CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer doggedly pursued Bernie Sanders for a direct answer on slavery reparations, resulting in a painfully awkward moment for the independent Vermont senator and 2020 presidential hopeful.
Sanders appeared in a 70-minute town hall event for CNN Monday night, and got tripped up a few times by Blitzer, who moderated the event. But by far the most problematic moment for Sanders was when he was asked about the issue of reparations.
Toward the end of the debate, Chioma Iwuoha, a director for a Washington, DC non-profit, told Sanders “Part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. is the legacy of income inequality in the U.S.,” and asked him “What your position on reparations to the descendants of slaves?”
Substantively, Sanders gave the same answer he gave in 2016 — only without yelling “I’ve said ‘black’ 50 times!” — advocating for legislation that would aid “distressed communities” of all races.
But that wasn’t enough for Blitzer, who asked Sanders “So what is your position, specifically, on reparations? I ask the question because Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, they’ve indicated they want to support…”
“But what does that mean? What do they mean?” Sanders snapped. “I’m not sure that anyone’s very clear. What I’ve just said is that I think we must do everything that we can to address the massive level of disparity that exists in this country.”
“I’ll tell you what they mean,” Blitzer replied, “because Elizabeth Warren has said black families have had a much steeper hill to climb. We need systematic structural changes to address that. Julian Castro has said I have long thought that this country would be better off if we did find a way to do that, reparations.”
“Well, I just — I agree with what Elizabeth said,” Sanders said.
“So you would support — you would support reparations?” Blitzer asked.
“Well, but read what she said,” Sanders said. “What does that mean? She means, I think — I don’t want to put words into her mouth — is what I said. OK? In other words, as a result of a legacy of slavery, you have massive levels of inequality. It has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed now.”
Blitzer still wasn’t done, though, and flashed one more receipt.
“In 2016, you said it would be divisive, reparations,” Blitzer said, referring to comments Sanders made during the 2016 campaign.
Sanders, who was already motioning for the next questioner, paused awkwardly and said “Well, again, it depends on what the word means,” then told Blitzer “And I know you don’t want to be divisive tonight.”
Sanders’ desperation to change the subject was palpable, and his suggestion that Blitzer was being “divisive” in seeking a direct answer was revealing.
In fairness to Sanders, he is essentially correct that the policy response he gave is similar in character to those that others have given. Warren spoke vaguely of “systemic structural changes” to address inequities, and Kamala Harris has said she would support “some form of reparations,” but both have suggested policies which, while they might disproportionately benefit black Americans, are not race-specific.
Julian Castro has promised to establish a “task force” on reparations, but also seems open to the same sorts of non-race-based policies that the others have suggested. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have also suggested, in the past, addressing the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow through policies that are not race-specific.
The main difference between Sanders and his current opponents is their willingness to call what they support “reparations,” and Sanders’ response showed his unwillingness to do so, while trying to pretend that he did.
As is so often the case, Sanders’ attempt to split the baby just left him with two halves of messed-up baby: unhappy voters who think reparations is a toxic and divisive issue that Sanders should not support, and unhappy voters who support reparations, whom Sanders could not quite bring himself to stand with.
Watch the clip above, from CNN.
[Image via screengrab]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.