Washington, D.C.-Activist and scholar Dr. Cornel West is no stranger to controversy especially regarding his harsh criticisms of former President Barack Hussein Obama. He has recently come under fire for his sharp written critique of author/columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates in a December 17th, 2017 article titled. “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”.
In it West describes Coates view of Black America as “narrow and dangerously misleading.” He also criticizes him for being too easy on Obama’s policies and white supremacy. Please keep in mind that this isn’t the first time West has critiqued Coates over the years.
Experience Reality spoke with the Harvard professor via phone to further clarify his position towards the young writer.
We began by asking him to explain this excerpt from the article: “In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and irremovable. 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.”
ER: For quite some time you have been very critical of Coates and neoliberalism in general. As progressive as he is viewed by many, how does that quote apply to him?
West: Anytime you talk about white supremacy you have to talk about resistance to it. There’s no such thing as white supremacy without “Black fight back”. And so if you talk about white supremacy in such a way that its almighty or irremovable, or something outside of the historical process. That generates a fatalism or a certain kind of pessimism about the ability of overcoming white supremacy. We know that white supremacy cuts deep. We know it’s a part of every institution in American society. Analytically you have to always situate white supremacy with an empire-the American empire; stealing the land of the indigenous people and then the enslavement of Africans. So that it has to be understood in relation to predatory capitalism and in terms of U.S. imperial crimes committed against people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
West also made clear that you cannot view white supremacy independent of imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia and other forms of oppression.
ER: Not to rehash any old negativity, I remember when some time ago you had criticized Dr. Michael Eric Dyson for comparing saying-and I’m paraphrasing-that Ta-Nehisi was our generation’s James Baldwin. What exactly was your issue with that?
West: Well one was you always had “Black fight back” at the center of Baldwin’s writings. When he went to the South in 1957, he was writing right alongside those who were risking death in a struggle against American Apartheid. What I see with my dear brother Coates is that he puts white supremacy at the center. He has such a deep pessimism that he doesn’t highlight the fight back or it having any major affect. So that it undercuts any kind of possibility of people really wanting to be in a long term struggle. The second thing is that James Baldwin began with the Liberal establishment but he rejected it. He went with Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party even when Eldridge Cleaver was trashing him. He went with those who were critical of the mainstream.
West did acknowledge that although Coates is saying some things against white supremacy and the status quo, because he doesn’t express as harshly as he should, he (Coates) still remains the “darling of neoliberal mainstream”.
We asked West to respond to allegations by some who felt that he was “hating” on Coates.
ER: One of the questions raised to me by a well-known activist, who will remain unnamed at this time, was: “Why is Dr. West hating on a younger brother rather than mentoring him?”
West: I appreciate the question but I don’t believe I’m hating. When you criticize someone, that’s not a form of hating. When you criticize someone you’re trying to get them to see a perspective that can make them stronger. And this is true for anyone who comes out. Can you imagine when Clifford Brown came out and Miles Davis was sitting there listening to him and saying to himself, “This is a talented cat but he needs to check out Louie Armstrong and other elders.” It’s about a tradition, not about individuals. This movement is bigger than me and Coates.
ER: We see you took serious issue with Coates comparing Pres. Obama to Malcolm X.
West: Yeah, that really upset me. You can’t rebrand Malcolm into Obama. This is why I have to sit down and have a dialogue and ask him what he had in mind. Malcolm was a major black loving critic of a vicious U.S. empire.
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