing and scholarship.
But he is also grappling with the ethical implications of this meteoric rise. Implicit in Coates self-examination and in West’s excoriation is the charge that, if White people like what you are writing, then you are doing something wrong. West makes it explicit; if they like you, it is because you are not challenging them.
This charge hinges on the claim that Coates provides no way out; that he describes White Supremacy in such a totalizing way that White wring their hands and share Atlantic articles on Facebook over four-dollar lattes in gentrifying neighbourhoods: “what can you do?”.
Such a claim is bizarre in at least one sense: Coates’ most important essay is a direct answer to this question. It gave us a way out. Reparations.
We might respond, with Bernie, that Reparations are never going to happen. That such a demand is politically unreasonable. Perhaps so. But should the most influential Black writer in America therefore pretend that justice requires anything less? Should Coates tell the Atlantic audience that a social democratic coalition is the answer to the Colour Line?
The point is not only that we should aim high – although we should. The point is that no version of justice worthy of the name requires anything less. When Ezra Klein asked him directly what he thought justice would involve, Coates replied, wealth equality. When the average household wealth of black families is equal to that of white families, we can begin the conversation about whether the legacy of Slavery has been overcome.
For a Black activist to evaluate themselves by this bar might well be demoralizing. Certainly, it would motivate a retreat from the shadow-boxing of partisan politics. And that’s probably for the worse. Getting a pro-BLM mayor elected is not going to solve the wealth gap. But it is nevertheless vitally important.
So it is essential that there be writers and intellectuals who speak to these activists. Who conjure coalitions. Who exhort us to live the change that we want to see, to build anti-racist, feminist, queer communities. To bring heaven to earth by living now in the society we want for the future.
And these conjured worlds must be supported by an analysis that is grounded in the reality of that struggle. In its pragmatics, on the one hand, and its intersectional utopianism, on the other. All of us, or none of us.
It is essential, in other words, that there be a Cornell West.
But shouldn’t there also be Ta-Nehisi Coates?
Is there a place for holding White folks to the fire? For articulating clearly and persistently the depth and horror of White Supremacy. For interpreting current events in light of this structuring insight. For holding every measure of progress to the standard of Justice, and finding it wanting.
I take this to be Coates’ own answer to the question that his fame has posed. This accounts for strident, at times polemical tone of “The First White President,” which caused so many on the left to turn on him. This is how a man of Coates’ convictions remains honest when he finds himself White America’s racial conscience.
The question that the West-Coates dispute poses, it seems to me, is whether we can accept, in this age of integrated and social media, such a division of labour? Can there be one argument for White Liberals, and another for activists?
But of course, the answer to this question will crucially hinge on the answer to another. What are White People going to do about it? When Coates presents his accounting of the deep and persisting horror of our own society, do we cry, what about the working class? Do we breathe a sigh of relief when we see that Cornell West agrees that the real problem is Goldman Sachs, and say, no way Congress will approve reparations anyway? Or do we allow ourselves to be honestly confronted by the depth of the challenge that White Supremacy poses to all of our consciences? And let that be our starting point.