July 23, 2019 | 71° F

Sanders agenda would equal slavery reparations

Opinions Column: The Champagne Socialist


Reparations for black people to repair the accumulated injuries from centuries of enslavement and institutionalized racism have moved toward the center of public discourse in recent months. With the Black Lives Matter movement and the fact that a black family (indeed, through the lineage of First Lady Michelle Obama, a descendent of slaves) now resides in the White House, Americans have had to confront our country’s racist past and present in oftentimes difficult and visceral ways.

One of the more famous movers and shakers of the public’s reparations discussion has been The Atlantic’s very own Ta-Nehisi Coates. His June 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations” is one of the most important public intellectual interventions in very recent memory. He recounts the numerous private and state-sponsored injustices suffered by black people. Coates writes about the inertia that these accumulated injuries have wrought on inequalities between whites and black people in wealth, home ownership, poverty and so forth. He notes the theft of black-owned land well into the 20th century, such as the Federal Housing Administration’s refusal to issue private mortgages to black families, shutting them out of the biggest mass wealth accumulating project in U.S. history that was private homeownership and shuttering them in sprawling ghettos. And then there’s today’s mass incarceration system in which black men make up less than one-tenth of the population, but almost 40 percent of the incarcerated, locking them away for years from their support networks, jobs, education and slapping them with a stigma that will last their whole lives.

Coates’s essay then was an all-around tour de force, sparking and shaping a debate around an issue that has been veiled in an anxious silence for decades, which is why its been both at turns disappointing and illuminating to read Coates’s criticisms of the U.S.’s most famous socialist right now, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who’s running for the nomination of the Democratic Party. More than two weeks ago, Sanders was asked whether he’d support slavery reparations. He responded, “No, I don’t think so.” The self-declared "democratic socialist" cited the divisiveness of reparations and that the likelihood of such measures passing a Congress controlled by the monochromatic, far right Republican Party would be close to “nil.” Coates finds it hard to believe that a socialist like Sanders, who is far from being the “candidate of moderation and unification,” and much more a candidate running on a platform of “partisanship and radicalism” could not demand specific, race-conscious reparations to black people. Although Sanders has been talking non-stop about economic and political “violence” in the form of disproportionate joblessness, poverty, arrests for non-violent drug offenses and so forth, Coates takes issue with Sanders’s supposedly colorblind, “class-first” approach to solving the U.S.’s deep racial disparities. With non-degreed black men without criminal records having the same chance at low-wage work as white men with criminal records, and then the wage and employment gaps between white and black graduates, it appears that a colorblind agenda of free public college education, higher minimum wages, drug legalization and so forth may not fully extinguish institutionalized white supremacy.

Yet, let’s remember, Sanders doesn't want to win just so he can run an entirely unfeasible plan to pay money to the descendants of slaves. Also, how many black people can name an enslaved ancestor four or five generations ago? How many Italians, Tamils, Filipinos or Dominicans can go back that far? Also, let’s remember how much we’d have to pay. On the U.S. Civil War’s eve, slaves were the nation’s most valuable asset and labor source. A blog named Squarely Rooted estimates that that value today would be some $1.75 trillion to be divvied up between over 45 million blacks. Yet the highest estimate, when you really think of how Central African enslavement was to the modern economy, was an unfathomable $12.5 quadrillion, many times bigger than the modern global economy. Also, what of the conquest of half of Mexico and indigenous communities? Where are their reparations? Coates and others seem to be downplaying the beneficial impact that a left-wing Sanders presidency would provide to people of color, who are disproportionately huddled into low-wage and shut out of getting a higher education. And besides, neither former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nor President Barack Obama support reparations, so why all the overblown criticism of arguably the most progressive presidential candidate we’ve seen in generations, who’s garnered enviable accolades from social movements such as the civil rights, women’s rights and labor movements? We may be foolish to hope to halt the inertia of centuries of racial stereotyping, but if blacks and others can get into a public college and go to a doctor free of charge, can sustain themselves and their families with high-paying jobs and stay in their homes without fear of rapacious, too-big-to-fail banks, then pragmatically-speaking, Sanders is best hope for a significantly less racist United States. And what is the most pragmatic is oftentimes also the most ethical.

José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in history with a minor in political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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José Sanchez

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