I love Cornel West. Part of the reason I am a fan of his is that, before my nonfame and lack of fortune at The Root, I taught a college-level course called “Race as an Economic Construct.” The idea of the course was to eliminate the subjectivity of race theory by explaining race in America through the lens of statistics and economics.
It was, at its core, the most neoliberal thing ever.
When this topic surfaced at the New York Times, the entire staff at The Root had a heated discussion that got intense at times. Contributing editor Angela Helm, Senior Reporter Terrell J. Starr and Associate Editor Kirsten West Savali suggested that we invite West in to expound on this and other topics, fully expecting him to dismiss us. After all, he is a world-renowned academic busy saving the world.
He showed up the next day.
To his credit, he sat down with Starr and Helm to answer every question they posed for over an hour. Starr asked him pointedly to explain his definition of a neoliberal:
TJS: What is a neoliberal? A lot of us have heard that word, but we don’t know exactly what it is.
CW: Well, “neoliberal” is somebody of any color who sees a social problem and does three things; privatize, financialize and militarize. You’ve got a problem in the schools, privatize the schools, push back public education. Bring in the financiers, the profiteers. Make money on the test, make money on the teachers while you push out the teachers unions, and then you militarize the schools. You bring in security. We’ve got precious young brothers and sisters in the hoods going to schools like you and I going through the airport. That’s the militarization of the schools. Police, the same way. Outsource, militarize right across the board, so that a neoliberal is somebody who is obsessed with markets.
West’s characterization of neoliberalism is opinionated but largely correct. Neoliberals are the idealistic capitalists who believe that inequality can be solved by a complex combination of free markets and the idea that a majority of people (black or white) are good. They are usually 6-foot-2 white guys who left the Republican Party to vote Libertarian and believe in individual liberty. (Believe me, I recognize the irony in me calling West’s definition “opinionated.”) They think free-market capitalism is the cure for the woes of white supremacy, and focusing on race is one-dimensional and outdated.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates declared that he was leaving Twitter on Monday when white supremacist Richard Spencer seconded West’s assertion that Coates is a “neoliberal darling” who “fetishizes white supremacy.”
Lost in West’s criticism of Coates is an insidious undercurrent that repeatedly asks, “Why does he talk about race so much?”
In the New York Times interview that kick-started the beef between West and the public apparition of Coates (so far, Coates has declined to make this a “feud,” sticking to the Nas-vs.-Jay-Z philosophy of “keeping it on wax”), many of Coates’ fans laced up their 5411s, smeared Vaseline on their faces and were ready to ride out, insisting that West “keep Coates’ name out his mouth.”
I hesitate to call West’s callouts a “beef” because Coates is seemingly disinterested in becoming Biggie to West’s Tupac-ish shenanigans. (And yes, they have risen to the level of “shenanigans” because, even in the merit-based part of West’s argument, there is an undeniable level of saltiness that extends past the text of Coates’ writing.) Coates seems willing to defend his works, while it feels as if West wants to attack Coates personally. West’s disdain seems palpable. I fully expect West’s next op-ed to begin with a “Hit ’Em Up”-like preamble, “That’s why I ... ”—
You know what? Let’s not go there.
This is not to say that West’s characterization of Coates’ work has no merit. However one feels about former President Barack Obama, West’s contention that it is impossible to separate America’s unique brand of capitalism from white supremacy, thereby making the captain of the vessel—Obama, in this case—complicit in white supremacy, is worthy of examination. West also rightly points out that class, patriarchy and economics are all inextricably interwoven into the ball of yarn that is white supremacy.
Holding Coates’ feet to the fire and requiring him to take a more complex, bird’s-eye view of how this puzzle fits together is not only the right but the responsibility of a learned elder like West. Whether capitalism and greed created white supremacy or vice versa is a question of circular logic that may never be answered, although we must always pose it to ourselves. Requiring that Coates address that catechism in a text constructed around an entirely different subject might be unfair, but it is not completely out of bounds.
Even in his conversation with The Root, West cast his criticism in more nuance, explaining that Coates was a “brilliant brother, and we’ve got much to learn from him.” But West continued:
I just don’t like talking about white supremacy independent of the empire and patriarchy, especially of class. I think that we can’t be pre-Du Bois. Du Bois taught us white supremacy is always to be viewed in relation to class patriarchy and empire and homophobia and transphobia. If you’re talking about white supremacy as if it’s up here, you end up acting as if it’s all-powerful because it looks like it’s winning all the time, it’s winning all the time.
But it is the extra shit that makes West look like Michael Jordan throwing marbles on the court while LeBron James is breaking away for another awe-inspiring dunk. And with West—God love his brilliant soul—there is always the extra shit. Always.
Part of the accusations leveled by West is Coates’ obsession with race as defined by West—namely, white supremacy. In The Guardian op-ed that called Coates the “neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle,” West proclaimed that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.” He paints Coates’ perception of white people as “tribal” and his view of white supremacy as “fatalistic.”
We have heard this before.
Last week, in an interview published by the National Review that sounded faintly like a slave master lamenting the fact that his best buck learned how to read, Andrew Sullivan said of Coates:
I brought a lot of readers to his blog and helped him get where he is. I think he’s a beautiful writer and a very, very sharp mind. I deeply regret where he ended up. ... And I think Beyond the World and Me [sic] was a really terrible book. Just the crudeness of it, in the despair of it, in the melodrama of it. It terribly disappointed me, and similarly his public position that we live in some crushing white supremacy, which I don’t believe we do, or that African Americans have no agency in terms of their lives and their future and that they haven’t made huge strides in this country and are not one of the most powerful and dominant cultural and political forces. So I don’t see it the way he does. I certainly respect him, but I find myself deeply alienated by his current politics. He didn’t used to be this doctrinaire or so absorbed by the sort of social justice left, but here we are.
Coates is a walking, talking, living, breathing explainer of the history and impact of white supremacy. He is adept at tethering the modern version of white supremacy to America’s long legacy of racism. Coates uses historical reflections to parallel the freedom struggle of 2017 to our nation’s previous incarnations of racial inequality. While Coates’ unfiltered method of exposing white supremacy might be controversial, it is also undeniable. His texts are nothing if not receipt-laden.
That tends to give white people the heebie-jeebies, and—while it may seem like a “fetishization” to some—the people whose anal cavities clench tight at the simple mention of the words “white supremacy” are the opposite of the neoliberals whom West wants to lump in as the lovers of Coates’ work.
There is unquestionably a trend toward neoliberalism in the discussion of race and white supremacy. West rightly points it out, because in this entire combustible conversation describing the co-opting of racial inequality by neoliberals and turning it into a euphemistic discussion of every other thing besides the evil perpetrated toward black America, there is no one more qualified to talk about it than the original-recipe darling of neoliberalism: the esteemed Cornel West.
West’s characterization of Coates’ work is valid only to those who misunderstand the entire meaning of neoliberalism. In fact, West’s philosophy of intertwining Wall Street, patriarchy and economic inequality is the basis of neoliberal thought.
I should know, because I was one of them.
In my idealism, I believed that white supremacy could be explained and solved by tying this nation’s actions to the Darwinian greed of capitalism and the apathy toward minorities who stood in the way of the supremacy of Western civilization’s need for domination. I believed that white people would never accept the inherent evil of white supremacy without its being tied to the macro-political reality of free-market economics.
Neoliberals are perfectly willing to discuss how the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a byproduct of capitalism and how the Industrial Revolution was the real death knell for slavery. They will talk about patriarchy as a part of cultural anxiety. But if anyone mentions the national complicity of white America in historical racism, they, like West, will accuse you of “fetishizing” white supremacy, with the clarion call that heralds the wincing of white people who refuse to realize the permanent strain of white supremacy that is still infecting America:
“Why must you always talk about race?”
That is why West zooms past his unwillingness to confront what Jelani Cobb termed his “stanning” for Sen. Bernie Sanders. West conveniently leaves out how Sanders disagreed with Coates’ stance on reparations or why Black Lives Matter activists had to storm the stage at Sanders rallies before he’d even address race head-on. West allows for his homeboy Sanders’ moderate racial positions in the name of politics, but not Obama’s.
There are many people who believe that focusing on race actually creates divisiveness, even when incontrovertible facts are included in the dialogue. They believe that the subject of white supremacy must be made palatable for the practitioners of the art of racism, and pointing it out loudly and without nuance makes talking about race myopic and devoid of hope.
Fuck those people.
Ask the mothers and fathers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown Jr. about the “socioeconomic injustice” that pumped bullets into their bodies. Ask the children who attend inferior inner-city schools because white people don’t want to live next to them about the complexities of Wall Street. Macroeconomics, patriarchy and “pre-Du Bois thinking” never tossed a résumé in the trash because a black-sounding name was at the top.
The idea that one must address these separate but connected entities is correct at its core, but it is also neoliberal thinking at its highest level. Thinkers like Coates who address the inherent evil of white supremacy without muddying the argument with extraneous variables aren’t ignoring them. They are highlighting them.
When it comes to race, much of America is an ignorant kindergartner. West’s insistence that this country can’t understand the global mathematics of capitalism-fueled inequality without the calculus of macroeconomics is ultimately spot-on ...
But it is a fruitless exercise if they are unwilling to accept the simple math of white supremacy.