If You Haven’t Been Following Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Debate on Bernie Sanders and Reparations, You’re Missing out on the Major Intellectual Argument of Our Era
Welcome to Hey, Read This, the column feature where we talk about the Things You Should Be Reading.™
This week, we’re reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, the greatest black thinker of our time and arguably the greatest public intellectual of any color on any topic, and the vigorous discussion he started about race and American left-ish politics when he criticized Bernie Sanders for refusing to support racial reparations. Sanders argued such a policy would be “very divisive.” That didn’t sit well with Coates, and his response kicked off a firestorm of discussion about income inequality, racism and whether addressing the first is an acceptable way of addressing the second.
So, what’s the reading list?
Coates’ original 2014 piece, The Case for Reparations, is not necessarily required to understand the latest iteration of debate on reparations in American politics, but it is required reading to be a good person who can hold rational discussions on 21st-century racial policy. You might also want to check out the opposition to Coates’ thesis, especially Kevin Williamson’s rightwing response in the National Review.
1. The original critique
Coates started the current round of debate with a January 9 article in The Atlantic, Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? Here’s a taste:
Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform. […] Sanders is a lot of things, many of them good. But he is not the candidate of moderation and unification, so much as the candidate of partisanship and radicalism. […] Sometimes the moral course lies within the politically possible, and sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible. One of the great functions of radical candidates is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.
Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy.
2. The backlash
Many Bernie Sanders supporters resented Coates’ attack on a candidate who, they argue, is much more radical on issues of economic and racial justice than we have any right to expect—why attack him? And for something like reparations?
Bernie Sanders should not have so lightly brushed off reparations as a topic. It was glib and obtuse. Yet his proposal for directing federal resources at poverty-stricken populations because poor people are disproportionately black and brown is far better than Coates gives it credit for. Race-neutral redistribution and welfare are by necessity anti-racist.
3. The dig-in
Coates came back swinging in Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination, but in typical Coates fashion, his blow was a beautifully articulated, well-reasoned takedown of the idea that one should not critique a candidate running on a radical economic platform for not having a radical enough racial platform:
Again, briefly, treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages. The bandages help, but they will not suffice. […] The need for so many (although not all) of Sanders’s supporters to deflect the question, to speak of Hillary Clinton instead of directly assessing whether Sanders’s position is consistent, intelligent, and moral hints at something terrible and unsaid. The terribleness is this: To destroy white supremacy we must commit ourselves to the promotion of unpopular policy. To commit ourselves solely to the promotion of popular policy means making peace with white supremacy.
4. The contestation of the premise
Conor Friedersdorf, Coates’ colleague at The Atlantic, decided to shift the playing field. Most writers who had responded to Coates up to this point had accepted his premise about the value of reparations; they had merely questioned the use of this particular tool against this particular candidate. Friedersdorf, instead, went back to the drawing board in Why Bernie Sanders Is Right to Oppose Reparations, asserting that Sanders’ platform is not just the best option on the table for African-Americans but that it is better than what Coates brings to the table:
As best I can tell, Sanders’ position is that he wants to confer effectively identical benefits [as reparations] to poor and working-class black people. He wants them to benefit from redistribution. Although he wants to give it to them through a race-neutral transfer payment rather than a reparations check, the effect would ostensibly be the same. He would probably even argue that the effect would be better: Black Americans who’ve been unable to climb out of poverty due to past and present racism will get the help they need; so will members of other historically abused groups, impoverished white people (some of whom were wronged by government), and people whose poverty flows from bad choices but who deserve a second shot.
5. The socialist question
The final and, I think, most interesting development in the great Sanders v. Reparations War of 2016 began with an article in Jacobin, a socialist magazine well worth keeping on your radar, by Cedric Johnson. In An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him, Johnson argues that Coates’ brand of “anti-racist liberalism” fails to understand the class dynamic and capitalist operations that actually serve to oppress most black Americans:
Coates’s reparations argument rests in […] demanding racial parity within a market society, rather than the decommodification of housing, education, health care, and other human needs. […]
Contemporary forms of oppression are not propelled by the need to subjugate black labor to the interests of Southern planters and industrialists, but as a means of managing a growing class of Americans who are not exclusively black but have been made obsolete by hyper-industrialization, the large-scale introduction of automation and cybernetic command, just-in-time production, and other strategies of flexible accumulation in US farms and factories.
We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world, one where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.
Coates, never one to let a challenge stand, responded with a forceful critique of Johnson’s attempt to dissolve class-based oppression and racism under the same rubric:
I think a world with equal access to safe, quality, and affordable education; with the right to health care; with strong restrictions on massive wealth accumulation; with guaranteed childcare; and with access to the full gamut of birth-control, including abortion, is a better world. But I do not believe that if this world were realized, the problem of white supremacy would dissipate, anymore than I believe that if reparations were realized, the problems of economic inequality would dissipate. In either case, the notion that one solution is the answer to the other problem is not serious policy. It is a palliative. […]
In its pervasiveness, concentration, and reach across class lines, black poverty proves itself to be “fundamentally distinct” from white poverty. It would be much more convenient for everyone on the left if this were not true—that is to say if neighborhood poverty, if systemic poverty, menaced all communities equally. In such a world, one would only need to craft universalist solutions for universal problems. But we do not live that world.
Sequel (also pretty optional)
The reparations debate was recently brought up on the other side of the pond—although, due to the United Kingdom’s slightly different history with race relations, “reparations” in the British context means not payments to certain historically abused groups within the country but payments to certain historically abused groups in other countries. With that context in mind, Jason Hickel’s article in The Guardian, Enough of Aid—Let’s Talk Reparations, is well worth a read once you’re on the subject.
There, now don’t you feel a hundred times smarter?
Happy reading, and drop us a line in the comments to tell us about what (else) you’re reading this week.
Jacqui is a terrible dinner party guest—she only knows how to talk about politics and religion. On a typical Friday night, she can be found binge-watching her current Netflix show of choice, playing Civilization: The Board Game and drinking <$8 bottles of champagne.