What’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Beef with #BernieSanders? | #Discord on Blog#42

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a follow-up on his initial attack of Bernie Sanders, acknowledging vocal criticism he has received from Blacks and white progressives for not mentioning that Hillary Clinton had given an identical answer to the reparations question. But this is merely an acknowledgement from which Coates is then quick to remind the reader that he had criticized Clinton for her part in establishing the “carceral state.” But then, Coates doubles down on his criticism of Sanders, after a brief acknowledgement of his platform for racial justice, this time, by accusing him of using class-based policies to cure the ravages of racism:

“One does not find anything as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform, but the dissonance between name and action is the same. Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies—doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same “A rising tide lifts all boats” thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation. Sanders proposes to intensify this approach. “

Coates’ last two pieces, put together, make for some of the most intentionally obtuse thinking by a writer I’ve long admired for his depth, breadth of knowledge, skilled research, and clarity of thought. But all of the things I’ve seen in Coates’ writing just vanish when it comes to writing about Sanders, especially the research.

Bernie Sanders got his start as a civil rights activist in Chicago with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE,) a sister organization to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). While Sanders eventually moved to Vermont, to realize his mother’s dream of living there, Sanders’ association with the people and movement for civil rights was renewed with his election to Congress and has remained a staple of his political activity ever since. Veteran reporter Greg Palast was recently interviewed by Thom Hartmann about Sanders ties to the African American community as the representative of a mostly white state:

Sanders has been there, together with the CBC, on all the issues. That is why, when it came to making his endorsement statement of Sanders, Rep. Keith Ellison said it was a “matter of conscience.” Ellison knows Sanders has always been “there.”

One striking thing about Coates’ piece is his emphasis of the “lift all boats” metaphor as he drops Sanders into the same liberal box he placed President Obama in. While our president has used the “lift all boats” metaphor many times, anyone who has studied Sanders, even minimally, would know that phrase, its origin, meaning and usage are anathema to someone like Sanders who has spend the greater part of his career criticizing the very same neoliberal policies Coates is now trying to ascribe to him. In fact, Sanders is neither a “lift all boats” kind of guy, nor is he a “bootstrap” kind of guy. Quite to the contrary, Sanders has spent a decades-long career railing against the fact that neoliberals and conservatives perpetuate poverty, and the segregation and inequality in education through policies whose funding relies on taxation of areas that are known to be impoverished. That is one area in which his prescriptions are distinct from his opponents.

Most ridiculous of all is the tack taken by Coates to document his accusation that Sanders is trying to kill Affirmative Action by extending free education to all:

“No. Fifteen years ago we watched a candidate elevate class above all. And now we see that same candidate invoking class to deliver another blow to affirmative action. And that is only the latest instance of populism failing black people.”

In the quote above, the word “candidate” leads to the Wikipedia entry for Ralph Nader. Sanders is not connected to Nader in any way.  In fact, per Nader in an interview with Democracy Now, Sanders hasn’t returned a letter or phone call of Nader’s in fifteen years. Next, the words “to deliver another blow…” link to a New York Times piece on Harvard making its tuition free and its possible impact on minority enrollment there, and throughout the Ivy League. Neither linked piece has anything to do with Bernie Sanders and can in no way, shape, or form be deemed indicative of anything related to Sanders’ views on Affirmative Action. When fact-checking Sanders on Affirmative Action, this vote in 1998 is all one needs to see:

Sanders vote on HR 6, 1998 - Source: OnTheIssues.org
Sanders vote on HR 6, 1998 – Source: OnTheIssues.org

Sanders and many other progressives are trying to avert a deepening student debt crisis affecting all American students with solutions that will relieve a crushing debt burden. Free education at state universities and community colleges would be of benefit to African Americans students as it would be to all. Free education in and of itself is not a blow to Affirmative Action, which, in any case, is not the purview of a sitting president to fix or break, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s.

Coates’ assertions on reparations and Affirmative Action are baseless and the stuff only someone who has a vested interest or a bone to pick. In the first instance, Coates’ recriminations on reparations and Affirmative Action are nothing more than turning on a political flame-thrower full-blast to influence the Black vote.

Since the publication of Coates’ first criticism of Sanders, many have publicly questioned why, of all things, reparations were at issue when they never have been. As I explained in my own essay, even Martin Luther King focused on social and economic justice and that is the path Sanders is following. One would be a fool to lob hand-grenades in this overheated political atmosphere. Sanders may be an idealist, but a fool, he ain’t.

Like so many of his fellow pundits this past week, Coates is unable to criticize Sanders based on policy. Coates uses rather lame trickery and implication through associations that really lead nowhere, as we saw with the Ralph Nader material. To lump Sanders in with the Democrats, at a time when the neoliberal wing of the party is trying to paint him as an outsider is rather rich. Then again, Sanders has caucused with the Democrats his entire career, choosing not to become a Democrat specifically to be free not to be forced to vote on neoliberal issues. Somehow, Coates’ research failed to uncover that.

I can’t pretend I didn’t notice the following passage, or miss the subtext in it:

“The Left, above all, should know better than this. When Sanders dismisses reparations because they are “divisive” he puts himself in poor company. “Divisive” is how Joe Lieberman swatted away his interlocutors. “Divisive” is how the media dismissed the public option. “Divisive” is what Hillary Clinton is calling Sanders’s single-player platform right now.”

The choice of Joe Lieberman in the first quote is rather curious. No two Jewish public figures could be any different from each other than Lieberman and Sanders. Coates, who has been likened to James Baldwin, possesses neither Baldwin’s keen sense of humanity nor his sublime sense of justice.

The ultimate hope for a genuine black-white dialogue in this country lies in the recognition that the driven European serf merely created another serf here, and created him on the basis of color. No one can deny that that Jew was a party to this, but it is senseless to assert that this was because of his Jewishness. One can be disappointed in the Jew if one is romantic enough–for not having learned from history; but if people did learn from history, history would be very different.

James Baldwin; “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,”
New York Times,  April 9, 1967


Additional Materials:

Ralph Nader interview on Democracy Now:

RALPH NADER: Bernie Sanders does not answer my calls. Fifteen years, he’s never answered a telephone call, never replied to a letter, never replied to a meeting that I wanted to go down and see him. I even had to write an article on this, called “Bernie, We Thought We Knew Ye!” One of the problems he’s going to face, other than his good graces in Vermont, is that he doesn’t have good political antennae. He doesn’t have political social graces. And he’s going to have to change that. A lot of his friends have told me that that’s a problem. But most progressive senators don’t really respond to any progressive group that tries to push him to do more than they want to do. I wrote nine letters to nine progressive senators, like Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and saying, “Look, you’re all lone rangers doing good things, but you’re going nowhere. So why don’t you get together into a caucus of nine, 10, 12 senators in the Senate and push a unified agenda on poverty, on labor, on the environment, on trade, on military policy? You might really get somewhere. At the least, you’ll raise these issues more prominently.” Not a single response. Called up, said, “Would they respond?” Not a single response. I did finally have to go down and meet with the general counsel for Senator Warren. But by and large, that’s the problem with the left. That’s the problem of progressives. They don’t link with one another. You never see Heritage Foundation or Cato or all these right-wing groups tolerate members of Congress treating them that way who are supposed to be on their side.


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