Cornel West versus Ta-Nehisi Coates
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
I am not ashamed to admit that I was giddy on a tabloid level, seeing my former Professor Cornel West get into it with National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the 1990’s, Cornel West was the man. Black people liked him. To white liberals, he was the reigning ‘magic negro of letters’. Best sellers.
Unbelievable honorariums. A University Professorship at Harvard, bringing a generous stipend and the ability to teach at any school at the University.
But as we know, the public is fickle, and the flavor of the month changes. Moreover, West’s criticism of Obama alienated him from many people, not just “the powers that be”, but also black Americans who love Barack and Michelle. In contrast, Coates jumped on the Obama train, and road it to glory. God bless him.
Folks like Cornel West will have to face sooner or later that Barack Obama has surpassed Martin Luther King as far as the love of black folks today. Black people still love Dr. King, but Barack and Michelle have eclipsed him. Martin Luther King reigned supreme in the hearts of black people for over 50 years, but times change. Was Dr. King really a greater man than Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglass? I don’t think so. Is Barack Obama a greater man than King? I don’t think so.
Times change. And new models of greatness emerge. New heroes arise. Also, people tend to be attached to what they grew up with. They always have a special fondness for the music and movies that were popular when they were young. West grew up with King, so he has a special attachment to his legacy. King was a special hero to West. For the high school students that I teach in the public schools of Philadelphia, it’s all about Barack and Michelle. They hardly even remember a world before Barack Obama was President.
I always had a feeling that some of the criticism for Obama by black public intellectuals who were prominent before the rise of Obama was a product of envy and resentment. Obama’s star shone so bright, that it eclipsed all other black American public figures with a luster that I had never witnessed, nor am likely to see again. Certainly not since the time of Martin Luther King. Perhaps not since the time of Booker T. Washington or even Frederick Douglass, has one Afro-American leader made all the others seem so irrelevant.
I do agree with certain individual criticisms made by West, but not the tone or the overall thrust. Coates’ writing does at times make black people seem like pathetic passive creatures under the all mighty yoke of the white man. And I do think that his writing feeds into a kind of white liberal fancy that black people gained their political freedom primarily owing to the benevolence of good white folk, like themselves, of course.
The fact is that I find myself in disagreement with many of Coates’ opinions, and I think it is because we view the ingredients and obstacles to black progress very differently. Coates appears to view the primary obstacles to black progress as being the constraints posed by white supremacy. In contrast, I don’t think we are doing as much as we can as a people to maximize our potential within these constraints. Here, I’m not talking about individuals, because many individual black people are successful and doing amazing things. I’m talking on a macro-level.
White American Baby Boomers will leave their children approximately $13 trillion dollars in wealth overall when they die. Black Boomers will leave their children debts. Black folks on a macro-level are not demonstrating the skills of passing on capital inter-generationally. Moreover, the problem is not limited to passing on financial capital to the next generations, but also human capital.
Teaching for a few years in Philadelphia Charter and public high schools has revised many of my opinions about problems in black civil society. Most of these schools are practically 100% black in their student body. To begin, the minimal academic skill level of such a large fraction of these students is staggering. When I think about the competition out there, it’s hard to fathom how many of these young people can compete in the adult working world. They have computers in almost every classroom, but when it comes to information technology, they are almost strictly consumers, they do not have real computer skills.
I am convinced that the primary reason for the difficulties in these classrooms is owing to a failure of these students to come into school with sufficient human capital. They haven’t been taught properly at home. On the whole, they have been taught little or no academic skills, nor a “love of learning”. More importantly, they come in with substantial moral deficiencies, namely, they have not been taught a proper respect for authority.
This is particularly true with the boys. Many of the girls will be OK, I think, but I worry about the male students. The consequence is that it makes it very difficult to pass on knowledge. Some teachers are better than others, and many individual students are good, but on a macro-level, they are not developing enough skills to compete, especially the boys. We are not developing enough skills to compete as a people. Immigrant children who don’t even speak English as a first language are coming in and leaving black students behind.
This problem, the failure to effectively pass on capital inter-generationally on a macro-level, both financial and human, is a major obstacle to the progress of black civil society today. This is an issue that has plagued black progress since emancipation. Whether it be the loss of today’s equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in the corruption scandal and collapse of the Freedman’s Bank, or the failure of many freedmen to pass on the industrial skills they had learned during slavery to the next generation.
In his fascinating biography of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington speaks of how for the purposes of exploitation, during slavery, most of the skilled tradesman in the South were slaves. Moreover, that there was an established structure of passing on these skills across generations, within the plantation system. At the time of emancipation, the freedmen were the most skilled laborers in the South, both with respect to the industrial trades and agriculture, particularly the highly profitable cash crops. But many of these skills were never passed on to the next generation after emancipation.
A lot of human capital was lost. Washington gives an example of how during slavery, most of the best tailors in the South were slaves. Yet, twenty years after emancipation, he had great difficulty finding one educated black tailor to teach at Tuskegee. His observations about the failure of the freedmen to pass on their industrial skills inter-generationally seems to have been part of Washington’s inspiration for his famous program of “Industrial Education”.