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Commentary By Jason L. Riley

Ta-Nehisi Coates vs. Cornel West Hardly Qualifies as Debate

Culture Race

They both think racism explains disparities today, and they seldom engage with those who disagree.

Remember that scene in “The Blues Brothers” when the dimwitted siblings, portrayed by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, enter a honky-tonk where they plan to play a show?

“What kind of music do you usually have here?” says Mr. Aykroyd.

“Oh, we got both kinds,” replies a chirpy barkeep. “We got country and western.”

The exchange came to mind last week when the best-selling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates quit Twitter in a huff after an argument with fellow black author Cornel West. Both men are committed liberals, but Mr. West, the veteran activist and Marxist academic, thinks that Mr. Coates’s writings don’t go far enough. Hard as it may be for some readers to fathom, Mr. West critiques Mr. Coates from the left.

What so upset Mr. Coates was a recent op-ed for the British newspaper the Guardian in which Mr. West praises his younger rival’s use of books and essays to highlight “the vicious legacy of white supremacy—past and present” and its “plundering effects” on black people. But he faults Mr. Coates for not connecting “this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.”

Ultimately, Mr. West writes, “Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.” Mr. Coates’s focus on white absolution, in Mr. West’s view, is necessary but insufficient. “The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, U.S. military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading.”

Read the entire piece at The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal