The Black Freedom Struggle: Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Liberals and progressives and anyone else on the left all agree that prejudice and privilege are the essential problem that America faces, in this critical moment. We don’t see prejudice and privilege as sort of a minor little side issue, we believe in the interconnected nature of life, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is in contrast to Republicans and those on the right who deny that there are any problems. Racism? they say, What racism? Stop whining and get a job.

But the 2016 Democrat primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders opened up a very significant debate for those of us on the left. This divide involves the question of whether America’s prejudice and privilege can be isolated from other forms of domination and oppression, namely economic inequality (at home) or America’s imperical escapades overseas.

Can we really and truly address sexism without addressing economic injustice?

Can we begin to deal with racism without addressing other forms of hierarchical oppression?

We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others. ~ Cornel West

This debate has been taking place among African-Americans for many, many decades. Most recently, philosopher and activist Cornel West wrote an article entitled Ta-Nahisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle. West puts their differences in these terms:

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

Last winter I read Coates’ memoir Beautiful Struggle, which I appreciated. I’ve also tried to keep up with his essays, like the important and influence Atlantic article The Case for Reparations. While I’m in no position to speak to the African-American experience of racism, I am in the camp of those who find it difficult to understand how significant progress will be made on specific issues of privilege and prejudice without speaking to the more general mechanisms of power and control, namely economic and military. Or, to put it more bluntly: money and violence.

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…
This is the inter-related structure of reality.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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