Ta-Nehisi Coates Blasts Bernie Sanders over Reparations Opposition

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Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates at the University of Virginia during the MLK Celebration 2015. Photo by Montesbradley.

Baltimore-born, award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t accept Sen. Bernie Sanders’s justification for opposing reparations for slavery. And he penned a fierce and well-reasoned rebuttal for The Atlantic.

Asked whether he supported reparations, Sanders said no. His reasons? “First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.”

But could it possibly be more divisive than “socialism”? Could it somehow be less likely to get through Congress than Sanders’s universal health-care plan? Coates believes that Sanders’s arbitrary pragmatism when it comes to issues of racial justice reveal “how the left prioritizes its various radicalisms.”

“This is the ‘class first’ approach,” Coates writes, “originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates.”

Coates himself famously mounted an argument in favor of reparations that presented a history of America in which, “from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state and local—repeatedly plundered black communities.”

For Coates, social programs that ensure access to education, health-care, shelter, and food for the impoverished are inadequate because they don’t reverse centuries of systematic disempowerment and theft — they don’t return what was stolen.

“Sanders’s response has prompted Coates to ask “why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy. Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?”

In terms of the horse race, this is bad for Sanders, who is looking to gain ground among voters of color. But if Coates’s argument holds, racial justice is the big loser. To wit: “If not even an avowed socialist can be bothered to grapple with reparations […] then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and lifetimes of our children.”


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