By Daniel Falcone
Jared Ball is Professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto, and coeditor of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X. Ball has been a steady force, offering fresh and powerful insights into the construction of Black identity, colonialism and the politics of the mainstream press. He can be found at imixwhatilike.org.
DF: Recently the famed academic Cornel West, author of several best sellers and the well-known Race Matters engaged in a debate of sorts with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for the Atlantic magazine and the author of Between the World and Me. Coates’s latest work is entitled, We Were Eight Years in Power. What did you first think when you heard of the dispute?
JB: My first thoughts were as my colleague’s, Dr. Hate. Why didn’t West say this much in response to Michael Eric Dyson who actually took thousands of words in an attempt to publicly demolish him? That would have been a much better way to make a point about pop punditry and neoliberalism.
Next I thought how interesting life and politics are. I was first introduced to Cornel West via his debate years ago with Dr. John Henrik Clarke in which West was characterized as the neoliberal in that context (and still would be vis-a-vis a Clarke). I [further] thought that it was West and Tavis Smiley, who refused to invite to their then national radio program any of those who contributed to our book of essays criticizing Viking Press’ book on Malcolm X.
[This] despite having twice as guest a Viking Press defender and woeful heir to neoliberal approaches to the study of Black radical traditions. I [also] thought how we had refused to include an essay in that book by Coates due to its neoliberal approach despite the book being published by his father, William Paul Coates. And I [finally] had a good laugh and concluded that neither of them is Dhoruba bin-Wahad so is any of it really that important?
DF: Outlets like CNN tried to compare the feud to prior disagreements between black intellectuals. What is behind the need for CNN to minimize the uniqueness or look for past examples, of this particular feud?
JB: [Most likely] because CNN, like most other commercial or so-called “alternative” media outlets are owned by and target [an audience] of mostly White, male, capitalists – who by definition cannot withstand logical, sustained, and honest discussions of Black, or any, intellectual exchange that goes beyond spectacle.
DF: To me, West is an admirable figure and seems to have many valid points reading Coates, but at the same time he too has benefitted from commercialization. Am I correct with this assertion?
JB: Of course. [Cornel West] was in the Matrix! But he will at least support and debate those on his Left. I have always appreciated West for that, my book crew regarding Malcolm X notwithstanding, he told me it was largely outside his control at the time. [Furthermore] to be fair, West has often publicly and with respect, engaged those to his Left. My previous reference to Dr. Clarke, West was there, sat in an audience that was for Clarke, a home court advantage, and took an intellectual beating from someone far to his Left. Most pop pundits will not do that, unless, like Dyson or Henry Louis Gates, it is to perform a hit job against them. That is a mark of principle and it is something worthy of respect.
DF: How important is it for black people to re-evaluate their relationship to the Democratic Party? And is it important for white liberals to do the same?
JB: I haven’t voted for a Democrat since my first election in 1992 and I want that vote back. No one who understands the history of the struggle around voting would at this point accept this nonsense of “lesser of evils” and would, instead, advocate at minimum, a radical electoral break from both major parties.
This past election is just the most egregious example but after Trump being imposed on us by the Democratic Party, after having been propped up as a celebrity for decades by a liberal media and political establishment, and after eight years of an Obama administrative neoliberal (neocolonial) sham, it should be clear the DP is no place for a politics of real change. Materially, the world is worse off after eight years of Obama, the elite who now look for more under Trump were made so much richer during the previous administration, and now Trump actually looks good by comparison – making many feel like things were actually better than they were under Obama. And it was the DP that first promoted Bernie as real new change (despite him being an Independent who had been around for decades with nothing real track record to offer an actual Left) and then scuttled him.
It was the DP who called for the “pied piper” of Trump and then offered up among the most odious of potential “barrier breakers” to run against him. And now people want to blame the “Alt-Right” and the Republicans? No, it was the phony liberals that created this madness and who deserve our first wave of critique and abandonment.
DF: West seems progressive and talks about class quite often while Coates seems liberal and often discusses race. Can you discuss how important it is for these issues to intersect? And do you think that radicals and academics treat race differently in their work when compared to white and black liberals?
JB: [Mostly all] white people will always allow you to tell them they are racist if they don’t have to give up any material wealth or power. So class is an essential part of any discussion. But even as a “race-first” thinker, Coates does not represent all or certainly the most radical wings and does not advocate the most radical forms of response with in those traditions. So it wouldn’t be fair to compare him to, for instance, a Marcus Garvey whose race-first nationalism was very different and called for a very different political platform (one that, by the way, did not include becoming a darling of the white liberal “left”).
And, of course, race is used by everyone for different reasons all the time. Race is used to oppress and it is also used by the oppressed to gain individual and sometimes collective gain. White supremacy has made both West and Coates a lot of money and granted them a ton of attention. It has also threatened their lives. Those who are familiar with these debates know that West and Coates represent a tiny fraction of the range and realm of ideas here. Those for whom this “dust-up” feels new should just be reminded of what is true about every single other thing in this world: what is popular is always a fraudulent representation of whatever it claims to be and is often little more than commercial product served up for mostly affluent White audiences.
This is no different and as is always the case, there is so much more. In the end, the only real value to any of us is our ability to inspire people to organize themselves into unstoppable revolutionary forces that overthrow everything that prevents a radical redistribution of resources, wealth and services so that nobody anywhere suffers unnecessarily ever again.
How do any of us explain the relationships between race and class in ways that will create this movement? I don’t know. But that is my only remaining standard for any of this. Everything else is jokes, hence, our annual “hate awards.”