Why Bernie Sanders Is Right to Oppose Reparations

There are lots of principled reasons that an anti-racist socialist might not favor the policy.

Jim Young / Reuters

In June 2014, when my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” I wrote in praise of its powerful description of housing discrimination as depraved, invidious theft that harmed black Americans long after the repeal of Jim Crow. And I declared myself “persuaded that relatively radical action ought to be taken to compensate victims of redlining and to address its most destructive, lasting consequences.” Specifically, I urged radical changes to the criminal-justice system and advocated some of the policing reforms that Black Lives Matter now champions.

But I opposed the payment of reparations to African Americans as a group.

I argued that race-neutral remedies to housing discrimination, the drug war, abusive policing, and other racist policies are a superior alternative––politically, practically, and morally––to race-specific remedies, even if one believes, as I do, that U.S. policies injured black people far more than any other non-indigenous group.

This difference of opinion leaves me predictably unpersuaded by Ta-Nehisi’s two recent articles arguing that Bernie Sanders ought to stake out a position in favor of reparations. I understand why my colleague is dissatisfied with the candidate’s statements. Like everyone else vying for the presidency, Sanders is answering some questions strategically––which is to say vaguely, evasively, and perhaps even disingenuously–– rather than with frankness, logic, and principled consistency.

And I agree with Ta-Nehisi that “sometimes the moral course lies within the politically possible, and sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible,” (with the caveat that there are multiple moral courses in many situations).

But I disagree with the notion that a failure to embrace reparations is tantamount to failing “in the ancient fight against white supremacy;” nor do I think a socialist opposing reparations proves that he is insistent on shifting the Overton window in order to achieve class justice but unwilling to do as much for the sake of racial justice.

Perhaps Sanders just thinks reparations are bad policy on the merits. There are many plausible reasons that a principled radical might come to that conclusion (though it isn’t entirely clear to me that Sanders is that radical even on matters of class).

Perhaps he is convinced that the highest incarnation of justice is a government that redistributes resources toward its citizens based wholly on their need, and doesn’t want to shift the Overton Window toward any model that is predicated on dessert beyond need, or that would redistribute wealth from poor to rich in some instances.

That seems consistent with principled socialism.

Perhaps when Sanders says that reparations would be divisive, he doesn’t mean that they would damage his campaign or the Democratic coalition by dividing its supporters––the plausible interpretation that Ta-Nehisi argued against in his critiques––but that it would divide Americans of different races against one another in a manner likely to cause more harm to vulnerable minority groups than good, or necessitate a divisive process of bureaucrats defining who qualifies as black. Maybe he was thinking that reparations poll dismally when their terms are undefined, and that hashing out specifics (I’m not sure if Ta-Nehisi wants Sanders to embrace the policies suggested by his 2014 article, or as popularly defined) would be divisive even among those on the left who favor reparations in the abstract.

I cannot disprove Ta-Nehisi’s less flattering theories. I am open to the possibility that they are accurate. But I see no evidence in favor of that proposition. And the arguments so far offered all seem to beg the question as to whether the reparations are the most just, the most effective, even the only effective way to dismantle white supremacy. Odds are that Bernie Sanders disagrees with those premises. I definitely do.

That is partly because I doubt the sufficiency of the remedy. “We know that black families making $100,000 a year tend to live in the same kind of neighborhoods as white families making $30,000 a year,” my colleague writes. “We now know that for every dollar of wealth white families have, black families have a nickel. We know that being middle class does not immunize black families from exploitation in the way that it immunizes white families. We know that in a city like Chicago,” he continues, “the wealthiest black neighborhood has an incarceration rate many times worse than the poorest white neighborhood. This is not a class divide, but a racist divide. Mainstream liberal policy proposes to address this divide without actually targeting it, to solve a problem through category error.”

I see how reparations would help remedy the fact that black families have a nickel for every dollar white families have. That’s huge. But I don’t see how high incarceration rates in wealthy black neighborhoods would be remedied by a marginal increase in wealth there. That seems like a category error to me. Nor do I see how reparations would stop a Skip Gates getting detained for trying to enter his own house; or a Trayvon Martin being targeted by an armed vigilante for walking while black; or any number of invidious racist acts from which money is no protection.

The fact that reparations are not a panacea does not discredit the policy. But it does suggest that one can fight many aspects of white supremacy without favoring reparations. And it highlights the fact that the anti-racist benefits of reparations are mostly synonymous with the wealth that they confer and the protection that wealth offers to poor and working class black people against poverty and some kinds of racism.

Those are significant benefits.

As best I can tell, Sanders’ position is that he wants to confer effectively identical benefits to poor and working-class black people. He wants them to benefit from redistribution. Although he wants to give it to them through a race-neutral transfer payment rather than a reparations check, the effect would ostensibly be the same. He would probably even argue that the effect would be better: Black Americans who’ve been unable to climb out of poverty due to past and present racism will get the help they need; so will members of other historically abused groups, impoverished white people (some of whom were wronged by government), and people whose poverty flows from bad choices but who deserve a second shot.

The Sanders approach lacks the symbolism of reparations. And it fails to transfer any wealth to better-off black people, even the ones who have less money than they otherwise would if not for unjust plunder enabled by racist government policies. But that class-focused approach is consistent with an avowed socialist’s priorities, not a dissonant departure from it that suggests inconsistency or hypocrisy. (One might expect Sanders’s most radical incarnation to urge a basic minimum income of $30,000 per year for everyone, not a one-time payment of some amount to black Americans. Again, I assume something like that popularly understood version of reparations is what Sanders is responding to when asked about the subject. Would that $30,000 help its black recipients less by another name?)

Ta-Nehisi writes:

...treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages. The bandages help, but they will not suffice.

The counterargument: A racist injury is sometimes best addressed by a formally race-neutral remedy. That’s the case that I made two years ago with respect to housing:

Imagine an effort to redress redlining began by identifying all homeowners who were hurt by the practice and gradually compensating them for their lost property value by waiving their property taxes; say that we compensated those wrongly denied home loans because of their race with cash; say that federal grants were made available to formerly redlined neighborhoods to ensure efficient public transportation to a range of job opportunities; and say that students attending underperforming schools in redlined neighborhoods got a voucher to increase spending at whatever school they chose to attend.

...To tackle redlining and its legacy in this way, policymakers could make redress available to black people (however defined) hurt in these neighborhoods, citing the singular experience of blacks in America and Coates's reparations arguments. Alternatively, one can imagine the same redress being made available to any individual injured by redlining and its legacy, in which case blacks would still benefit disproportionately; but non-blacks injured by the same policies would get justice too.

Hispanics in America haven't faced historic group injustices equal to what blacks faced. I am nevertheless loath to examine the history of redlining in America, to address its victims and legacy, and to exclude Hispanics undeniably hurt by the very same policies when it is no harder to identify the wronged individuals. A race-neutral approach could still include a historic inquiry into the practice of redlining that would accurately highlight the disproportionate ways that it targeted and harmed blacks. Black victims of redlining would get their measure of justice and recompense as surely as they would under a race-specific policy. Yet when the chosen frame is "let's redress victims of insidious housing discrimination" instead of "let's study reparations," many widely held objections to Coates's essay fall away... There is much less risk of pitting groups against one another in our increasingly diverse country. And some of the thorniest problems of implementation go away too.

Or consider one of the policy issues that I write about most frequently.

American policing has perpetrated countless racial injuries. I certainly favor reparations, which is to say, direct cash payments, for individual victims or their survivors, and “group reparations” to racially defined classes when class-action civil-rights lawsuits are settled. Yet widespread support for those “reparations” has not solved the problem of racist policing. The most important policy remedies are race-neutral. I have praised the Black Lives Matter activists responsible for Campaign Zero, a ten-part policy agenda that would significantly improve U.S. policing if adopted.

Nearly every policy change on their wish-list is race-neutral:

  1. End Broken Windows Policing
  2. Community Oversight
  3. Limit Use of Force
  4. Independently Investigate and Prosecute
  5. Community Representation
  6. Body Cams / Film the Police
  7. Training
  8. End For-Profit Policing
  9. Demilitarization
  10. Fair Police Union Contracts

Even their effort to remedy the fact that “white men … comprise about two thirds of U.S. police officers” and just one-third of the population at large, is framed in race-neutral terms: “The police should reflect and be responsive to the cultural, racial and gender diversity of the communities they are supposed to serve.” Black Americans are the group that suffers most disproportionately from bad policing––and therefore they are the group that will benefit most from these urgent reforms. Those benefits will not be diminished by the race-neutral framing, nor are there vital race-specific remedies that are being ignored.

“Reparations is not one possible tool against white supremacy,” Ta-Nehisi concludes. “It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy. One cannot propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt, propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy.”

In contrast, almost all the significant benefits of reparations could be derived from formally race-neutral policies that are more likely to be enacted and less likely to have unintended consequences that harm racial minority groups.

Perhaps I am wrong about that.

But whether or not reparations are indispensable to vanquishing white supremacy in the long run, there is a contender in the Democratic primary who strikes me as less likely to launch a catastrophic war of choice that needlessly kills tens of thousands of brown people; less likely to approve drone strikes that kill innocent children in Yemen; less likely to infringe on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans; and less likely to go “tough on crime" if the crime rate spikes in the next four years. Staking out those positions, and opposing the alternatives, ought to be considered “seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy,” even if additional measures are needed to win that fight.