The reparations demand survives as a parlor debate — it cannot address the real needs and interests of black workers.
Ta-Nehisi Coates recently criticized the Bernie Sanders campaign for Sanders’s pessimism regarding black reparations for slavery and Jim Crow segregation. When asked during a campaign event whether he would support reparations, Sanders responded with characteristic bluntness, saying that “its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil,” before adding that a push for formal reparations for slavery would be politically divisive.
Instead of reparations, Sanders argued,
what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.
Sanders’s plan is part of his long-held political vision that sees a revitalized public sector as a lever to address the needs of the most submerged segments of the population through universal social policy. But Coates was not impressed. As the foremost proponent of reparations in recent memory, he viewed Sanders’s response as a fundamental weakness in the senator’s “political revolution.”
According to Coates, “Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy.” Moreover, Coates contended that Sanders’s class-based remedy is rooted in “the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible,” and argued that
raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. Housing discrimination, historical and present, may well be the fulcrum of white supremacy. Affirmative action is one of the most disputed issues of the day. Neither are addressed in the “racial justice” section of Sanders [sic] platform.
In a follow-up to his initial criticism of Sanders, Coates highlighted the limits of social democracy in achieving racial justice in Europe. “There is no need to be theoretical about this,” he declared.
Across Europe, the kind of robust welfare states Sanders supports — higher minimum wage, single payer health care, low-cost higher education — has been embraced. Have these polices vanquished racism? Or has race become another rubric for asserting who should benefit from the state’s largesse and who should not? And if class-based policy alone is insufficient to banish racism in Europe, why would it prove to be sufficient in a country founded on white supremacy?
We actually do need to be theoretical about this. Coates’s sweeping mischaracterization diminishes the actual impact that social-democratic and socialist governments have historically had in improving the labor conditions and daily lives of working people, in Europe, the United States, and for a time, across parts of the Third World.
Coates also ignores the legions of blacks who have fought for generations to advance egalitarian state interventions — in the US and abroad — and seems to forget how the neoliberal assault on progressive left politics domestically and globally has worsened living and working conditions across different social layers, creating widespread precarity for the middle and working classes, professionals and low-skilled workers, and immigrants and minorities alike.
Coates’s disagreement with Sanders isn’t new; he riffs on a standing criticism of Sanders, and updates the Cold War, anti-socialist canard that any attempt to build social democracy on US soil will inevitably be hobbled by racism. Sanders faced similar criticisms last summer, when a handful of Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the Netroots Nation conference and a rally for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in Seattle.
But I’ve grown weary of this position — repeated with startling unanimity by students, activists, academic colleagues, social media commentators, and career pundits, who frequently reject any talk of a universal, broad-based leftist project — which fails to hold up against the weight of historical fact.
Arguments concerning the racist limits of left universalism often rest on the historical failures of progressive state policies. Whenever the subject of the New Deal is broached, many, including Coates, are quick to point to the discriminatory Social Security Act, which denied benefits to sharecroppers and domestic laborers and excluded thousands of black workers.
The New Deal was certainly flawed. It reflected the balance of class forces during the 1930s and was a combination of policies that favored particular capitalist blocs and other more progressive measures that resulted from worker and popular movement demands to constrain the market.
But the tendency to focus on the limitations of the Social Security provisions overlooks the broader, diverse policies that made up this social-democratic project — programs that directly benefitted the black unemployed like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and during the Second World War, the executive order to desegregate the defense industry.
These efforts were not perfect, and although blacks were employed across the nation through state-funded and state-directed public works projects, the CCC camps were racially segregated. The racial and gender integration of the shipyards and munitions factories was also short-lived, with peacetime demobilization marked by a return to previous patterns of exclusion and segmentation in various industries, as returning veterans reentered the domestic workforce.
Yet each of these measures demonstrated the possibility of an integrated society, and the power of the public sector in providing direct, concrete benefits to African Americans against the private discrimination of the market.
Indeed, towering mid-twentieth-century liberal and radical left intellectuals and activists such as A. Philip Randolph, John P. Davis, Esther Cooper Jackson, John Jackson, Bayard Rustin, and scores of others would have found themselves quite at odds with Coates’s liberal antiracist viewpoint that working-class-centered, anticapitalist political projects are patently inadequate for addressing the concerns of black voters.
The claim that social democracy and socialism are always and everywhere at odds with racial progress is simply false. It is not supported by the actual history of progressive struggles and the substantive ways they transformed black life.
Ultimately, Coates’s views about class and race — and this nation’s complex and tortured historical development — are well-meaning and at times poetic, but wrongheaded. The reparations argument is rooted in black nationalist politics, which traditionally elides class and neglects the way that race-first politics are often the means for advancing discrete, bourgeois class interests.
In its present incarnation, the reparations argument is better understood as a more reactionary, civil society version of the “rising tide lifts all boats” sensibility — a sensibility that Coates rejects. This version of race uplift supposes a black businessman who competes for government contracts and keeps a summer home and a single mother of three who relies on the Section 8 voucher program and itinerant minimum-wage employment to make ends meet share the same political interests by virtue of their common heritage and the experience of living in a racist society.
Most of all, Coates is wrong about how we have achieved black political and social progress in the past, and what we should do going forward. From the antebellum anti-slavery struggles to the postwar southern desegregation campaigns to contemporary battles against austerity, interracialism and popular social struggle have been central to improving the civic and material circumstances of African Americans, and at the level of daily life, such movements have confronted racist habits and perceptions, sweeping aside old boundaries to create new notions of communion and solidarity.
The timing of Coates’s critique is fortuitous for the Democratic Party mainstream. He positions the reparations demand as a proxy of black political interests writ large at the precise moment when the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party is in peril, the black vote has been presented as the “firewall” protecting Clinton from a surging Sanders candidacy, and the party’s reputation, institutional linkages, and legitimacy among some black constituencies have been battered by local struggles against police violence and education privatization.
For decades the Democratic Party has operated under the assumption of a corporate black political constituency, one that coheres around issues of social welfare; anti-discrimination policy in housing, labor, and education; public-sector employment; and inclusive compound growth.
In the decades after the Civil Rights Movement, and as black voters became firmly integrated into the Democratic Party coalition, most black political elites and ordinary citizens held out hope that the party would continue to protect the gains of the sixties, and expand liberal social provision. Such sentiments reached their apex during Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful attempts to secure the party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988.
Since that moment, however, black politicos, especially at the level of city governance, have veered toward an embrace of neoliberalism — the ideological rejection of left egalitarian, public interventionism in favor of those modes of state regulation that enhance capital flows and profit making.
Right-wing economists and Republicans may have launched the war against workers and the edifice of labor rights, civil rights, reproductive freedoms, consumer protections, and public goods and services built by left popular struggles, but the neoliberal project was carried out with pernicious effect in many American cities by the New Democrats.
Revisiting the history of demands for black reparations in the US elucidates the relationship between reparations and class-based political interests. Most reparations advocates retrace the idea’s lineage to the waning months of the Civil War, when Union general William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15, which redistributed confiscated lands in the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands to freed slaves.
President Andrew Johnson later reversed Sherman’s action, but the promise of redistribution persisted throughout the Reconstruction era — embodied in the demand for “forty acres and two mules,” which would have provided all freedmen with the material basis for their independence.
The restoration of property rights to planters, and the granting of amnesty to the Confederates who took up arms against the Union, however, placed African Americans in an especially vulnerable position, and the substantive black citizenship and racial progress achieved during the Reconstruction years were rolled back as the merchant-planter class regained power throughout the South.
This unresolved agrarian land question continued to shape black political thinking, holding a spectral place in African-American political thought throughout the Jim Crow era and informing a wide variety of “New Negro” political tendencies, from Marcus Garvey’s dream of repatriation and nation-building to the Communists’ call for self-determination for the Black Belt — the stretch of cotton-rich territory across the South where blacks were concentrated.
As the Jim Crow system buckled under the pressure of mounting direct action campaigns, the reparations demand reappeared — but this time as a symbolic moral claim rather than a widely embraced political issue. It has remained within a moral valence since.
The reemergence of reparations during this era was no doubt inspired by the rising political power of black movements and anticolonial struggles abroad, as well as by the shifting geopolitics and human rights discourse of the Cold War international arena, where the establishment of Israel, well-publicized trials of Nazis for war crimes, reparations for Holocaust survivors and the descendants of those killed, and the general mood of repairing the physical and social damage of world war suffused African-American political consciousness and debate.
One of the earliest figures to give formal expression to the reparations demand during the civil rights years was Queen Mother Audley Moore, the granddaughter of Louisiana slaves and a veteran of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Moore submitted a petition to the United Nations in 1959 seeking reparations for African Americans, and she made the demand again during a 1962 meeting with President John F. Kennedy. That same year, she founded the Committee for Reparations for Descendants of US Slaves.
In 1969, veteran civil rights organizer James Forman interrupted services at Riverside Church in Manhattan and read out the Black Manifestoto its congregation. The document demanded $500 million to fund various antipoverty programs such as a Southern land bank, and the establishment of an International Black Appeal to oversee the development of cooperatives in the United States and Africa. But instead of demanding redress from corporations or the state, the Black Manifesto targeted Christian churches and Jewish synagogues because they were “part and parcel of the system of capitalism.”
The Manifesto’s interest in churches and synagogues may seem odd at first glance, but in many ways the appeal paralleled the emergent patron-client relations that increasingly buttressed black power militancy. Financial and legal support from churches, private foundations, wealthy benefactors, and organizations like IFCO (Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization) flowed to the black power movement, underwriting popular mobilizations and political and artistic programs.
Other organizations sought reparations not in the form of individual or collective monetary payments, but territorial sovereignty. The Republic of New Afrika demanded that blacks receive five southern states to build an independent nation-state, and in its original ten-point platform, the Black Panther Party demanded reparations and called for a United Nations–supervised plebiscite among US blacks “for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny,” a position they later abandoned.
Today the reparations demand is different. It’s not a political issue that emerges from the discrete experiences and felt needs of the majority of blacks; instead, it is a moral claim advanced primarily by national black political elites and antiracist liberals. The reparations claim no longer functions as an actual political demand for land and territory, but rather operates as a territorial-identitarian claim for power and recognition within the shifting landscape of multicultural capitalism.
Coates fits this characterization as well. Aside from his support for H. R. 40, the Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, first introduced by Congressman John Conyers in 1989, Coates’s case for reparations does little more than catalogue well-known injustices and call for a national conversation — “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
Like Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book The New Jim Crow, Coates’s May 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” is pitched against the prevailing post-racialism of the Obama age. Coates marshals the weight of history, reminding readers of the legacies of slavery and segregation against claims that racism and racial grievance are anachronistic in today’s multicultural and putatively meritocratic society.
This variety of antiracist liberalism appeals to an anxious black middle class battered by the subprime mortgage crisis, economic recession, and repeated raids on the public sector. Furthermore, Coates’s accessible discussion of how racism has circumscribed the mid-twentieth-century American dream of homeownership cuts through the post-racialist fog of our times, even if it shrouds the motors of contemporary inequality under its own ideological mist.
Throughout his writings, Coates rightly rejects the argument that deep inequality is due to the cultural pathology of the black poor. But he embraces another aspect of Cold War liberalism: the focus on institutional racism — a concept that roots racial inequality primarily in covert, systematized practices like redlining in the mortgage industry, property-tax funding structures for public education, the siting of undesirable or toxic land uses adjacent to black communities, and so on, rather than overt forms of anti-black violence and discrimination.
Coates and others never broach the Cold War origins of institutional racism discourse, however. To do so would mean examining why this particular line of thinking — which treats black poverty as fundamentally distinct from white poverty — survived the Cold War, while the more Marxist class-oriented analysis offered by the black left in organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was weakened and ultimately defeated through police repression and red-baiting.
Many have lauded Coates for his historical analysis, and much of his case for reparations rests on an interpretation of the history of American racism: antebellum chattel slavery, the betrayals of Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, latter-day housing discrimination. Before offering a probing, useful critique of Coates’s reparations argument, historian N. D. B. Connolly claims that “[w]ithout question, the historical profession has likely had no better evangelist,” than Coates. MSNBC host Chris Hayes is even more effusive, declaring Coates the “greatest essayist of our time.”
But despite this fanfare, a closer look at Coates’s Atlantic essay reveals so much of what is wrong with how we talk about African-American life today.
Coates’s essay draws primarily on Beryl Satter’s history of residential change and housing discrimination in the Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side during the period of southern black in-migration and white flight after the Second World War.
Satter’s account is an empirically rich, and at times highly personal, telling of how particular forms of discrimination such as “buying on contract,” restrictive covenants, and redlining harmed black citizens, frustrating their efforts to purchase homes. She details the various forms of legal action and political organizing undertaken by residents, progressive lawyers, and civil rights activists to contest these racist practices, and is sensitive to the impersonal processes that shape individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities.
Coates employs elements of Satter’s account of discrimination in Lawndale and its historical consequences, as well as his own reportage, drawing on interviews with longtime black residents in Lawndale, to make the case for a national conversation about racism, intergenerational wealth, and inequality.
Coates’s argument may reveal the discrete legacies of discrimination in one neighborhood, but it conceals broader dynamics responsible for persistent black inequality and, for that matter, the patterns of residential apartheid in postwar Chicagoland.
In a fairly common sleight of hand, Coates extrapolates the empirical fact of white flight into a sociological explanation that reduces the myriad motivations animating white homeowners to a matter of fear and anti-black racism: “Black people were viewed as a contagion.”
In doing so he neglects the overarching structure of supply-side stimulus during the period — including President Eisenhower’s creation of the federal highway system and the federally subsidized construction of lower-cost housing — and glosses over how federal investments propelled suburbanization after the Second World War, well before urban rioting tore central cities asunder and sparked deep anxieties about the possibility of racial integration.
In contrast, Satter’s more sustained, textured analysis makes clear that white suburbanization grew out of large-scale policy undertaken by the state and the mortgage industry, as well the private decisions of landlords and home buyers. They acted not solely out of racism but also genuine economic insecurity — especially the newly arrived middle class, who still remembered the hardships of the Great Depression.
The Lawndale case powerfully illustrates the predatory behaviors of white property owners, who reaped wide profit margins from vulnerable black renters and ill-informed buyers. But had Coates widened his interpretive lens beyond Chicago’s West Side — which was settled by Southern black migrants after the Second World War — to include the city’s more well-established black South Side, a very different, and in some ways more complicated, set of political alliances and social relations would have troubled his narrative of racial conflict, where all the predators are white and all the prey are black.
In Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis, Preston H. Smith II offers a critical account of postwar housing policy and African-American class politics on Chicago’s South Side. During the same period Satter discusses, the South Side was defined by a more class-diverse black population, and one where the interests of the black professional-managerial elite as landlords, administrators, politicians, shopkeepers, supervisors, and homeowners sometimes coincided with, and at other times grated and clashed with, the demands and needs of black workers, public housing tenants, and the poor.
Smith documents how the horizon of social democracy embodied in progressive New Deal reforms — the ideal that all citizens should have access to housing regardless of their ability to pay — was ultimately eclipsed within black public life by a focus on racial democracy: the guarantee of access and participation in the consumer society in a manner comparable to all others of equal class standing.
Coates’s reparations argument rests in the latter aspiration, demanding racial parity within a market society, rather than the decommodification of housing, education, health care, and other human needs. Coates expresses this very sentiment when he says, “With segregation, with the isolation of the injured and the robbed, comes the concentration of disadvantage.”
However, he continues, “[a]n unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with the concentration of melanin.”
Coates’s demand for collective black recompense rests on the morally powerful but historically specious view of universally felt racial injury. His claims reference the denial of black citizenship during slavery and disenfranchisement under the Jim Crow regime, but show little appreciation for the situated class experiences of blacks as freepersons and slaves, antebellum urban artisans and plantation laborers, Reconstruction politicians and indebted, landless farmers — experiences which were consequential not only in material terms, but also in shaping different black political allegiances and aspirations.
Chattel slavery and legal racial segregation were historical phenomena that were maintained through contingent political alliances and ultimately defeated as those power arrangements were no longer morally defensible or economically justified. Coates’s writing uses history selectively as a means of leveraging racial redress in the present, but such work fails as historical interpretation and as political intervention because of his reluctance to confront the complex political and economic dimensions of the past and our own times.
Like the Cold War liberals who viewed class conflict as a resolved question, and proceeded to proffer technocratic solutions to the conditions facing the urban black and brown poor — Head Start, health care, job training, etc. — Coates’s essay unfolds neatly within the parameters of market liberalism.
It chastises the bad behavior of white citizens, neighborhood associations, and mortgage brokers, and the segregative housing patterns they sustained, while neglecting instances of black “plunder” and the full spectrum of political questions animating black life during the period, such as labor rights, wage floors, and how the massive surplus value that is socially produced by all workers might be more justly distributed.
What, then, would reparations within the current arrangements and class structure of late capitalism mean for African Americans, especially the black working class, in substantive terms?
Even if the most ideal scenario played out, in which a robust national conversation took place, an investigatory committee of the sort Coates has proposed was convened, and some tangible and generous form of reparations was legislated (e.g. Randall Robinson’s national trust), this would all have little long term bearing on inequality if the overarching processes of capital accumulation persisted without any social-democratic modification.
Also, who would administer this new national trust? The black professional-managerial class? What would be the democratic basis for their legitimacy to make redistributive decisions on behalf of the black population? And most importantly, why should this process of reconciliation or the creation of an administered trust to oversee black economic development take priority over the many other immediate needs and demands that are emerging organically from various black popular constituencies?
I was once a Coates fan. When I lived inside the Beltway as a graduate student during the nineties, I enjoyed reading his earliest essays for WashingtonCityPaper. I shouted when he criticized Bill Cosby’s tirade against the black urban poor in the Village Voice in 2004, and thought it took a special courage to speak out against Cosby in the days when he was still a beloved public figure — the model of black fatherhood and black bourgeois achievement.
But Coates’s latest attack on Sanders, and willingness to join the chorus of red-baiters, has convinced me that his particular brand of antiracism does more political harm than good, further mystifying the actual forces at play and the real battle lines that divide our world.
Moreover, Coates’s criticism of Sanders provides few clues to a better way forward in the struggle for justice and equality. If Sanders embraced the reparations demand now, it would certainly come off as disingenuous pandering; and his support for reparations would only give the Clinton camp another fresh talking point in their running characterization that Sanders’s calls for renewed egalitarian politics are unrealistic.
And if Sanders were to win the nomination, the GOP would simply expand on Clinton’s well-established, red-baiting script, with reparations providing the perfect foil for race-baiting as well. More importantly, and aside from these tactical concerns, the reparations issue is a political non-starter.
I agree with Sanders’s position on reparations and don’t think his skepticism is “tone deaf” as some of my friends have asserted. To say that a reparations bill has little chance of passing in Congress is not a mark of racial insensitivity, unless you happen to believe that reparations is somehow an issue that all black citizens see as a real political priority that they are actively working to advance.
Neither is Sanders’s skepticism evidence of a lack of courage as Coates insinuates. Rather, it is a position rooted in an empirical understanding of previous efforts to achieve congressional action on reparations. The Conyers bill has been introduced during every legislative session for over two decades and has never left committee. Without broad popular support, the reparations demand is an existential protest, not an actual political demand.
Perhaps aware of criticisms about the political feasibility of the reparations demand, Coates argues that the kind of social-democratic programs that Sanders has proposed are just as unlikely given the Republican Congress. But there is a significant difference between the two.
The left-egalitarian horizon is informed by a rich historical record of impactful reforms and has the capacity to unify broad swaths of the American middle and working class around their shared concerns — desire for a livable wage, economic security, housing, and education — while the reparations demand does not.
As it has evolved from the sixties, the reparations demand has never yielded one tangible improvement in the lives of the majority of African Americans. Though limited and historically uneven, the kinds of social-democratic reforms that are now being advanced by the Sanders campaign have had a discernible effect on the lives of the majority of African Americans at various points.
Ultimately, the historical narrative that underpins the reparations claim, a view of history that emphasizes racial conflict as primary, white supremacy as hegemonic and immutable, and black politics as insular and unitary, can only leave us with a fatalistic view of political possibilities that neglects the rich, diverse history of interracial left political struggle.
Contrary to the arguments offered by Coates and others, interracial social movements, universal social policy, and an expanded public sector created the contemporary black middle class as we know it.
Even as the slogan of white supremacy united various reactionary Southern elements and restored the power of the merchant-landlord class, interracial organizations fought to secure black freedom and create greater equality for black and white workers. The Readjuster Party in Virginia worked to uniteworkers against landed interests, and pressed for debt relief, lowered property taxes on farmers, chartered unions, established a black college, expanded public services, and removed the poll tax.
Other organizations at the end of the nineteenth century posed a different interracial, left vision of American society — organizations like the Populist Party of the 1890s, the Knights of Labor, and the Citizens Committee of New Orleans.
Throughout the twentieth century, struggles to expand labor rights, universal suffrage, and civil rights, and to abolish inequality, drew together diverse publics, creating concrete forms of social justice (albeit sometimes short-lived and imperfect). Whites who realized that their fates were intimately connected to those of southern blacks supported struggles against racism.
Jim Crow segregation — the historical system of racial apartheid that was legitimated at the federal level by Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine in 1896, codified by the states, and strictly enforced through violence and intimidation — began a long but certain death after the Second World War. While contemporary forms of inequality in wealth, housing, schooling, and criminal justice may bear a strong resemblance to Jim Crow, these injustices are classed in ways that the ascriptive status of blacks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not.
Contemporary forms of oppression are not propelled by the need to subjugate black labor to the interests of Southern planters and industrialists, but as a means of managing a growing class of Americans who are not exclusively black but have been made obsolete by hyper-industrialization, the large-scale introduction of automation and cybernetic command, just-in-time production, and other strategies of flexible accumulation in US farms and factories.
We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world, one where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.
Social exclusion and labor exploitation are different problems, but they are never disconnected under capitalism. And both processes work to the advantage of capital. Segmented labor markets, ethnic rivalry, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and informalization all work against solidarity. Whether we are talking about antebellum slaves, immigrant strikebreakers, or undocumented migrant workers, it is clear that exclusion is often deployed to advance exploitation on terms that are most favorable to investor class interests.
In other words, the most impoverished and dispossessed are hyper-exploited, placing downward pressure on wage floors, worsening conditions and undermining worker power in specific sectors and throughout society. Liberal antiracist discourse further isolates the conditions of the most excluded segments of workers, separating their experiences from those of other workers, and their labor from the broader processes at work, instead of emphasizing the empirical and potential political unity of the laboring classes.
Respect for difference is valued in today’s multicultural milieu, but the mobilization of different sub-strata of the working class against one another has long been a cherished strategy of capital. In our own times, this has been a vaunted campaign strategy of the New Right since the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon in the sixties.
Throughout that decade and into the early seventies, each man contributed to an ever more expansive repertoire of anti–civil rights and anti–New Left rhetoric, tugging the exposed, fraying threads of the New Deal coalition. In his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump has reached for the same playbook the New Right has used for decades, speaking in vile tones about the alleged criminality of Latino immigrants, talking openly about building a fence along the Mexican border, and calling for a US travel ban on all Muslims.
As it has in previous election cycles, such racist patter has resonated among some alienated white rural and suburban voters, and those in less populous states, who find it easier to bash minorities, the alleged liberal media, or left intellectuals than to contest the power that neoliberal politicians, multinational corporations, and the investor class wield over their lives.
Only in those historical moments when working-class and popular movements organize against these differences and around common predicaments and interests has society lurched toward greater equality. Many contemporary antiracist liberals have lost sight of this historical truth. And we will continue to lose if we follow their lead.
While the currency of the antiracist position offered by Coates stems in part from the post-racial debates of the Obama age, it is also rooted in the longer, established role of the black intellectual interpreter to white publics and the transformation of the public intellectual enterprise due to the advent of social media networks and consumer-communication niches.
As much as I resisted the incessant comparisons between Coates and Baldwin at first, I am starting to think they may have some value. Baldwin rose to prominence as a commentator on the crest of the struggle to defeat Jim Crow segregation, and he was an eloquent spokesman, one who called out the racism and liberal hypocrisy of Cold War America. His words rattled the affluent society and awakened American publics to the poverty and segregation in their midst.
Unfortunately, the arrival of the black intellectual as gadfly and conscience of the nation in the television era bore a new set of problems. Too many well-meaning whites mistook their guilt and pleasure of self-flagellation for genuine unity with blacks and authentic antiracist political commitment — in other words, solidarity.
That problem of replacing politics with public therapy endures to this day, and it flourishes in a context where social media linkages surrogate other historical forms of social interchange and collective action. Antiracist liberalism thrives in a context where the performance of self-loathing, outrage, and concern are easily traded public currency, instead of the more socially costly politics of public sacrifice and the redistribution of societal resources.
Like Baldwin, I think Coates fulfills a similar historical role in assuaging white guilt. What we need instead is solidarity.
I do not have any illusions about what Sanders or any other presidential candidate can accomplish, especially given the Republican control of Congress. Popular struggles and mass pressure have been the most effective means for advancing the most progressive changes in American society. But I’m also not so young and naïve to think that elections do not matter. We cannot expect to achieve greater equality through an election cycle, but elections can shape the political arena in meaningful ways and create openings for progressive social movements.
Having a pragmatic, mainstream left candidate who is gaining traction by making the case for social-democratic reform is historic and consequential.
Like the formation of the Labor Party in 1996, the anti-globalization movement of the late Clinton years, the mass protests against the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, the Wisconsin protests against Governor Scott Walker’s budget cuts, the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, anti–police brutality struggles, the Fight for 15 campaign, and so forth, the Sanders campaign is part of a gathering tide of social struggles over the past two decades that have fought against neoliberal austerity, and circulated popular criticisms of the market forces and reactionary political choices that have created more material hardship, social angst, and debt for millions of Americans.
Public-sector employment has played a powerful role in building the black middle class. Perhaps the best case against Coates’s criticisms of universal, social-democratic public policy is the progressive history of black workers and the United States Postal Service.
Beginning with the Great Migration, which saw thousands of blacks leave the South for northern cities, the post office has long been a major employer of blacks — including Clyde Ross, the chief protagonist of Coates’s study of housing discrimination and the Contract Buyers Club in North Lawndale.
The progressive, integrative role of the postal service and the public sector would only expand in the latter half of the twentieth century with shifting urban demography and the organized power of blacks in society writ large.
The neoliberal project has decimated the public sector and harmed black workers, rolling up what had been a means of stable, unionized, livable wage employment. Moreover, the US Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision on “right to work” will likely weaken the organizing capacity of public unions by removing payment requirements for union dues. This is but the latest campaign in a broader class war, one where black workers stand to lose like all others.
More than any other contest in recent memory, the 2016 Democratic presidential primary has provided us with a clear set of alternatives, a choice between the failed New Democratic policies of neoliberalism and social-democratic policies that might revitalize the public sector like guaranteed housing; free, quality education; and health care to all regardless of their ability to pay — all issues that have value among black constituencies.
If we can’t take advantage of this opportunity and win a majority behind this kind of politics, anything more radical beyond it will remain just a fantasy.