Last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us that a rejection of reparations for slavery and other crimes against black Americans is tantamount to intellectual unseriousness and a deficient version of political radicalism. That his piece on the subject singled out Democratic political candidate Bernie Sanders, who had recently told the Iowa Brown and Black Forum that he doesn’t support reparations, nearly burst the left consensusphere on Twitter and elsewhere.
The response to Coates differed by degree of intensity, but it usually went something like this: Even if I agree with you about reparations, why would you attack the one candidate who has policies specifically aimed at improving black lives? Why not attack Hillary Clinton, too? The next day, Killer Mike, who has become a persistent voice of reason and a tonal equalizer for Sanders supporters during this primary, rebutted Coates more or less on the above terms. The two spoke later, agreeing (with obvious mutual respect) to disagree.
On Sunday evening, Coates responded with a second piece titled “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination.” Though the short post was mostly a clarifying restatement with links, it did elaborate on why Sanders became the target of a critique when Clinton did not: Bernie Sanders calls himself a political radical; Hillary Clinton is a run-of-the-mill Democrat (whom Coates has criticized before, and just did again). The takeaway is that it’s unsurprising that Clinton opposes reparations, whereas Sanders’ lack of support for reparations puts the lie to his radicalism (or socialism). If Clinton’s rejection of reparations, for Coates, is “hardly a surprise, Sanders’ stance against them “run[s] counter to his chosen name” — again, his self-described “radical” position. Coates then moves on to point out two things: 1. that Sanders’ avoidance of “divisive” politics of reparations recalls centrist or even rightist politics from his adversaries; 2. that reparations, like abolition and black civil rights, will require “divisive” measures on the part of politicians.
To my mind, Coates is right to pressure Sanders. I have lately been at a loss for why anyone would deny the intersectional rightness and coalitional power of a two-pronged, simultaneous attack on white supremacy and income inequality. And I was pissed off by Sanders’ matter-of-fact rejection of reparations (sometimes frankness is unthoughtful) at the forum. Maybe it did smack of political expediency. Iowa first. South Carolina later.
Still, over the last week it has become clear to me that Sanders and Coates are similar in at least one way: they are both acting like hedgehogs in search of a fox. For Coates, the term is reparations first; for Sanders, it’s relief for “the middle class.”
In the first case, insofar as he opposes Sanders’ candidacy (and I’ll presume this is the root of his disagreement with Killer Mike, until he says otherwise), Coates is foregoing support for substantial if incremental relief for black citizens on the debatable grounds that this relief falls short of the threshold of moral or political righteousness. This point is underwritten by a rhetorical sleight of hand on Coates’ part, one that rightly hitches Bernie Sanders to a questionable “radicalism” but somehow lets Hillary Clinton off the hook, at least on the question of reparations.
Coates’ idea that our dissent should be based on a candidate’s “chosen name” — in the case of Bernie Sanders: “radical” — is incomplete. What about the names politicians fail to call themselves? Hillary Clinton, with or without her husband, is a neoliberal radical, whether she calls herself that or not. (Corey Robin has highlighted Clinton’s radical, dangerous neoliberalism this week.) The bottom line: given the neoliberal programs that Clinton has made possible or at least supported since the early 1990s, couldn’t her election make life worse for black people? Can Coates say the same about Bernie Sanders?
On Sanders’ part, Coates is right that his intransigence on the subject of reparations diminishes his claims to radicalism. It should also, at the very least, call into question his ability to build a coalition that can challenge neoliberal capitalism in the coming years. (Why would anyone want socialism without reparations?) But given this, you’d think that Sanders supporters would pressure him to change instead of carrying him around like a bird egg, protecting him until he hatches. This is, after all, an American presidential campaign, one that requires a tremendous amount of vetting. And while the primary between Clinton and Sanders has so far remained civil, whomever survives it won’t be met with the same kindness. On the contrary, Sanders — socialist or progressive liberal, radical or not — will need even stronger and broader support to win the general election than he has now.
If you take a closer look at Coates’ starting point for reparations, Sanders’ lack of support is all the more baffling. Why? Coates has been clear across several pieces that support for reparations could or should begin with HR 40, a bill that sets up a commission to “examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.” Coates’ baseline for “supporting reparations” — at least at this point — is researching how they “might actually work”:
A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.
“But we are not interested.” Coates wrote this line in June of 2014, when he first made “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, and it’s still true. Why would we now expect him to change course, especially given that it took him four years — and a hard-earned change of mind — to arrive at his conclusion?
And the fact that Coates changed his mind is important. Four years is the length of one presidential term. One could argue, on this basis, that Bernie Sanders deserves at least one shot, one term, one election to promote HR 40 or something like it. On the other hand: the sooner the better.