Anyone who has been a part of my life in the last five years knows that I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is the best writer in America. His technical skill, his biting wit, and his towering intellect are a credit to his profession. His notoriety, at least among educated Americans, is proof that quality discourse and public intellectualism in this country has not been extinguished. Yesterday, Coates penned a short, acerbic article on Bernie Sanders opposition to reparations. Coates pushes Sanders on the issue, pointing out that if the best the radical left can offer as opposition to white supremacy is a rising tide that raises all ships it is no more serious about opposing the legacy and reality of anti-black policies and social programs than those on the right are who would simply ask us to pretend that it no longer exists.
The “class first” argument is too familiar to me. I have fought endlessly with colleagues and friends about it since my first year in graduate school. The “myth,” as Coates refers to it, is that racism is nothing more than a construct created by capitalists to create tension and dissent among the lower classes. Racism DOES create intra-class conflict. The way many poor whites harp on about their federal tax dollars (note: that refund you get is your tax dollars coming back– most of you pay little to no federal income tax) being wasted on social programs that support undeserving, black people illustrates this point. But the existence of racism and the way it exasperates intra-class conflict is not due to some insidious plot by the owners of capital. It is the legacy of hundreds of smaller historical actions, few of which were thought out ahead of time.
Sanders position on the issue of reparations, and black rights in general, represents the orthodox view of liberals in America. They are, for lack of a better term, class reductionists. When the issue of race comes up, in prison reform, police brutality, unemployment, poverty, or education the issue is turned into an individual problem to be treated efficiently (put body cams on cops!) or an economic issue (just “create more jobs,” whatever the hell that means). For most liberals, there simply is no systemic race problem.
This is absurd, of course. These same people would be the first to tell you of the structural problems that must be overcome in creating an equal world for women (who most certainly do face an unleveled playing field). We need laws addressing equal pay for equal work. We need more protections in place for women in the workforce, in public spaces, and in our courts. Same for the LGBTQ movement. Liberals accept that the heteronormative social structure we have cannot be cured by economic policy, but requires direct and deliberate action. But when the question turns to black people, liberals show little more commitment to changing the system than the conservatives who support keeping it as it is. There are no bonus points for admitting the system isn’t just.
Anti-black racism in this nation is its own special category. You can’t just roll it into one issue the way we typically do with other messy fights over rights and a place in American society. Its roots are deep. White America has repeatedly and unabashedly looted and plundered the black community. We held them in bondage and traded them like cattle. We gave them the right to vote on paper, but refused to let them do so in practice. We took their businesses when they succeeded. We left them holding the bag while we fled with the treasures and jobs of entire industries and cities. We red-lined them within our cities, north and south. We sold them toxic mortgages and then blamed them for bringing down the housing economy. We lock them up disproportionately. We kill them for exercising their 2nd Amendment rights. We authorize our law enforcement officers to feel comfortable killing them for “disrespect.” We celebrate the use of lethal force against them at almost any time, regardless of age, threat level, or suspected crimes. We literally built our early economy on their backs– industry, trade, and plantation agriculture as we know them would have been impossible without slaves. We continued to steal their labor– from sharecropping in the past to our debtors prison legal system today. Billions are made each year locking them up. Billions more made on predatory loans and mortgages. Billions more on predatory student loans to suspect educational institutions. White supremacy is much more than a bunch of hate-mongers in silly hooded costumes doling out violence and terror in sleepy little southern towns. No group is more subjugated, abused, stolen from, or physically decimated in America. It is embedded in the system. Yet, you will see little in the way of progressive policy proposals addressing these issues.
So why does the left avoid tackling anti-black racism? Why is this so divisive in the party of social change?
As Coates says, the “spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as “divisive” (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist.” Much of Sanders agenda is radical. Yet it is wildly popular with the liberal base and independents who feel squeezed by an economy tilted too far in favor of the super wealthy. Issues of black equality have far less traction. To put it bluntly, white America, liberal and conservative, does not care about historical or contemporary racial injustice. It makes people uncomfortable. Most reject the idea that blacks have a tougher road to travel. After all, we all know some anecdotal story about a person we never met who lost a job opening, school slot, or scholarship to some much less deserving black person (despite literally every study and demographic statistic saying this is the opposite of what happens). Many fear giving up their privilege. Others simply believe what conservatives have been telling us since 1968– racism is over. To agitate about an issue like this is a political loser.
I hope Bernie Sanders remains a man of his word and meets with Coates to discuss this issue. He is not only the candidate of “partisanship and radicalism,” but has been the candidate of open discourse and evolving thought. The liberal movement in America has long needed to take a strong look at its policies and positions regarding the black community. It needs its radical agents to stand up to the mollifying forces of pragmatism and opportunism. If the agents of change and social justice don’t care about ending white supremacy, who will?