Ta-Nehisi Coates in his Atlantic piece, dated January 19th, 2016, asks, “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? The Vermont senator’s political imagination is active against plutocracy, but why is it so limited against white supremacy?”
Coates begins with Sanders’ answer to the question posed to him by Fusion’s Nando Vila. Watch:
Then, Coates writes:
“For those of us interested in how the left prioritizes its various radicalisms, Sanders’s answer is illuminating. The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as “divisive” (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist.”
The last two years’ worth of Pew polling (including a new one today) have shown, consistently, that the “socialist” label is no longer a barrier to electability, whereas atheist and Muslim are, for example. Without explaining anew the distinctions between Socialism and Democratic Socialism, if the premise for Coates’ piece is that socialism includes a reparative component that addresses America’s original sin and would, therefore, predispose Sanders to favoring a reparations agenda, then he is mistaken. Socialism is about the changes that come with progress, and not atoning for past wrongs.
Pragmatism, however Coates uses the term above, also does not imply a natural predisposition to reparations. It neither negates nor validates reparations. What pragmatism is according to its philosophical definition, however, is “an approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.”
Practical application, given the multiple types, levels, and depths of racial regression we’ve been witness to over the last seven years, and given the racial state of affairs Martin Luther King described in his latter speeches, seems to point to true equalization in terms of socio-economic conditions. It is no accident that King chose to apply his conclusions in the way he did, through his Poor People Campaign, gathering poor whites and Blacks with the aim to march on Washington to demand socio-economic justice. That, I believe, is the check King spoke of in this three minute clip that, of late, has been distributed on social media as proof he was talking about monetary reparations:
Now, that is not to say that King excluded the possibility of asking for financial and other reparations – land grants come to mind here – but King was far too nuanced to set monetary reparations alone as a part of his immediate goals for justice and thus, in his August 1967 speech, The Three Evils of Society, after giving his audience an oral history of the injustices perpetrated on newly freed Black slaves in 1863 to his present day, King said:
“But our moral lag must be redeemed; when scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.It is this moral lag in our thing-oriented society that blinds us to the human reality around us and encourages us in the greed and exploitation which creates the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth. Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard word and sacrifice, the fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad. If Negroes and poor whites do not participate in the free flow of wealth within our economy, they will forever be poor, giving their energies, their talents and their limited funds to the consumer market but reaping few benefits and services in return. The way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor, ensure them a fair share of the government services and the nation’s resources. I proposed recently that a national agency be established to provide employment for everyone needing it. Nothing is more socially inexcusable than unemployment in this age. In the 30s when the nation was bankrupt it instituted such an agency, the WPA, in the present conditions of a nation glutted with resources, it is barbarous to condemn people desiring work to soul sapping inactivity and poverty. I am convinced that even this one, massive act of concern will do more than all the state police and armies of the nation to quell riots and still hatreds. The tragedy is, our materialistic culture does not possess the statesmanship necessary to do it.”
In a similar speech, to NATRA just a few days earlier, King said:
“But what I want to say to you tonight, my friends, is that when we look to the other side, something basic is missing. We suffer from a kind of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to swim the seas like fish and to fly the air like birds. And yet, we have not learned the simple art of walking the earth as brothers and sisters. And this is the great dilemma facing America. And, you know, it comes to this point now, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.
Now, there are three things that we must deal with and we’re going to transform this neighborhood into a brotherhood. We’ve got to deal with the problem of racism. We’ve got to deal with the problem of economic injustice or poverty. And we’ve got to deal with the problem of war.”
The issues King delineated for his audiences in the months leading up to his assassination are the very same issues present day candidates are grappling with – the only difference is that in the intervening fifty plus years, the three fundamental problems identified by King have grown exponentially. Inequality is far wider today. Today’s poverty is far deeper and encompasses a much wider segment of America’s population. One can easily argue that today’s problem of war is far wider, geographically, and more deeply entrenched in centuries long enmities that have yet to find a resolution.
In his 1968 speech, “Overcoming The Tyranny of Poverty And Hatred,” King said:
“And if people who are enslaved sit around and feel that freedom is some kind of lavish dish that will be passed out on a silver platter by the federal government or by the white man while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite, he will never get his freedom.
So, I had to sit down with my friends and my associates and think about the people with whom I live and work all over the ghettoes of our nation, and I had to try to think up an alternative to riots on the one hand, and to timid supplications for justice on the other hand. And I have come to see that it must be a massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government in Washington, D.C.
Now, I said poor people, too, and by that I mean all poor people. When we go to Washington, we are going to have Black people because Black people are poor, but we are going to also have Puerto Ricans because Puerto Ricans are poor in the United States of America. We’re going to have Mexican Americans because they are mistreated. We’re going to have Indian Americans because they are mistreated. And for those who will not allow their prejudice to cause them to blindly support their oppressor, we’re going to have Appalachian whites with us in Washington.
We’re going there to engage in powerful non-violent direct action to demand, to bring into being an attention-getting dramatic movement, which will make it impossible for the nation to overlook these demands. Now, they may not do anything about it. People ask me, “suppose you go to Washington and you don’t get anything?” You ask people and you mobilize and you organize, and you don’t get anything. You’ve been an absolute failure. My only answer is that when you stand up for justice, you can never fail.
The forces that have the power to make a concession to the forces of justice and truth and right, but who refuse to do it and they follow the path of darkness still, are the forces that fail. We, as poor people, go into struggle for justice, can’t fail. If there is no response from the federal government, from the Congress, that’s the failure, not those who are struggling for justice.
Now, I’m going to rush on and take my seat, but I want to say that we’re going to Washington to demand what is justly ours. Some years ago, almost two hundred now, our nation signed a huge promissory note, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Oh, what a marvelous creed. Just think about what it says. It didn’t say some men; it said all men. It didn’t say all white men; it said all men, which includes Black men. It didn’t say all Gentiles. It said all men, which includes Jews. It didn’t say all Protestants, it said all men, which includes Catholics. And I can go right down the line. And then it said something else. That every man has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. . . . They are God-given.
Now this is what the creed says. Now the problem is America has had a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds on the question of justice. We’re going to Washington to say that if a man does not have a job or an income at that moment, you deprive him of life. You deprive him of liberty. And you deprive him of the pursuit of happiness. We’re going to demand that America live up to her promise. We’re organizing all over, and as I said, we aren’t going begging. We are going to demand justice.”
King sought the social and economic relief of his people in the here and now, by way of socio-economic justice first, but not to the exclusion of all other manner of justice. The Radical King was about life-sustaining wages, creating jobs for the unemployed and underemployed. He was about organizing labor and joining together as many people as were willing to join, together, in the common struggle.
King was about ameliorating the quality, quantity, and availability of education afforded to poor people, of any race, in recognition that poverty of education plays a central role in perpetuating racism in those who vote against their own interests. Above all, King was a practical man who looked back in order to move forward.
“Two decades ago, I was blessed to speak with the legendary Coretta Scott King. Her brilliant intellect, wise counsel, and spiritual fortitude had always inspired me. When I asked about the young Martin Luther King, Jr., she said something that startled me: “On my first date with Martin I was surprised because I had never met a black socialist before.”
Mr. Coates’ essay focuses solely on Senator Sanders, and omits any mention that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was also asked the very same question about reparations during the same time period Sanders was questioned. While Clinton gave an indirect answer, it is virtually identical to Sanders’. She did so not once, but twice in that same week:
Mrs. Clinton repeated the same answer in her interview with Buzzfeed’s Another Round. Talking Points Memo reported on the Buzzfeed interview:
As a part of the rapid-fire question round, host Tracy Clayton jokingly asked Clinton if she would be getting a reparation check.
“I’ll tell you what, I think we need to make many more investments in everything from pre-school education to affordable housing, that’s my form of trying to give people the chance to be empowered, to make the most out of their god-given potential,” Clinton said. “I’ll try to get the system to change.”
Let’s look at Sanders’ answer, a chunk at a time:
“No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.”
In order for Sanders or Clinton to be effective presidents, there are several barriers to remove. First, neither would be able to govern effectively without a house of Congress reverting to Democratic control. The likelihood is nil that both houses will change over entirely in 2016. With what Sanders calls a “political revolution” and an engaged electorate, a goal to regain control of Congress could be realized by 2020, but not sooner. The second barrier, even with an all-Democratic Congress, is one of knowledge and understanding of this nation’s history and the ethics of reparations. It will take far more than a Democratic Congress to change the knowledge and attitudes of whites when it comes to making moral judgments rooted in the history of America’s treatment of Blacks. Even if Congress were to be filled with African American history professors, it would still take the agreement of what remains a largely ignorant populace, when it comes to knowing and understanding America’s history on any level that would facilitate the start of a Truth and Reconciliation process, culminating in reparations. James Baldwin’s famous quote from The Fire Next Time still holds true:
“Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
For as long as Baldwin’s statement accurately describes our national state of affairs, Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations will remain out of reach because the divisiveness Sanders talks about isn’t the act of asking for reparations but, rather, asking people who “do not know about themselves” to agree to reparations. With knowledge, awareness, and understanding, it is far likelier that readiness will follow.
The third and most formidable barrier to Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations are State’s Rights and the power of individual and groups of states to nullify or significantly curtail the power of the republic over them. For as long as States’ Rights remain as they are, the federal government’s ability to assert its authority in areas it is in charge of will be curtailed by recalcitrant state government. This certainly has been the case when it comes to the nature and scope of public education, voting rights, and aid to the poor throughout the decades they’ve existed, and now the Affordable Care Act, which 29 million Americans are unable to benefit from as a direct result of States’ Rights.
The next chunk from Sanders’ answer:
“The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.
So I think what we should be talking about is 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.”
The goals spelled out above by Sanders are the very same ones Clinton identified in her own answers to different Fusion reporters. Sanders is right. Those goals alone, given the abject state of poverty one finds in all too many African American communities throughout the nation, the decimation of the Black middle class as a consequence of the Great Recession, added to the incremental damage institutional racism has exacted, will take a monumental and concentrated effort to be realized all the while putting Sanders’ Plan for Racial Justice in place, and in a manner that cannot be upended by States’ Rights.
My own position on reparations is this one. Not only are reparations a must, but they must be made in the context of a national apology and the razing and rebuilding from scratch of the main pillars of our society: education, our system of justice and the social safety net. I envision a sustained process of re-education, culminating in a process of national Truth and Reconciliation, with reparative measures being enacted once the requisite foundational safeguards have been in place and are demonstrably effective. For as long as our society is as polarized as it is, I see no meaningful way of even starting such a process, much less going ahead with it in earnest.
This nation’s first population to be owed reparations were granted closure centuries after atrocities were perpetrated upon American Indian nations. An initial agreement in 2009 was bogged down in lawsuits and counter-lawsuits and compounded by Congressional inaction until, finally, a $3.4 billion Cobell reparations settlement was signed in 2012.
It took until 1988 for Congress to finally vote on reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II.
WASHINGTON, April 20— Acting to redress what many Americans now regard as a historic injustice, the Senate today voted overwhelmingly to give $20,000 and an apology to each of the Japanese-Americans who were driven from their homes and sent to internment camps in World War II.
The case for reparations for America’s African American population is far more complex than either the American Indian or Japanese American cases and will require thoughtful and thorough planning. There are many difficult questions that will need to be answered. Reparations should not only include compensation for atrocities perpetrated during the slavery era, but so, too, Emancipation’s never fulfilled promises of 40 Acres and A Mule, the atrocities of the Jim Crow Era, all the way through to present-day redlining, segregation and the slow but steady dismantlement of the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action, both of which remain necessary measures to counter discrimination, for as far as the eye can foresee.
Should Bernie Sanders, Secretary Clinton and all other politicians be pushed into beginning a dialogue about reparations? Yes, but not without first taking care to secure the foundations from which to address the totality of Black Lives Matter’s agenda while finally putting in place Martin Luther King’s Poor People agenda, changing the course and nature of American capitalism using the philosophical approach set forth in Joseph Stiglitz’ Rewriting The Rules and simultaneously enacting a fundamental reform of our national education curriculum with a view to radically change the quantity and quality of America’s font of knowledge about itself and its people. All of the items listed, in the form they exist today, have been central to America’s self-perpetuating race and class dysfunction. Of all the candidates in the 2016 race, Sanders’ platform for racial justice, is the most developed. Sanders has shown a degree of pragmatism and flexibility that neither Mrs. Clinton or any other competitor has been ready to match.
Without revolutionary changes in approach and understanding, true and lasting progress will remain out of reach.
“A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait
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Buzzfeed’s Another Round: the segment on reparations and Black LivesMatter (starting at around 19:39 minutes)