Ta-Nehisi Coates
Credit: Montes Bradley/Wikimedia Commons

If we go back to the 2016 Democratic primary (I know, I can hear the groans, but stick with me for a minute), and place the top two candidates on a continuum based on their economic policies, it is clear that Bernie Sanders has a history of being to the left of Hillary Clinton. But what if, instead of economic policy, we were to do the same thing with regards to immigration policy or gun control? On those issues, Clinton would be to the left of Sanders.

I say all of that to point out that a one-dimensional linear continuum of left-center-right is deceiving when it comes to the complexity of issues facing this country today. That was my reaction to the piece by Cornel West in which he critiqued Ta-Nehisi Coates. West assumes that all of that complexity can be captured by a one-dimensional linear continuum.

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…

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.

In other words, with Coates’s focus almost exclusively on white supremacy, West faults him for not addressing all of the other issues that he deems critical to progressives. Beyond that, West assumes that this omission is a back-door way of promoting neoliberalism.

Our own David Atkins was even more articulate in summing up that position.

Let me stipulate that neither Coates nor Serwer ever talked about a “culture war.” They have both written extensively about how racism has played a central role in both the history of politics in this country and the election of Trump. That is not a denial of the class struggle, unless you are determined to see it as an either/or competition where one has to take precedence over the other.

Both West and Atkins see an attempt to define the role of racism as inherently conjoined with conservative fiscal policy, i.e. neoliberalism. When I hear things like that, I imagine that people have limited themselves to a few labels and feel the need to force individuals into a pre-determined box, rather than explore the complexities.

Contrary to the one-dimensional linear continuum adopted by West’s critique of Coates, Jane Coaston presents an alternate linear continuum.

…though West casts Coates’s largely positive views of Obama as an attempt to embrace mainstream liberalism (and thus, an effort to gain the support of mainstream white liberals), West is actually the more mainstream of the two. He, unlike Coates, still believes in the power of revolutionary politics in America, advising numerous presidential candidates since 2000 and supporting first Bernie Sanders (who added him to the Democratic National Convention platform committee) and then Jill Stein in the 2016 presidential election.

His politics are largely mainstream within left-leaning circles…But Coates remains largely pessimistic about the possibilities of politics, and that’s in part because he knows the policies he believes in lie far outside the mainstream.

What policies has Coates articulated that are far outside the mainstream? I would remind you that he wrote about reparations as the one vehicle for a reckoning on race in America. Here’s what he said about that in his book We Were Eight Years in Power:

The reparations claim was so old, so transparently correct, so clearly the only solution, and yet it remained far outside the borders of American politics. To believe anything else was to believe that a robbery spanning generations could somehow be ameliorated while never acknowledging the scope of the crime and never making recompense. And yet that was the thinking that occupied mainstream American politics.

The point of Coaston’s piece is captured in her subtitle, “It is Coates, not West, who emerges as the radical.” She’s right. With a different linear continuum, Coates comes out to the left of West.

Underlying much of this is a somewhat bizarre notion that being deemed more radical (or farther left on the continuum) is somehow a badge of honor. Words like “center” and “center left” are usually equated with neoliberalism and used as a form of derision. People literally spend hours trying to impose those labels on others. It is a subtle form of objectification that I find to be a distraction from the difficult job of trying to understand each other and debate our differences.

There is one other element of West’s critique of Coates that I find fascinating. It is captured in the quote above where he says that, “For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action.” But a commitment to diversity recognizes that some people’s gifts are more attuned to “a personal commitment to writing,” while others lead the way on collective action or participate in actual governing (i.e., Obama).

Coates addressed that during his recent interview with Stephen Colbert on the topic of his responsibility to engender hope. He said:

I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope…In better times the President of the United States provides you hope. There are people who have that kind of moral place in the world. That’s not my job. That’s somebody else’s job.

Recognizing your own place in the bigger scheme of things is actually more healthy than assuming you can be all things to all people. The reverse is also true. A staple of liberal philosophy should be to reject any attempt to expect one person to play all of the roles that are necessary. That leads to looking for a savior, and ultimately authoritarianism.

To the extent that Cornel West can get off this kick of taking his personal pet peeves out on other African American intellectuals, he has a role to play in reminding us of the nexus between racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, etc. In the past, he’s been a visionary and could play that role again, just as Ta-Nehisi Coates is playing an important role when it comes to documenting the way that race has historically shaped our politics and continues to do so today. He is a truth-teller and eschews attempts to sugarcoat the world as he sees it. We also need people like Barack Obama to help us take the next steps forward in overcoming that history, short of simply burning the whole American experiment down.

As liberals, we either value subjectivity and diversity in their human forms, or we don’t. I’d suggest that the latter makes us more like conservatives.


Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.