Bernie Sanders‘ already problematic relationship with Obama coalition voters, and black voters in particular, was further complicated last week by Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ injection of slavery reparations into this year’s presidential campaign. Coates took Sanders to task for dismissing reparations as politically impossible, when so many of his other positions are similarly unattainable. It’s a critique that doesn’t have much substantive merit, since Sanders’ position is identical to that of Hillary Clinton, but one which does have some philosophical merit, especially given the context of Sanders’ aforementioned problem with Obama coalition voters. Regardless of that context, it matters why someone does or does not support something. How much that matters is obviously in the eye of the beholder.
After his campaign essentially ignored the brouhaha for most of the week, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign made some hay with it, Sanders was asked directly to explain himself, and unwisely elected to lay off his opposition to reparations on Barack Obama, which isn’t the best idea to begin with. It’s an even worse idea when you repeatedly make false claims about Obama’s opposition to reparations.
On Sunday morning’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Bernie why he dismissed reparations, and Sanders rushed to hide behind President Obama and Hillary Clinton, then quickly changed the subject (emphasis mine):
CHUCK TODD: Well, you have been calling for political revolution. And there have been some critiques of it, though, that you’re sort of narrow in where you call for revolution. Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the more respected thinkers in the civil rights movement these days, wrote in The Atlantic, “Why aren’t you for reparations because of slavery for African Americans when you’re calling for economic justice on so many other levels? Why do you stop short on that issue?”
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, for the same reason that Barack Obama has and the same reason I believe that Hillary Clinton has. And that is, it is absolutely wrong and unacceptable that we have so much poverty in this country and it is even worse in the African American community. That African American kids, between 17 and 20, who graduate high school, have unemployment rates and underemployment rates of 51 percent.
Okay, Bernie, but “it is absolutely wrong and unacceptable that we have so much poverty in this country” doesn’t really sound like a reason to oppose reparations, and you just said it is. Chuck Todd noticed that, too:
CHUCK TODD: I understand that. But you didn’t answer the question of why you weren’t in favor of reparations.
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, again it’s the same reason that the president is not. And I think–
CHUCK TODD: And what’s that reason?
BERNIE SANDERS: –that Secretary Clinton is not. We have got to invest in the future. What we have got to do is address poverty in America, something that very few people talk about, and especially poverty in the African American community and the Latino community. And if you look at my record and if you look at my agenda, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, creating millions of jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure, focusing on high rates of youth unemployment. I think our candidacy is the candidacy talking to the issues of the African American community.
CHUCK TODD: Well, let me ask you, though, many African Americans, they hear that, and some will say, “Okay, he’s talking about major economic justice. But an African American hand raises his hand and he says, “Well, can’t get that through Congress. You can’t deal with this because it’s politically very difficult.” A lot of your other plans are going to be politically difficult, if not impossible.
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, look. This is what I think. That is looking at politics today as a zero-sum approach. And what I am trying to do in this country is to say, “You know what, in the last election, 63 percent of the American people didn’t vote. 80 percent of young people didn’t vote in the midterm election. That is why the rich get richer. And that is why billionaires are able to buy elections.”
Yes, he did just bring it all the way back to billionaires. Fully half of Sanders’ diatribes about billionaires are met with a bemused “But sir, I was asking you for your drink order.”
Sanders’ deflection is maddening enough, but is he even right about President Obama? Does Obama oppose reparations “for the same reason” Bernie does?
Here’s what Obama said about slavery reparations in 2007, after being carefully and hilariously admonished against “dipping and dodging” by moderator Anderson Cooper:
COOPER: Senator Obama, your position on reparations?
OBAMA: I think the reparations we need right here in South Carolina is investment, for example, in our schools. I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame. They’ve got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we’ve got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they’re teaching and high dropout rates.
We’ve got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country. And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children, that’s the kind of reparations that are really going to make a difference in America right now.
Don’t get too excited about Kucinich’s answer, because he went on to include poor whites in his bullshitty response, too. Kucinich is, however, a good instructive for Bernie, because like Hillary and Obama, he managed to make it sound like he was in favor of reparations for slavery even though he isn’t, and in that cycle, it was Kucinich who played the role of lefty wet dream.
As for then-Senator Obama, he gave almost the exact same answer Bernie did, but again, without the “oh, hell naw!” at the beginning. In other settings, though, Obama was more direct about actually opposing reparations. During his 2004 run for the U.S. Senate, Obama formed the boilerplate of his reparations position on an NAACP questionnaire, a position that he repeated for their 2008 presidential questionnaire:
I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say “we’ve paid our debt” and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate and unequal; the much harder work of providing job training programs and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year; and the much harder work of lifting 37 million Americans of all races out of poverty.
These challenges will not go away with reparations. So while I applaud and agree with the underlying sentiment of recognizing the continued legacy of slavery, I would prefer to focus on the issues that will directly address these problems – and building a consensus to do just that.
So while it is true that Bernie and Obama share the same position, the reasons given are quite different. Obama clearly feels that were reparations ever realized, black people would undoubtedly be shortchanged in the long run, and probably the medium and short run, too. Agree or not, it is not “the same reason,” as Sanders says it is.
For those who think that Ta-Nehisi Coates is playing a bit of mischief on Sanders by injecting this issue into the campaign so close to the startof actual voting, you’re probably right, but not because he’s some kind of “Clinton minion.” He’s drawing attention to an issue he cares about, and exposing a painful truth about reparations. If Bernie Sanders fans want him to get past this, they should tell him to stop blaming Obama, and tell the truth that none of these dipping and dodging Democrats are willing to tell.
Slavery reparations aren’t a bad idea because they are politically infeasible, they are a bad political idea because they are politically poisonous. If Obama had spoken up for reparations, he’d be Attorney Barack right now, and Sarah Palin would be looking for any chance to push McCain down some stairs. In a 2014 poll, 15% of Americans, and six percent of white Americans, favored direct reparations, and only 19% of Americans even favored the sort of indirect reparations that Obama, Hillary, and Bernie describe.
That’s a painful truth because it means that even a whole bunch of liberals will oppose policies they usually favor if you call them “reparations.” They love it in a speech on The West Wing, but in actual reality? Not so much, That’s a hard truth to tell, though, when you’re still dependent on a lot of white voters, which all Democrats are, and which Bernie is, in particular.
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