For social justice-minded liberals of a certain age, it has always been an impossible dream that something as politically radioactive as slavery reparations would ever become an issue in a presidential campaign, but here we are. For good or for bad, insurgent Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders is feeling the heat over his offhand dismissal of reparations in a recent interview, and now, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s campaign has surfaced the issue on national television as a means of attacking Sanders.
It all began about a week ago when Sen. Sanders was asked if he would support slavery reparations. He quickly responded in the negative:
No, I don’t think so. First of all, the likelihood of getting through a Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. I think 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, the incarceration 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 and creating millions of decent paying jobs, and making public colleges and universities tuition free, and working on child care. Basically, targeting our federal resources to the areas that it is needed the most. And where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.
That response drew intense pressure from The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who penned a viral essay asking “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?” On Wednesday night’s All In, Coates explained why Sanders’ response perturbed him, and also why it took nearly a week for him to publish the piece:
When I see somebody just wave away reparations on pragmatic concerns, when your campaign itself is not based on pragmatism, when your campaign is based on, as I said before, what is politically imaginable. And that’s a really, really good thing, I’m defending that, by the way. I’m not against that. I’m for candidacies based on that. That’s the tonal difference. It’s not that, hey, we have a bunch of great ideas here, but only some of them look like they can actually happen. or some look more likely to happen than others, so these are the ones we’re going to advocate. First of all, they didn’t even return my numerous calls or my e-mail. So let’s start there, there was no even back, you know — back channel conversation about that at all. They just, you know, left it be and felt it shouldn’t be responded to. That’s fine, but then I have to write what I think about that.
The reaction from Sanders supporters has been vitriolic, and sounds an awful lot like the summation being given by unlikely Sanders defender Tucker Carlson on Fox News, who described someone named “Tah-Nah-HEE-zee Coates” as a “Clinton minion”:
How worried are they? They’re sending minions to make the case Bernie sanders is bigot. There is piece of a Hillary minion saying Bernie Sanders is, in effect, a racist because he is not for reparations.
I don’t know many “Hillary minions” who would attack Chelsea Clinton in defense of Bernie Sanders, and of course, Coates said nothing to remotely suggest that Bernie is a bigot or a racist, unless that’s what “anti-racism moderate” means. The timing of this brouhaha is bad for Sanders, but then it wasn’t Coates who gave that quick “no” and then refused to engage followups. As has been his pattern with black issues, Sanders has handled this poorly.
Not content to just let the flaming tire around Bernie’s neck burn, though, the Hillary Clinton campaign decided that they were the right messengers to press this attack, and not because he’s wrong about reparations, but because it demonstrates a political weakness. Here’s Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon on CNN:
We’ll see over the coming weeks if he can explain these plans that he has laid out on health care. He hasn’t said how he would achieve a single payer system. He couldn’t even get a public option with an entirely Democratic congress. When it comes to something like reparations, he dismisses it as completely unfeasible.
Now, aside from the fact that they are appropriating this serious issue to score cheap political points, which is, itself, not a good look for a campaign that has had to work hard to fight off an entire Samsonite showroom’s worth of baggage with black voters (and largely succeeded), there’s also the inconvenient fact that Hillary’s position on this issue is nearly identical to Bernie’s. When Hillary was asked about reparations, she managed to articulate almost the exact same position, but managed to make it sound like a “yes.”:
I think we should start studying what investments we need to make in communities to help individuals and families and communities move forward. And I am absolutely committed to that. There are some good ideas out there. There’s an idea in the Congressional Black Caucus about really targeting federal dollars to communities that have had either disinvestment or or no investment, and have had years of being below the poverty level. That’s the kind of thing I’d like us to focus on and really help lift people up.
Now, as Coates explained, there is a major qualitative difference between the two candidates’ responses, which forms the entire basis of his legitimate critique, but substantively, there is no difference. That makes the Clinton campaign the wrong folks to press this attack, unless they want to explain why their position is exactly the same as Bernie’s.
They’d be better off sitting this one out, and so would those Hillary supporters who haven’t uttered the word “reparations” since they fried the starter in their Audi, but now behave as though this is a lifelong crusade. They’re going to be put to the test when this issue becomes part of the debates, because if Clintonworld thinks Republicans are drooling to put Bernie in an ad with a hammer and sickle, they’ve got a steel cucumber in their pants over the prospect of Hillary in a red, black, and green dashiki.
As for Sanders, he ought to at least explain why he was so quick to dismiss reparations when he’s happily advocating for forty acres of health care and a college tuition mule, because on its face, it seems to indicate a real difference in the way these two candidates think about racial justice. And Sanders’ supporters ought to ease up on Coates, because they’re not helping their guy. It’s not a “smear” to quote someone accurately and ask for an explanation. It’s to his credit that he has begun a discussion about an issue he’s long championed, but unfortunately, that discussion will be more about how the issue of reparations makes candidates look than it will be about reparations themselves.
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