Several months ago, Black Lives Matter activists targeted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with protests. Many of my fellow Sanders supporters thought these protests unfair, in large part, as I explained at the time, because Sanders “has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.” Sanders backers noted that his “passion for economic justice…is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice. Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.” Since Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates “have almost-uniformly worse records and stances…on issues affecting Black Americans,” Sanders supporters didn’t understand “why Black Lives Matter [was] applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.”
These very same arguments are now surfacing again in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently took Sanders to task for failing to support reparations (restitution for the centuries of plunder America has visited upon Black communities). These arguments are still, to a large extent, fair to make. It is also fair to point out some notable problems with Coates’ characterization of Sanders and his positions:
- Sanders is not the self-proclaimed “radical” Coates thinks he is – Sanders is making fun of that label in the quote Coates pulls and frequently says on the campaign trail that his ideas, which are wildly popular, are not radical;
- Sanders is not, as Coates asserts, “posing as a pragmatist” – he most definitely is a pragmatist (just a more power-balancing one than we usually see in American politics);
- Sanders is in fact “the candidate of…unification” in the Democratic primary, despite Coates’ claim to the contrary; and
- As Daniel Denvir and Kevin Drum have noted, Sanders’ responses to the questions he’s been asked about reparations – that he supports “making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino” – don’t sound all that different from a reparations proposal Coates himself has previously entertained.
At the same time, the thrust of Coates’ articles is entirely legitimate and extremely important, as were the Black Lives Matter protests. “For one thing,” as I mentioned previously with regard to the protests, “while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.” Coates, like the protesters before him, wants Sanders to “promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and [he has] every right to demand that [Sanders] do so.” For another, Coates is justified in focusing on Sanders “precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond” productively to Coates’ concerns.
Coates hammers this message home in an excellent follow-up piece:
Many Sanders supporters…correctly point out that Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state. I agree with them and have said so at length. Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral ‘anti-crime’ bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her invocation of the super-predator myth. A defense of Clinton rooted in the claim that “Jeb Bush held the same position” would not be exculpatory. (“Law and order conservative embraces law and order” would surprise no one.) That is because the anger over the Clintons’ actions isn’t simply based on their having been wrong, but on their craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name…
[Similarly, t]hat a mainstream Democrat like Hillary Clinton embraces mainstream liberal policy is unsurprising. Clinton has no interest in expanding the Overton window. She simply hopes to slide through it.
But I thought #FeelTheBern meant something more than this. I thought that Bernie Sanders, the candidate of single-payer health insurance, of the dissolution of big banks, of free higher education, was interested both in being elected and in advancing the debate beyond his own candidacy. I thought the importance of Sanders’s call for free tuition at public universities lay not just in telling citizens that which is actually workable, but in showing them that which we must struggle to make workable. I thought Sanders’s campaign might remind Americans that what is imminently doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things, and while actualizing the former we can’t lose sight of the latter.
Coates is verbalizing here what we deserve from every politician, but especially from the candidate we are pledging to support: a willingness to advocate for what’s right, even when it’s not particularly popular. And whether Bernie Sanders’ dismissal of reparations is semantic or substantive, whether it’s driven by true opposition or by political pragmatism, it’s wrong. His campaign’s lack of engagement with Coates thus far, who has reached out to the Sanders team several times, is particularly disappointing.
That certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote for Sanders (and, to be clear, there is no possible interpretation of Coates’ argument that should lead anyone to vote for Clinton). Many people who support reparations have endorsed and are campaigning for him, and there is strong support for Sanders even in the Coates household (see video clips below)!
Coates discusses Sanders and reparations with Chris Hayes.
Michael Render (also known as Killer Mike), who is “pro Reparations for any people used and abused like Blacks have been here and other places,” explains why “Bernie Sanders is our guy.”
But no politician, no matter who he or she is running against, should ever be immune from critique. And in Sanders’ case, demands for justice from oppressed people are exactly what his political revolution is supposed to be about. It’s thus incumbent upon Sanders supporters to stop hassling Coates for asking tough questions and, instead, to start thanking him for holding all of us – including someone who may very well be the next President of the United States – accountable for being the very best we can be.