Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “The Case for Reparations” and Between the World and Me, recently published an article in The Atlantic criticizing Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for his position on reparations. In his May 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” Coates argued that African Americans deserve reparations for hundreds of years of slavery and discrimination. In an interview with Fusion, Sanders dismissed the idea as politically infeasible, saying, “First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.” Coates was altogether displeased with this response and argued in a recent Atlantic article that a number of Sanders’ policies are also politically infeasible, and that as a “radical” candidate, Sanders should not be dismissing ideas based on their feasibility.
The thought that Sanders cannot dismiss ideas because of their feasibility is based on the false assumption that his policies do not have support. Although Coates is right that universal healthcare, a trillion dollar infrastructure investment, and free public colleges are not popular ideas among mainstream politicians in the United States, they are supported by the American people. A majority of Americans—albeit a slim one—thinks that the government should guarantee healthcare. Larger majorities think that college tuition is not affordable and support President Obama’s proposal for making it more affordable. With regard to infrastructure investment, 2013 polls indicated that between 72 and 77 percent of Americans support government programs that put people to work fixing the nation’s infrastructure. While Bernie Sanders is a radical among politicians, he is clearly not on the fringe of what Americans want. Sanders isn’t pushing people to the left so much as he is the only politician running for president to be as far left as the general public. Right-wing propaganda would have you believe Sanders is a radical candidate, but in fact, the policies he supports are in the mainstream of public opinion. Yes, Sanders would face resistance from Congress if he tried to pass these policies, but the policies Coates claims are totally infeasible actually have widespread popular support, which reparations lacks. Sanders believes that this public support can be translated into passage of politically unpopular policies in a “political revolution” that mobilizes people to demand Congress pass Sanders’ agenda. In his mind, it would be infeasible to push for reparations because he would not be able to mobilize people to help him push for it.
Reparations are extremely unpopular with the public. Following Coates’s 2014 article making the case for reparations, the Huffington Post published a poll gauging public support for reparations: while 15 percent of respondents supported the idea, 68 percent opposed it. If Sanders made reparations a part of his platform, he would become a radical candidate. The reality is that reparations are far less popular than many of Sanders’s key ideas, which are by and large supported by the public.
Meanwhile, the actual radical left, which includes reparations supporters such as Coates, is sabotaging itself by attacking Sanders. His policies are the most progressive of any candidate’s. The left finally has a candidate with a real shot at the nomination who will not be serving the country’s wealthy elite first and the rest second. This would mark a major departure from the neoliberal economic policies that have harmed the nation’s poor, a demographic that is disproportionately African American, for decades. My father loves to say that “Ronald Reagan has been president for thirty years,” and he’s absolutely right. Reaganomics has been the dominant economic philosophy of both parties since 1980. The marginal income tax rates for the top bracket has nearly been halved, dropping from 70 percent to 39.6 percent. Reagan also made substantial cuts to social programs that disproportionately affected African Americans. That trend continued under the next Democrat to take office, Bill Clinton. Clinton signed a major welfare reform bill passed by the Republican congress, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which was devastating to the country’s poor. This trend continues today with billions in cuts to Social Security disability benefits and Medicare in the 2016 budget.
Sanders is the most progressive candidate to run in decades. Like Coates, Sanders wants to expand social programs and reform the criminal justice system to benefit African American communities. Sanders’s primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, is supporting markedly less liberal policies, but still holds a commanding lead among African-American voters because of her advantage in name recognition, as well as her husband’s legacy. This is despite her ties to private prisons, support of a 1994 crime bill that ushered in the era of mass incarceration, a bill which Sanders protested against, and undoubtedly less progressive platform to address economic inequality. For Coates, economic inequality and policies that impact the poor should be a consideration, since black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be in poverty. Although the most recent polling is from 2012, African Americans consistently consider jobs and the economy to be the most important issues and support a federal job creation program. Such a jobs program is a major tenet of Sander’s agenda and absent from Clinton’s. To make up the deficit among African American voters, Sanders needs the support of leading the members of the African American community who can shed light on the policy distinctions between the two candidates. If Coates is interested in helping African Americans, Sanders is a candidate he ought to support, not criticize, since Sanders’s campaign platform is uniquely supportive of a number of policies that are overwhelmingly beneficial for African Americans.
Sanders is the only candidate in the last forty years with the will to dethrone Reagan and change economic policy in the United States. He also has by far the most progressive record of the candidates for president. Despite all that, Sanders is not the radical that Coates makes him out to be; he is simply a candidate who listens to the American people. Coates has since endorsed Sanders but still has some reservations, even though Sanders is easily the most ideologically similar candidate to him. Sanders is also the only candidate who opens the door for the possibility of a president who does support reparations by reversing the political current of the United States from right to left.
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