Cornel West Vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates: Confronting black neo-liberalism


Cornel West essentially outlined the political program of the Black Radical Tradition by exposing the political emptiness of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates has made exorbitant profit from book sales and articles for publications such as The Atlantic. His recent text, Eight Years in Power capitalized on the rise of Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Obama era. Coates has benefitted from the neo-liberal brand of Black leadership [the neo-blacks] that grew in strength during the era of Obama. His work on reparations, white supremacy, and the Obama-Trump phenomenon has given him a bright national spotlight. However, with one article, Cornel West illuminated how Coates has done little more than build a comfortable career in place of genuine service to the masses of poor and oppressed people in the Black community and beyond.

…when West made clear that Coates’ inability to challenge Wall Street and War was a rebuke of the Black Radical Tradition, there were many who quickly sought to distance themselves from the substance of West’s position. West was channeling W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hammer, Claudia Jones, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party when he challenged Coates’ much-heralded body of work. What Black Agenda Report calls the Black political class has never wanted anything to do with these stalwarts of the Black Radical Tradition. This was evident in the Guardian when it published responses to West’s critique from prominent Black academics and Black activists. Of the four interviewed, only one engaged with the substance of the debate. None openly took sides.

West has received largely negative responses for his critique of Coates. His opposition to Wall Street and war is a fundamental threat to US imperialism and thus the patronage the system [that] endows the Black political class. Criticism of West has centered on his so-called lackluster approach. Black Lives Matter network leader Patrisse Cullors claimed that the debate was “not definitive to our communities.” One can only wonder how silencing Cornel West serves anything but the interests of the parasitic imperialist system that has subjected Black America to a state of precarity for centuries.

Perhaps the worst example thus far was published in an article in The Intercept. Infamous progressive Naomi Klein and Black Lives Matter leader Opal Tometi penned a statement that urged readers to forget about the West and Coates debate. The focus of our attention should instead be on the need to build a “multiracial” movement against the US empire. The piece lectures readers about the importance of fighting empire and war yet reduces West’s arguments to “narrow nationalism.” Sloppy organization and a lengthy word count do nothing but prove that the authors of the article had as their primary interest the erasure of the Black Radical Tradition in favor of a color-blind approach to organizing.

There is no time to reduce West’s criticism of Coates to foolish infighting. Rather than insulting West’s critique as “not definitive” to our communities, we should be taking the time to learn from it. Internationalism has been a fundamental aspect of the Black Radical Tradition from the very outset of its development. Whether Coates has or hasn’t addressed the questions of War and Wall Street throughout his illustrious career is not of primary concern. The concern is that his body of work is less reflective of the Black Radical Tradition and more so the perils of collaboration with imperialism. West questions Coates’ commitment to the Black Radical Tradition by citing both a record of inaction on the questions of Wall Street and war and a tendency to align with the Obama wing of imperialism toward profitable ends.


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