There was a real humdinger of a hatchet-job on Bernie Sanders published by The Atlantic on Tuesday that, were it read in isolation, would lead you to believe that between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the former is worthy of special scorn when it comes to race relations. Seizing upon Sanders’ response last week to a question from Fusion TV about reparations to African Americans for centuries of slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that “Sanders’ radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy.”
Asked if he favored reparations at the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, Sanders said no, and proceeded to explain what he does support to help African Americans get out of poverty:
Interviewer: A lot of African Americans are starting to call for the many years of stolen labor through slavery. Is that something you would support as president?
Bernie Sanders: 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.
Coates proceeds to slam the Vermont senator, asserting, “What he proposes in lieu of reparations—job creation, investment in cities, and free higher education—is well within the Overton window, and his platform on race echoes Democratic orthodoxy. The calls for community policing, body-cameras, and a voting-rights bill with pre-clearance restored— all are things that Hillary Clinton agrees with.And those positions with which she might not agree address black people not so much as a class specifically injured by white supremacy, but rather, as a group which magically suffers from disproportionate poverty.”
Notice how Coates intimates but does not state Clinton’s position. He does so either out of ignorance or disingenuousness. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt by assuming the former. In that case, Coates is free to navel-gaze about political positions of Sanders with which Clinton might or might not agree. Or, he could listen to Clinton’s response to the same question at the same forum. Coates could do that, but then that would mean he’d have to (if he possesses a modicum of intellectual honesty) overhaul his piece for its egregious sin of omission — that being that Clinton basically gave the same answer Sanders did:
Interviewer: Do you think the year 2016 — on the federal level — is the year we should start studying reparations?
Hillary Clinton: 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.
Clinton knows better than to answer this question with “yes” or “no.” “Yes” probably helps her a little in the currently tight primaries, but hurts her in the general election. “No,” wins her no new support in the currently tight primaries, but wouldn’t hurt her in the general. Clinton didn’t directly answer the question (just as she didn’t directly answer when BuzzFeed asked in October), but said what she would do instead of reparations. Sanders did directly answer the question, and said what he would do instead of reparations, which to reiterate, was the same damn thing Clinton said. If anything, Sanders gave a better response because he specifically mentioned creating jobs, making higher education free, and providing child care as antidotes to poverty, which as he noted disproportionately afflicts black communities and other people of color. Clinton didn’t name anything specific at all. Her response barely even qualifies for measurability in the very Overton window that Coates uses to knock Sanders.
The only difference in the responses is that Sanders said “no.” Substantively, however, their responses were the same.
But Coates only hammers Sanders. That’s Sanders — the guy who actively fought for civil rights and against racial segregation, and who was even arrested for it. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton supported Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. That’s Barry Goldwater — the guy who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, says Coates, it is Bernie Sanders who doesn’t understand “white supremacy.”
What a world.