In an Intercept piece attempting to moderate the recent dispute between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, Naomi Klein and Opal Tometi make two significant errors, both of which raise questions about their understanding of the nature of the disagreement between these two “brilliant men of the left”, as they refer to them.
The first resides in their claim that West “accuses (Coates) of silence on some subjects where he has, in fact, been vocal (like the financial sector’s role in entrenching Black poverty).” In fact, West’s criticism has to do not with the “financial sector’s” role in the immiseration of Black people but with Obama’s role. Specifically, Obama was not coerced, but chose to enrich the financial sector effectively rewarding them for their years of marketing fraudulent mortgages, disproportionately to African Americans. The result was not only a massive transfer of wealth to the top, but, more tragically, the largest decline in African American wealth in U.S. history. If this is what “eight years in power” represents to Coates, is hard to see on what basis the adjectives “brilliant” or “left” are applied.
The second has to do with Klein and Tometi’s characterization of Coates as “The man who has done more to revive the debate about Black reparations than any writer of his generation.” Based on his role, Klein and Tometi conclude that Coates “cannot blithely be written off as a neoliberal tool. ”
In fact, there is considerable basis for categorizing Coates’s views as neoliberal. That we are not familiar with it has to do with it having been provided by an African American intellectual whose views are routinely and systematically excluded when these topics arise, namely, Adolph Reed. For years, Reed has been arguing that the advocacy of reparations is entirely consistent with neoliberalism-Coates’s restatement of it different only in the same contents being delivered in new, arguably more authentic, packaging.
The basic logic, as Reed construed it in his column in The Progressive in 2002, proceeds from the recognition that “the reparations idea spreads. when common circumstances of economic and social insecurity have strengthened the potential for building broad solidarity across race, gender and other identities around shared concerns of daily life . . . like access to quality health care, the right to a decent and dignified livelihood, affordable housing, quality education for all.”
It is precisely these universalist remedies which are at the core of the left agenda. And, predictably when these are ascendent, Reed continues, “the corporate-dominated opinion-shaping media discover and project a demand for racially defined reparations that cuts precisely against building such solidarity.”
Finally, Reed noted as a point of “interest” that “Randall Robinson, mainstream poster boy for reparations advocacy, is a member of the Rockefeller family’s Council on Foreign Relations.”
All that is required to update the passages to 2017 is to alter the affiliations: “Isn’t it interesting that Coates’s has been provided a blogging platform by the leading organ of neoliberalism, The Atlantic. his books published, and receiving the editorial and marketing resources of mainstream publishing houses, invariably receiving glowing reviews in the pages of the agenda setting media.”
While Reed would not apply the banal phrase “neoliberal tool” to describe Coates, when pressed to deliver one, his unsurprisingly harsh assessment includes Coates as among “the black shock troops for neoliberalism.”
As other have noted, the problem isn’t so much Coates, but rather the failure of the left to recognize, yet again, how what Nancy Fraser refers to as “progressive neoliberalism” routinely deploys multiculturalism as a delivery vehicle for injecting its reactionary program. Rather than accepting it as unchallengeable conventional wisdom, the left which should be resisting it at every turn.
It’s particularly disappointing to find Klein and Tometi, normally capable of requisite skepticism, taken in by the savvy marketing and wide circulation of Coates’s goods.
They should be the first to call it out for what it is.