Sanders, Coates, and Reparations

By Matson Boyd

In case you missed it, Bernie Sanders has been criticized by Ta-Nehisi Coates for not supporting reparations for African Americans, and Coates in turn has been criticized by some on the left for his dismissal of class politics. This dispute echoes long standing debates about race and class, and takes on extra salience now as the Sanders and Clinton campaigns fight for the black vote in the upcoming primaries. The current debate is instructive, and there is much work from scholars that has explored the tension. Scholars, such as William Darity, Darrick Hamilton, and Charles Ogletree, have developed class-based reparations proposals that are fully in concord with radically progressive platforms, and we should look to these proposals for common ground.

To start with, let’s leave policy aside and be clear that the case for some kind of reparations is unassailable. Coates documents some of the injustices that go well beyond the original sin of slavery: events like the 1921 Tulsa Pogrom, in which the wealthiest black community in the United States burned to the ground; and structural barriers to wealth, like the housing discrimination that denied African Americans access to the same generous housing policies that built so much of White wealth (which is a good place to start for approximating the magnitude of reparations). We have evidence that intra-family transfers and inheritances account for more of this racial wealth gap than income or education do, so it is plainly not based on merit. The case is clear, and there is ample precedent from the 20th century of reparations paid for other injustices, notably for the internment of Japanese Americans in the Second World War.

So how do we do reparations? When most people hear the word “reparations”, they think of cash payouts. But as we’ll see, there are problems with such an approach. So scholars have developed alternative proposals. William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton’s “Baby Bonds” would be a trust fund of up to $60,000, open to any child with family wealth in the bottom quartile, regardless of race. The program is race neutral in form but decidedly not race neutral in outcomes, as the racial wealth gap would be substantially narrowed. The NAACP also has a reparations platform that is devoted to “Blacks and the poor”. And Charles Ogletree proposes job training and public works devoted to the poor of all races.

Race neutral forms of reparations, like baby bonds, would also greatly reduce rich-poor inequality as a whole. This makes them more egalitarian than race-based reparations, such as cash payouts to African Americans, which would in some cases send funds to already wealthy African Americans, indirectly at the expense of poor Whites, Latinos, recent immigrants, etc…

Coates drew the ire of Sanders’ supporters when he derisively called Sanders’ egalitarian and pro-poor policies “rising tide lifts all boats” (the old Reaganite mantra), as a way of saying that they ignored the specific grievances of Black Americans. He wrote that “treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages”, and seemed to argue against a universal, race-neutral policy and in favor of payouts that would leave behind poor folks of other races. This drew a sharp rebuke from the Left. Some pointed out that Coates shouldn’t expect a self-proclaimed Socialist to support a policy that would send funds to already wealthy African Americans.

What Leftists Are Hearing

It turns out that Coates isn’t actually opposed to race-neutral reparations policies, despite his recent argument (and Coates has publicly said he will be voting for Sanders). But it’s first worth asking why Coates generated such fervent responses from Leftists, beyond the desire to protect their preferred candidate. When Coates argued that reparations should not be class-based policies directed at the poor, he seemed to suggest that economic outcomes are fair once we address specific grievances like racial discrimination. But economic outcomes (even in the abstract space where process is equal) are not fair, and these outcomes deserve attention (for example, Alex Mozell amply documented the awful extent of job discrimination). Going further, can we say of any child growing up in poverty, that their fate is somehow more deserved than another? Do we need to invoke a specific historical grievance to establish the injustice of such a situation?

For leftists, the repetition of past injustice in economic form is fundamental to the moral case against the current economic system and the unequal distribution of wealth. The system is unfair because of the injustices against Black Americans, and because of the theft from Native Americans, and because of the rigged nature of the economic system, and because of innumerable other reasons big and small. All come together to show the need for a fairer economy and a redistribution of wealth.

There is a very real danger that this becomes a way of saying “All wealth gap matters” as a way of shouting down “racial wealth gap matters”, and we should take active steps to avoid that. A new fairer system – like the one advocated by Hamilton & Darrity, or the NAACP, or Ogletree, should be accompanied by a clear unequivocal statement by the United States government that “the wealth gap between whites and blacks owes to centuries of injustice”.

What Reparationists Are Hearing

Coates’ dispute with Sanders might lead people to believe that he would not support such a policy, and would not be assuaged by the government statement I’ve outlined above. But the best interpretation of Coates is that he is not opposed to universal policy as a means of reparations, he’s opposed to universal policy that is in lieu of reparations. He has supported practical policies that are accessible to poor people of all races and approvingly cites Charles Ogletree’s pro-poor proposal. The key, though, is that we can’t leave aside the fact that a racial grievance is being addressed. To do so is just another way, among many in American history, of shunting aside real black grievances.

We should be clear, at this great moment of opportunity, that the racial wealth gap is not legitimate. Sanders doesn’t discuss this enough. It is true that Sanders’ fight against income inequality doubles as a fight against the racial wealth gap, and I don’t doubt that Sanders has this dynamic in mind when he rails against the injustice of poverty. It is also somewhat understandable that Sanders runs from the word “reparations,” because the word immediately summons a negative reaction from the vast majority of Whites. But by running from reparations he is also missing an opportunity to bring African Americans into his coalition, he is missing a chance to delegitimize the racial wealth gap, and he is missing the chance to educate White people about the racial injustices of American history and the kinds of reparations policies that can also help poor people across the board.

When Leftists hear someone dismiss class-based policies, it seems to dismiss their broader case that economic outcomes as a whole are unfair. And when reparationists hear that someone is pushing class-based policies in lieu of reparations, it seems like a dismissal of their whole cause. Thankfully there is no need for this fight, and there is a middle ground in race-neutral reparations policies. I don’t pretend that this is a happy middle ground that everyone can meet on. But, for the most part, the idea that class interests and black interests are naturally divergent is unfounded. The common interest is too strong.