Kanye West illustration to Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic essay

This essay, on the debate over Kanye West’s comments about Donald Trump and about slavery, was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the new working class.) It was published in the Observer, 13 May 2018, under the headline ‘Are rightwing black people traitors to the cause? Of course they’re not’.

‘I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny/ And what do I do? Act more stupidly’, rapped Kanye West on Can’t Tell Me Nothing. And act more stupidly he did last week. He began by embracing Donald Trump as ‘a brother’ and ended by suggesting slavery had been a ‘choice’.

The backlash was swift. From 50 Cent to Spike Lee to Roxane Gay, celebrities, scholars and seemingly half of Twitter pushed back, pointing out the imbecilic character of West’s comments on slavery. Not only had savage force been used to capture, transport and maintain transatlantic slaves, but, despite the brutality, slaves had constantly rebelled against their condition, heroically and at great cost.

But if West’s claims were idiotic, much of the response was equally so. The problem for many critics was not just what West said, but also that he was a black man saying it. His was an act of betrayal of the black community, indeed of his very blackness.

This argument was made most elegantly, and brutally, by the essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. In an acerbic tear-down titled I’m not black, I’m Kanye, Coates recalled his mother’s response to Michael Jackson. He ‘was dying to be white’, she observed; he was ‘erasing himself, so that we would forget that he had once been Africa beautiful and Africa brown’.

Thirty years on, Coates has a similar response to West. Black music, he argues, is inextricably linked with black history and community. And West, like Jackson, is attempting to escape that history and community, to be not-black. West champions ‘a white freedom’, a ‘freedom to be proud and ignorant’. And, writes Coates, all blacks ‘suffer for this, because we are connected’.

Many on the left have long seen rightwing black or gay people or women as traitors to the cause. There is something disturbing in this claim that there is a right way of thinking for oppressed peoples and that those who dissent are committing betrayal. It is a way of thinking about race, community and heresy that has deep, reactionary roots. ‘Traitors’ is how Islamists describe liberal Muslims. It is how the apartheid government in South Africa explained white anti-apartheid activists. And it is the label that the far right has long hung upon white anti-racists. Thomas Mair, who murdered Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, saw her as a ‘collaborator’. ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’, he declared at his trial.

It may be comforting to imagine that if black people are being reactionary, then they are not really black, or at least they are attempting to escape being black, by espousing ‘white’ ideas of freedom. But is it really less reactionary to imagine that ideas come colour-coded than it is to claim that slavery was a choice? Or any more progressive to insist that West is not black because he backs Donald Trump than it is to see Trump as a ‘brother’?

While some denounced West as a traitor, others insisted that whites should butt out of the debate. ‘If you think that you get to criticise black people for selling out to the system of anti-blackness that you as a non-black person benefit from and help maintain’, wrote Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle-based writer, ‘you need to check your privilege and be quiet for a while.’ Whites, she added, should ‘stay in your own lane’.

This, too, is an old racist trope. ‘As a person of colour,’ critic David Dennis wrote in a 2013 essay on West, ‘I’ve been told repeatedly to ‘stay in my lane’. From something as simple as being followed around my neighbourhood by police to my profession, where I’ve been told to stick to writing about ‘black stuff’ and leave the ‘real news’ to white writers.’

Where racists patrol the streets and the workplace to ensure black people know their place, a new class of ‘anti-racists’ seek to police public debates to ensure that only the right people speak and only the right things get said. Segregation of public debate in the name of ‘anti-racism’ – and that is what the demand to ‘stay in your lane’ amounts to – is no more progressive than the racist segregation of social space.

Any struggle against injustice requires us to get out of our lanes, to insist on the right, whoever one may be, to speak as we see fit, against every wrong. As Kanye West and many of his critics have shown over the past weeks, there is more than one way of being reactionary.



The image is by Glenn Harvey from Ta Nehisi-Coates’ Atlantic essay.


    • harvardreferences

      I think that even in the US they’re just dismissed by the left as ‘right wing’, meaning there’s no need to further engage with anything they have to say. It says a lot about how this new left deals with heterodox opinions that such a position can be taken seriously. Loury certainly was a Reganite and holds some conservative views, but in McWhorter case it’s just laughable. Both of them are just essentially coming at this from a universalist ‘justice as fairness’ place. Although I suspect Rawls would be called ‘right wing’ these days.
      They are both excellent, even if you don’t always agree it’s always a view point worth engaging with. Particularly when taking on the most sacred of sacred cows that is Ta-Neishi Coates.

      • damon

        I’ve followed them for years, and they’ve had some fantastic conversations on that Bloggingheads channel. People who would dismiss them out of hand are a major part of why there is such a huge gulf about race in America. Why there are still so many racially segregated neighbourhoods even.
        One black woman wrote an article in the Guardian last year titled “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. Again – that’s part of the problem right there. If you challenge the Ta-Neishi Coates narrative, then you are either deluded (in their opinion) or possibly a racist.

        I love the way Glenn dismisses the great fuss about the two guys who were arrested in Starbucks when staff called the police for them sitting in the place without buying anything. As he says, maybe they’d been bothered by people coming in like that before. Plenty of McDonald’s restaurants even have security guards and run quite a watchful regime inside. If they think you’re loitering you’ll be told to leave.
        But that incident in Starbucks became an international story.

      • jswagner

        Yes, those two gentlemen are thought-provoking and thought-correcting, esp McWhorter. In contrast, I get little out of Coates’ non-historical/journalist writing, as it is repetitive and high-level and flowery, and increasingly absorbed with his own experience. A white liberal can get a lot from a little Coates; I lasted 4 pages of his last book. This essay seemed the worst I’ve read that way, especially given the grinding and confusing equating of two artists, and the way he chose to fold and spindle Kanye’s slavery comments as grist. And Coates should draw occasional positive contrast with the past, even if only in passing, so he can’t so easily be accused of a view of history as eternal, objectively unchanging moral loop. I doubt he has such a view, but one could be forgiven for thinking he does.

        Coates’ thesis in this essay is getting pulled every which way, though. The outrage porn drags the eye, as it did Kenan’s, to the arguably anti-racist bits. I disagree with McWhorter, who didn’t even read the essay: it was much less an argument that Kanye wanted to be white, which I’m not sure Coates said or believes, but more usefully/generally, that West and Jackson sucked up to the dominant white paradigm, which made them bad examples for their fans. It matters to black people when black celebrities don’t repel Trumpism stridently, and/or enthusiastically glamourize success in a society that used to explicitly exclude them. The various twisted narratives of the wealthy and famous in America have passed on dumbass ideas to the poor and many ethnicities for centuries. At one point, Coates made an intersectional sweep across subjects to make that broader point– yet here we are, talking about how Coates says Kanye wants to be white. This essay is a pretty lousy example of reactionary racism, if you ask me.

        Kenan’s sounded to me pretty much like how Fox News does when they get outraged about the antics of campus radicals: oh, isn’t it outrageous and out of the blue and deadly for the nation. Yet we should expect liberal black commentators to be prejudiced against an ethnicity that oppressed their ancestors for centuries. It’s simplistic to equate black racism at this point in history to what we think of as white or normal racism, as Kenan did here, to assume a parity in efficaciousness or pertinence. Just the fact that white racism directly and unremittingly caused discrimination and death for centuries is important, in terms of understanding black racism, treating it, and knowing how to fix it. Telling a white person to stay in their lane is racist, but it’s a qualitatively different racism than redlining real estate, or hiring a white felon before one hires a black person. Also, racism toward white ethnicities is commonly overt, and used as a silencing tool or social filter – while racism toward minorities tends to be much more broad-spectrum and much more powerful, even if less overt.

        When I volunteered at Standing Rock, one American Indian cook wouldn’t serve me because of my skin color, and berated me when I spoke. It was outrageous and wrong, yes– but it was also a great opportunity for many conversations, some whispered and some not, that amounted to a cross-cultural effort to address a situation put into play by the forefathers of our enemy. We are naive to think that racism mustn’t crop up in the oppressed, that we can have one racism and escape the other. The cook’s attitude wasn’t right, but it was perfectly understandable. We experienced overwhelming racism daily there by deputies and Federal goons, on a reservation that was a ghetto. We can’t minimize or explain away racism, but compared to the racism that we should focus on and don’t, the cook’s was a sideshow.

        • My point is not, as you seem to imagine, to equate ‘black racism’ and ‘white racism’ (I actually used neither phrase). My point, rather, is to ask: if we are to challenge the racism and injustices and inequalities faced by African Americans, and other minorities, on what basis should we do so? Does it help to draw upon ideas or tropes that are reactionary? I understand your point about the Native American cook at Standing Rock. But Coates is not that cook; neither is Oluo. It seems a bit absurd to suggest that if one is critical of their ideas, and of the lineages and the consequences of those ideas, then one is actually suggesting ‘a parity in efficaciousness or pertinence’ of ‘white racism’ and ‘black racism’, or sounding like Fox News.

  1. I see West, like the rapper (or was it a baseballplayer?) who recently climed to believe that the Earth is flat, as a celeb spouting clickbait in order to gain notoriety. In West’s case, it’s only clickbait because he’s black, so his colour does come into it, albeit indirectly. Even so, I’m surprised that anyone of stature rose to the bait, rather than leaving his original remarks in the obscurity they merited, but then I’m out of touch with that part of the ignoosphere.

    • harlan leyside

      West is much more than merely a ‘black’ man; he’s about the closest there is to a rap-god currently living. Coates’ essay say as much, detailing how he effectively worshipped West in his youth. So these absurd comments from someone so ‘sacred’, is presumably particularly galling for his hordes of fans.

  2. yandoodan

    West was commenting on the lack of slave uprisings during the 400 years of slavery.

    “Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved. … [T]he reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now. Even the statement was an example of free thought. It was just an idea.”

    The lack of context in the criticisms West’s comments is disturbing. Are we criticizing a troubling idea? Or are we making stuff up to demonize a critic?

      • yandoodan

        And some doozies — Haiti, Nat Turner. But he seems to think that there should have been more. Debatable, but not nutty. More to the point, it means exactly the opposite as the quote given without context.

        • harlan leyside

          Well said. It seems reasonable to suggest that ‘anti-racist’ legislation and much action related to it, has served to reinforce the clumsy and calamitous, pseudo-scientific concept of ‘race’, when the real chains that need breaking are those that culturally continue differentiating people according to such superficialities as supposed skin color.

          The fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’ still seems a long way off.

  3. Howard B

    Why care what some idiot celebrity says as if thinking the zeitgeist in some dopey Beastie Boys pose? I mean maybe he can educate Trump and teach him “philosophy” He can be the jester Trump’s horse whisperer

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