On December 17th, 2017, Dr. Cornel West published a scathing critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Guardian after the release of Coates’s book We Were Eight Years in Power. West accuses Coates of being soft on Barack Obama’s presidency and silent on his serious flaws. The feud exploded on Twitter and eventually led to Coates deleting his Twitter account after white supremacist Richard Spencer also joined the fray by stating West was right. West’s criticism mischaracterizes Coates’s arguments in such a way that I question if we read the same book. Dr. West inaccurately describes what the book is, claims Coates fetishizes white supremacy when he analyzes systemic racism with the purpose of moving away from it, and inaccurately describes Coates as silent on Barack Obama’s flawed presidency when the evidence from the text proves otherwise.
In the beginning of the Guardian article, West describes We Were Eight Years in Power as “a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy”. Wrong. It is a collection of essays that touch on a number of different topics such as the differing histories taught about the Civil War, Michelle Obama’s background, mass incarceration, the way real estate hurt the black community, etc. You do not have to read the book to get this idea; you can take a gander at the table of contents. While three of the eight essays directly talk about Obama, the other essays bear titles such as “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”, “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” etc. These titles reveal that the book is not solely about Barack Obama and white supremacy; they demonstrate that the book talks about a whole host of issues that affect the black community. Cornel West quotes from the book as if he read it, but from the very beginning he fails to accurately describe what this book in fact is.
West also makes the claim that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy”. Fetishizing implies devotion or reverence. Coates discussing white supremacy has nothing to do with either. Coates dissects white supremacy and expands upon its prevalence because the purpose of examining white supremacy is to confront and move past it. To say that Coates is “fetishizing white supremacy” is missing the point. Coates traces the history of systemic racism to force us to come to grips with our nation’s dark past because this is a requirement for redemption. In the essay “The Case for Reparations,” he explains, “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” (207) Racism is a persistent and systemic problem in our country. Coates states that the remedy is coming to grips with the fact that we have a problem. The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that it is there. West’s dismissal fails to recognize the goal of examining history: to avoid repeating it. West does not only misrepresent Coates’s examination of white supremacy; he also mislabels Coates as an Obama fanboy. The book shows that Coates is measured while critical of Obama’s shortcomings.
Cornel West disagrees with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s argument that the Obama presidency is an example of “Good Negro Government”. During an interview with The Root, West explains, “I don’t view Good Negro Government as policies that don’t highlight poor people, that have drone strikes, that’s tied to Wall Street, that reinforces surveillance. That is not good government for me.” On this point, I do agree. I too do not view a government that is complicit in mass murder and other heinous forms of injustice as good government. I disagree with West’s assessment on the Guardian piece that Coates’s views on race and politics “has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty.” This statement ignores the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates likes Obama, but liking him does not mean he is incapable of criticizing the former president.
Coates supports what Obama represents, but he is critical of his missteps and horrible decisions. West claims that Coates is silent on the crimes of the US, but Coates explains in the essay “Fear of a Black President” that he was “horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints.” (140) This line contradicts West’s charge that Coates is quiet on the crimes of the United States. West’s condemnation bothers me as someone who believes in the Buddhist concept of Right Speech, which consists of not “speaking with a forked tongue” (i.e., lying). I am not arguing that Cornel West is intentionally lying, but he is making claims that the evidence reveals is not true. Stating something that is blatantly not true is a falsehood whether it’s intentional or not. This misrepresentation also extends to Coates’s view on Barack Obama’s presidency.
West paints Coates as quiet on Obama’s mistakes, but what the book describes is an internal conflict within Coates. On the one hand, Coates admires what the Obama presidency symbolized: “The Obama family represents our ideal imaginings of ourselves — an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage (127). On the other hand, Coates experiences difficulty reconciling Obama’s great achievements with his shortcomings. When it comes to the issue of race in our country, he saw Barack Obama as “playing both sides. He would invoke his identity as a president of all people to decline to advocate for black policy—and then invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to ‘make bad choices.’” (299) This quote serves as an acknowledgment that the former president did not do as much for the black community as he would have liked. Obama instead decided to enact policies that favored all Americans, which does not address a system that is stacked against minorities when you factor in mass incarceration, police brutality, gentrification, redlining, etc. Coates does not fail to point out when Obama falls short of his expectations.
Coates also did not agree with Obama’s optimism with regard to where the country was on race during the former president’s two terms: “Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.” (324) This line demonstrates Coates, despite liking Obama, harbored serious disagreements he is willing to express. Coates feels white supremacy was the foundation for our democracy and continues to operate in more subtle forms, but Obama still held onto hope for the best in people, a hope that proved too optimistic when you take into account the racism he dealt with during his two terms and that same racism becoming more emboldened with the election of Donald Trump. To categorize Coates as an Obama fanboy is misleading. Coates is a fan of Obama who is willing to admit when his president messed up.
The feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as a sobering lesson on how not to express disagreement. Dr. West definitely did not deeply read Coates because he managed to say numerous things about his thesis that are proven false upon further study. When you don’t agree, it is important to disagree in a way that encourages a healthy exchange of ideas. I would advise staying away from the word fetishizing and linking it with something heinous, especially when the person with whom you disagree is against that something heinous. At the same time, it is important to not walk away from a debate. I hope Ta-Nehisi Coates returns to social media. There are plenty of people who are on his side and support him. I count myself as one of them. I am also on Cornel West’s side because he brings up issues that we need to discuss, but this discussion needs to be done to unite and share ideas, not tear each other apart.