The drama unfolded online in a tabloid-like frenzy as Dr. West offered pointed criticism of Mr. Coates — and Mr. Coates soon decided to deactivate his Twitter account. It brought what historians consider a familiar occurrence in the black freedom struggle onto mobile phones everywhere.
“There have always been these debates between black male intellectuals about how much we should believe in the American project, about what is the path to freedom, and about the tenor of one’s agitation,” said Brittney Cooper, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University. “How raucous, how disruptive should you be?”
The difference is wide in some cases. Malcolm X was more open to using violence as a form of self-defense than Dr. King, even though their beliefs were more nuanced and overlapping than the popular perception. Whereas Du Bois pushed for an expansion of civil rights, Washington was more compromising, urging black people to look within — get an industrial education, build wealth — in order to minimize the terror they faced.
With Dr. West and Mr. Coates, there does not seem to be much distance between their underlying views on racism and white supremacy, even as their arguments have different emphases.
This current dispute stems from Dr. West asserting in a column in The Guardian that Mr. Coates’s analysis of racism and white supremacy fails to account for broader factors like class and patriarchy, and that he is not critical enough of former President Barack Obama. Mr. Coates rebutted in a string of Twitter posts with excerpts from his work that included criticisms of Mr. Obama, and analyses of gender, poverty, war and other areas that Dr. West said he had failed to address.
“I can’t write on everything,” Mr. Coates wrote on Twitter. “I try my damnedest to be as grounded as I possibly can. And when I throw a punch, I try to have my feet set, and to swing with intention.”
In one of his most notable pieces, Mr. Coates, 42, laid out the case for reparations, and much of his writing explores the systemic structures that are detrimental to black Americans and that keep white people in power. Dr. West, 64, who came of age during the civil rights era and is equally dubious of the United States government, often highlights what he feels are the evils of capitalism and war, and regularly engages in direct action. He is from the tradition of liberation theology, contrary to Mr. Coates’s atheism.
Those who support Dr. West’s analysis have faulted Mr. Coates as unwilling to risk anything with what he writes and for being too kind to Mr. Obama. Supporters of Mr. Coates have noted the breadth of his writing and his willingness to openly grapple with concepts he is trying to master.
They also wonder whether Dr. West’s critique has been driven more by personality than policy. Observers have noted Dr. West’s feuds with other rising black scholars over the years, including Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and writer, and Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor at Wake Forest University.
The sniping continues, with Dr. Dyson suggesting that Dr. West is feuding because he is preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of his book “Race Matters,” a best-seller that explores the broad swath of issues facing black communities.
“Intellectually, Cornel West has not been relevant,” Dr. Dyson said. “The best way to engage Ta-Nehisi is to write the book you think he’s missing. It’s no surprise that he is claiming some kind of public stance against Ta-Nehisi, which will generate enormous controversy, which will point to the reissue of his book.”
Dr. West’s criticism of Mr. Coates dates back a couple of years to what Dr. West saw as the writer’s soft handling of Mr. Obama. The latest iteration of their rift started when, in an interview published in The New York Times last month, he questioned Mr. Coates’s street cred and called him “the darling of the white and black neoliberal establishment.”
Then came the blistering Guardian essay and Mr. Coates’s response on Twitter in which his only mention of Dr. West was to congratulate him on the anniversary of the publication of “Race Matters.”
Reached by telephone this week, Mr. Coates declined to comment.
Dr. West, in an interview, rejected that his critique is personal, or an attempt to draw attention to himself.
“We must maintain the highest standard of the struggle for freedom because the suffering is so overwhelming,” Dr. West said. “It’s not about Coates. It’s not about West. It’s not about any individual. It’s about masses of people who are suffering.”
But he did express remorse that Mr. Coates felt he had to leave Twitter.
“I don’t want nobody to come at him,” Dr. West said. “He’s still my brother and he’s got his own brilliance. He’s a very important voice.”
While Dr. West said he was not that familiar with many of Mr. Coates’s policy positions (the one he knows well, reparations, he agrees with), they had crucial differences in philosophy. Dr. West has been highly critical of Mr. Coates, for instance, for not centering capitalism in his analyses of white supremacy. Without making that connection, Dr. West said it would be difficult to create effective policy solutions.
“White supremacy then ends up being some kind of magical force that floats above history and floats above society and, therefore, you can’t do anything about it,” he said.
Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said she agreed with Dr. West that analyzing capitalism was necessary to fully understand white supremacy. She also said she believed that Mr. Coates’s work does at least subtly delve into class issues, pointing to his article in the Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations,” which focused on poor and working-class black people as central to the demand for reparations.
“What I hear in some of Ta-Nehisi’s critiques is a class analysis informed by an understanding of race, even though he may not articulate it as such,” said Dr. Ransby, who teaches African-American, gender and women’s studies.
To scholars, Dr. West and Mr. Coates are simply proxies for a broader intellectual tension that black people have long grappled with.
“The old debate is between black nationalism and black radicalism,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, who is a friend of both men.
Mr. Coates is rooted in a tradition of black nationalism that is skeptical of the ability of white people to grant full equality to African-Americans, Dr. Muhammad said. Dr. West, meanwhile, is a leftist who sees black people, along with other marginalized groups and working-class white allies, leading a global fight against former colonial powers.
What scholars hope is that this dispute leads to a broader reckoning with what America means for black people and how to achieve equality. Is there a path forward for black people within the existing political structure through the anti-capitalist populism that Dr. West promotes? Or are there solutions — like reparations — that could dismantle the legacy of white supremacy that Mr. Coates often writes about? “I certainly think that those conversations feel especially urgent in this moment, in the Trump era,” Dr. Cooper, of Rutgers, said.
But many have found it distressing that in an age of renewed white supremacist rallies and unrest over police killings, an academic difference between two black male intellectuals who are solidly on the left is taking up so much oxygen. And they also lament that the frenzy surrounding these two men is overshadowing the critical work and insight of black women, who have been at the fore of the Black Lives Matter movement and other contemporary efforts to fight racism.
“I dream of black freedom and resistance that isn’t unduly occupied by and centered on some dudes being mad at each other and not liking each other and thus pinning the entire moral failing of American empire on other individual dudes and making us read about it,” Eve Ewing, a writer and sociologist, wrote on Twitter.
Ferrari Sheppard, a multimedia artist, wrote: “Black intellectuals coming for one another about social justice issues on white-owned platforms is chain smoking cigarettes while eating kale.”
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