If you’ve been perusing Twitter over the past few weeks, you may have noticed that a spat that broke out between noted intellectuals Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Vox has an explanation of what it believes to be the reason behind West’s attack on Coates’ values and overall philosophy. Ultimately, the quarrel led to Coates leaving Twitter rather than engaging in what was destined to be another fruitless Twitter sparring session. He should be lauded for this decision. Most people would not have had his courage.
But I have no intention of exploring why Cornel West would engage in such childish dialogue with someone who undoubtedly shares most of his vision for social justice and equality. Rather, I want to focus on one particular bit of West’s critique. The relevant text is reproduced below:
“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.” (See Vox article above for more detail.)
Here, West commits a crucial error. He assumes that these so-called “systemic issues” are the true reason behind the suffering of blacks and other minorities. As a black man, I feel incredibly grateful to be able to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. I would have much less faith in our ability to overcome our problems if they were built into society in the grandiose ways that West describes.
See, big terms like “Wall Street power” and “dynamics of class” might garner the interest of grant-making bodies and university tenure committees. Undoubtedly this has served Cornel West well in the ivory tower to which he has consigned himself. But if one breaks these terms down on even an elementary level, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Does “Wall Street power” really hold black people down? Is it a banker’s fault that a member of our community has personal problems. Most likely not.
This is not to say that all of our faults are our own. Such a view would be unfair and myopic. I prefer to use the inverse of this view. Rather than identifying which of our problems are our fault, it is far better to see which of our problems can be solved through our own volition. Does Cornel West really expect to solve the issue of Wall Street greed? Would fixing this problem bring an end to our suffering? Absolutely not.
West hardly seems to speak about solving problems through the power of our own will and grit. Large-scale societal problems will, almost by definition, not be solved in one lifetime. This certainly does not mean we should not make an effort, but betting all our chips on this work is a poor investment if we expect any return for our own lives. Instead, we can take our lives in our own hands and change our circumstances forever. Hard work, hustle, and creativity have minted billions of dollars for those who are willing to use them properly. Tweeting about Wall Street with little knowledge and less experience has not and will not do that. Perhaps Professor West will realize this and endeavor to help our community in more concrete ways. Until then, he’s not helping.