So, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest contribution to the race debate in America is the claim that, by not endorsing the payment of reparations to black Americans for historical racism, Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a hypocritical socialist (since BS can see class disparities clearly, but he goes color-blind when confronted by “white supremacy.”) This, in my view, is a ludicrous claim — one betraying an impoverished understanding of both “reparations” and “socialism.”
As it happens, I addressed the subtle issues at play in this debate nearly a decade ago, in this essay linked here for your edification, which someone on Bernie Sanders’s staff should probably read before he makes his next speech about black lives mattering:
Trans-Generational Justice – Compensatory vs. Interpretative Approaches
The essay is long, and time is short, so here’s an abstract:
Black Reparations advocacy is problematic not because (as many critics would have it) the people pushing it are quarrelsome jerks. It is problematic, and bad for this country, and bad for black people ourselves, because it squanders blacks’ dwindling political capital and misses our chance to show genuine moral leadership in this nation, as the early civil rights era heroes had done. We are still a multi-racial nation, and will be for as far into the future as anyone can see. The moral and political issues most salient in the context of “blackness” remain to be addressed (over-crowded prisons, ghettos from which opportunity for social betterment has fled, and so on), and “compassionate conservatism” doesn’t even begin to address them. But, then, neither will the payment of financial reparations for historical harm.
The issue confronting those black leaders and intellectuals brave enough to think outside the box today is how to convert our historical inheritance of moral authority and our claim on the public’s attention — an inheritance derived from the sufferings and heroic triumphs of our ancestors — into a moral and political currency that is relevant to our time. Mournful recitations of the old civil rights mantras are obviously inadequate to the task. The fact is that there are no problems facing the “black community” that are not also problems for a vast number of brown, yellow, red and white Americans. And there are no solutions for these problems that can, or should, be enacted solely (or even mainly) to assuage the legitimate concerns of blacks. But there is a criticism of the regnant interpretation of America’s racial history in contemporary political discourses that can and should be made, in the name of historical and racial justice. I have tried in this essay to indicate what the broad outlines of such a criticism might be.