Bernie Sanders is taking heat from racial justice activists (as well as from opportunistic Clinton partisans) after the celebrated Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published a scalding critique of the Senator’s opposition to reparations for African Americans. Sanders is unabashedly radical on economic issues, but said he opposed reparations on the grounds that they were “divisive” and unlikely to pass, and argues for a massive expansion of the welfare state instead. This leads Coates to argue that “Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy.” More:
Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy. What he proposes in lieu of reparations—job creation, investment in cities, and free higher education—is well within the Overton window, and his platform on race echoes Democratic orthodoxy. The calls for community policing, body cameras, and a voting-rights bill with pre-clearance restored— all are thingsthat Hillary Clinton agrees with. And those positions with which she might not agree address black people not so much as a class specifically injured by white supremacy, but rather, as a group which magically suffers from disproportionate poverty.This is the “class first” approach, 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. Housing discrimination, historical and present, may well be the fulcrum of white supremacy. Affirmative action is one of the most disputed issues of the day. Neither are addressed in the “racial justice” section of Sanders platform.
Sanders actually has a more progressive record than Clinton on racial issues, and higher ratings from the NAACP, so Coates’ decision to single Sanders out without even mentioning Clinton’s support for the 1990s crime bill, for example, is somewhat puzzling. But his criticism highlights an important truth in American political history: that class politics and racial politics have had a complicated relationship, and that smash-the-plutocracy populists have not always been at the vanguard of racial justice movements. Andrew Jackson’s Democrats pushed an economically egalitarian agenda, but organized their appeals around (white) Scots-Irish solidarity and were staunchly pro-slavery. The early 20th century Progressive agenda of economic redistribution coexisted with deep-seated racism, as we have recently been reminded by the controversy over Woodrow Wilson’s place at Princeton. And Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats had to make peace with Southern white supremacists in order to push through programs like Social Security.
None of this is to say that Sanders is anything less than a full-throated advocate for African American interests. Indeed, he seems like the most genuinely racially progressive candidate on either side. But he may sense in his bones that in America, economic populism is an uneasy fit with an aggressive racial justice agenda—in part because many people who might otherwise support soaking the rich aren’t as enthusiastic about giving the proceeds to a competing identity group. As Brian Beutler suggested on Twitter, “Sanders’ coalition might win on a redistributive, anti-plutocracy program—but reparations would shatter it.”
If Sanders’ real priority is implementing massive economic redistribution, it is probably politically wise for him to steer clear of a subject as racially explosive as reparations and emphasize race-neutral class solidarity instead. This position may well hurt him among die-hard liberals in the primary—especially if Hillary Clinton takes the opportunity to evolve and triangulate, as she did the last time Sanders offended left-wing activists on a race-related issue. But it also reveals a long-run historical truth about American populism that Sanders will have to adapt to if he makes it to the general election.