Too Terrified to Enter an Arena of Ideas? The Debate Over Cornel West’s Critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates

When the history of resistance to oppression is written, it will be replete with the names of people who, at great personal cost, resolved to tell the truth.

It can be said without uncertainty that the Black community has produced some of the most pioneering minds for social justice and human dignity in the United States since its inception. Furnished and shaped by a need to survive the brutal transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow and any emerging terrors that awaited Black people in North America, Black politics came about both out of necessity and from a thorough imaginative process whereby hope, prayer and blood willed into existence new possibilities for Black life. This journey, however, has not come without internal feuds and public disagreements amongst its most prominent thinkers — Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Audre Lorde — and in fact, this dynamic has become a recurring theme and important feature of critical thought in the ongoing fight for Black liberation.

Today, we are in a special time in history where ideological differences are boldly held but rarely discussed. Anti-intellectualism, camouflaged with civility and politeness, has blocked the means to engage in critical debate. Contempt for the life of the mind and an obsession with comfort has made public discourse virtually impossible. And, with the avoidance of critical dialogue, we end up hiding the truth of our understanding from ourselves and each other, which may prove to be the greatest tragedy of all.

 The ideological battle between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West is the most recent example of how our society remains too terrified to enter the arena of ideas to sort out differences and push fellow contemporaries to think deeper about the implications of their work. Important disputes among public intellectuals, we are told by many in the movement, must be done in private. To many, it may seem that West’s target, in his article published by the Guardian, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the Neoliberal Face of the Black Freedom Struggle,” is Coates himself, but upon closer inspection, and in context of West’s political trajectory for the last several decades, it’s evident that his real crosshairs are located squarely on the nucleus of neoliberalism.