I want to start by saying that I am a fan of Dr. Cornel West’s work. I have read many of his articles and seen him speak on issues which are so vitally important to our community. I agree with him on many things, including the need to address capitalism, imperialism and other systemic structures ingrained within American society, which constantly hurt black and brown people.
However, over the past few days, I watched as Dr. West tore down another black intellectual for disagreements they had, and frankly, I have been disappointed in this meaningless beef. I am honestly reluctant to describe this as a beef, as it has been extremely one-sided.
In brief, Dr. West, in his Guardian article, as well as a video for The Root, criticized Mr. Coates for comparing former president Barack Obama to Malcolm X, fetishizing white supremacy and essentially wearing radicalism as a fashion statement.
Not only are many of the points Dr. West brought up hypocritical, given his track record of supporting politicians who do not live up to the same standards which he is holding Barack Obama and Mr. Coates to, but I feel as though, in many ways, he fundamentally mischaracterized Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, and essentially "all lives mattered" his critiques of white supremacy.
Just because Mr. Coates often writes about white supremacy, does not mean that he is all of a sudden ignoring institutions that promote them. Of course Mr. Coates knows that issues such as capitalism and imperialism affect black and brown communities in a negative way, and yes, of course he knows that white supremacy is tied to certain engrained institutions within America (I had intended to link tweets from Coates’ Twitter as evidence, however, he has deactivated his Twitter account due to this ongoing situation). However, Coates chooses to speak about white supremacy as a specific topic. Dr. West, rather than acknowledging Coates’ points about white supremacy, and his works that built on those criticisms and incorporated ingrained systems such as capitalism, decided to "all lives matter" Coates’ work. Not only insisting that his work was misleading, but insinuating that it was invalid because it did not explicitly address systems that promote white supremacy.
It is also worth noting that Dr. West’s approach towards criticizing Barack Obama (outside of the Malcolm X comparison) not only seemed selective, but also reminiscent of a page in the hotep playbook, which makes sure to criticize Obama (and other black politicians for that matter) at literally every turn, yet refuse to hold white politicians to the same standard. Yes, Obama had his faults, and yes, in many ways he promoted the capitalist machine which Dr. West so despises and seeks to dismantle. However, Dr. West has supported Senator Bernie Sanders not only in writing, but also going as far as to open for him, delivering a speech in South Carolina during the Democratic primaries. Senator Sanders isn’t rallying around the dismantlement of capitalism, an institution which, as previously mentioned, has undoubtedly hurt black and brown folks. Sanders isn’t promoting reparations for black people, which is something that Dr. West supports. So why is it that Mr. Coates is said to only, “sound militant about white supremacy” for supporting Obama and writing exclusively about white supremacy, when Dr. West has supported a presidential candidate who supports some of the things West explicitly says hurts black and brown communities?
Dr. West’s refusal to hold President Obama and Senator Sanders to the same standard is hypocritical, and deeply dents his criticism of Mr. Coates. Not only does it make his argument weak, but it also makes his critique (or more accurately, bash) of Mr. Coates seem as though it was fueled by ego, rather than a place actually meaning to promote and further dialogue. If Dr. West was the "radical" he claimed to be, he would not be endorsing any U.S. presidential candidate unless they were calling for the removal of capitalism, altogether.
This honestly seems like a nuanced 21st century W.E.B. DuBois versus Booker T. Washington, and I, along with many other aspiring black intellectuals, find this disheartening. I am black, I am gay, I am a feminist and I support so many of the ideas which Dr. West promotes. However, what I do not support is the tearing down of another incredible black intellectual for nothing incredibly valid.
The more that I analyze the critique and the situation, the less validity I see in Dr. West’s criticism. To me, it seems as though this isn’t about a valid critique of Coates' work, but rather Dr. West, feeling as though he's fading from relevancy, validating himself.