There is a saying within the African-American community that once you start doing well, there is a certain type of black person who will start to hate on you and try to tear you down. Like crabs in a barrel, when you try to rise above your circumstances, they will try to pull you back down. After reading yet another attack on a younger, accomplished African-American by Dr. Cornel West that is what makes me disappointed as a black woman trying to rise above the circumstances she was born into. Instead of him being the brilliant and provocative speaker on race that he once was, he’s become just another crab in the barrel.
Although I am an attorney, I will freely admit that I am out of my depth talking about the relative merit or criticism of neoliberalism. I’m not interested in taking sides politically with either Dr. West or Ta-Nehisi Coates because I am more to the right of center within the Democratic Party than either of them. Regardless of political affiliation or ideological leanings, I love to see other black people win. In a world where we are too often seen as only being thugs, gangbangers or drug dealers, I have a sense of pride when I see black people acknowledged as having brilliance by the larger world like both Dr. West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. It begs the question of why someone as accomplished as Dr. West would insist on attacking other black thought leaders, and if his Ph. D actually stands for Player-Hater-Degree.
I think that this situation with Dr. West speaks to a much larger issue that seems to plague some African-Americans who have risen to a high level: too often instead of extending a helping hand to other people of color there is a perceptive fear that there can be only one of us, and they are bound and determined to be that one. This includes the willingness to disparage and cut off the legs of another black person to maintain that position for themselves.
This situation is about more than just a political disagreement, but also about a culture of distrust that sometimes exist between the younger generations and some established older black people who seem intent to kick another up and coming African-American off the ladder of success. I know there are people reading this piece who will lay the blame at the feet of “white supremacy” instead of laying it where it belongs, which regretfully is at the feet of every African-American that chooses to hurt another black person to preserve their place and couch it in some moral superiority like Dr. West has shown himself to do (i.e. calling out another person’s authenticity or commitment to black America.) What we all need to be conscious of is our commitment to black people is shown to the world by your interactions with other black people every day, not just some ideals that you preach about instead of practicing in real life.
Dr. West criticism of other black people somehow always seems to come from the place that they are not “black enough”. That is the balance for the successful black person. To find success in the larger mainstream (“white world”) there are decisions and choices that you will have to make that other black people may judge harshly even labeling you with problematic terms like “coon” or “sellout”. I’m sure that these are issues that Dr. West himself has had to deal with being a professor at a primarily white institution like Princeton. The idea that there is only one way to experience blackness, or to talk about race in this country as it relates to black people is actually one of our community’s biggest weaknesses. I have a feeling that Mr. Coates decided to not engage rather than to disrespect an elder who is probably someone that he grew up idolizing. The idea that Dr. West calls the people he criticizes his “brother” or “sister” just before he proceeds to tear them down is amazing to me. If he was really interested in engaging Mr. Coates in a conversation about their philosophical differences it could have been done in private instead of putting it “in the streets”. Instead, this appears to be about Dr. West making himself relevant again while also hitting out at not only Mr. Coates, but also President Obama. Now, don’t get me wrong, the issues of poor Americans is very important and we should encourage others to speak about those issues, but to shame them for not speaking about issues in the way that you think is correct is harmful.
I find it ironic that a man who went to Harvard and Princeton and has taught at Princeton for the majority of his career, who himself was a “white liberal darling” of some of the most elite institutions in the country, would call into question the commitment or knowledge of Mr. Coates to the issues of poor black communities. To be even more frank, if Dr. West was so concerned with the education and values of young black intellectuals than he could have become a mentor to this next generation of black academics instead of calling them out in public, or even considered teaching at a college that has more than only 8% of black students currently in undergraduate students as Princeton University does. Maybe a place like Howard University which is a primarily black institution and where Mr. Coates attended college would accomplish this. As someone who has spent my life in primarily white institutions I think representation matters so under normal circumstances I would never criticize another black person for not being in majority black spaces, but would Dr. West measure up to the standard that he has set for other black intellectuals.
None of this means that we are required to agree with each other, in fact there are a large variety of opinions on a host of issues in the black community. However, pointed personal attacks on the essence of someone’s work and their commitment to the Black community as he has done this to other black scholars like Melissa Harris Perry and Michael Eric Dyson in the past are not the example we need to be setting for African-American youth. Maybe Dr. West should ask himself if he is really “my brother’s keeper” or maybe just the biggest crab in the barrel.