Ta-Nehisi Coates’ flawed attack on Bernie Sanders

Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

The case for new reparations to African-Americans is weak, says John McWhorter

Ta-Nehisi Coates is making a mistake blaming Bernie Sanders for opposing the idea, McWhorter says

CNN  — 

This week’s big news on race is that Ta-Nehisi Coates has called out Sen. Bernie Sanders for failing to adequately oppose white supremacy.

John McWhorter

Coates’ piece in The Atlantic advocating reparations for black America was widely praised in 2014, and his book last year “Between the World and Me” has been a sensation, with Toni Morrison anointing Coates as today’s James Baldwin.

Coates is dismayed that nevertheless, Sanders has dismissed the idea of trying to get Congress to pass a reparations bill as futile and also “divisive.” To Coates, this means that Sanders is part of the problem that black America has had since the early 17th century.

However, Coates’ attack on Sanders is premised on a weakness in his general take on black history, which, while charismatically expressed, is vastly oversimplified.

Coates’ version of black history is that black problems, including anything others might see as problems with our culture, are traceable to evils that whites imposed on us in the past.

If not lynching, then slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and so on. Surely legacies matter, but this analysis wears decidedly thin in places. Coates is hardly alone, for example, in demanding that America accept that when legions of black teenagers shoot each other over sneakers and turf, the real reason, on some level, is white racism. However, the onus is on Coates and his confreres to make that case and make it stick.

It never seems to work in terms of creating a meaningful consensus, and racism is not the sole reason for that. Social history – including for the descendants of African slaves – is complicated.

A complicated history

A key read of late is “Black Silent Majority,” Michael Fortner’s study of the role of concerned black leaders and thinkers in founding the war on drugs. (Fortner is black, grew up in a troubled neighborhood, and is not a conservative.)

The disproportionate penalization of crack in the criminal law (compared to the penalties for powder cocaine) was not simply a notion by sinister whites hoping to get as many black men behind bars as possible. Black officials championed the new approach with concern for their own communities. They had no idea so many people would wind up behind bars for so long, and here we are now trying to fix it. But it was, and is, complicated.

This kind of oversimplification is at the heart of a Coates-style approach to the reparations issue. No, I am not about to say there should be no reparations because black people don’t need assistance, or because slavery and Jim Crow were a long time ago. Rather, the argument against them is in part that there have already been reparations. They have not been titled with that name, but the substance has been the same.

Should a people be treated like animals for 350 years and cast adrift? No – and we haven’t been.

Affirmative action has been reparations. No one denies it has transformed the lives of countless black people – if it hadn’t, there wouldn’t be so many people so furious at the prospect of its demise. In the late 1960s, welfare payments to poor black women were expanded, made easier to get, and subject to less oversight over time. This was explicitly intended by its advocates as reparations.

The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was reparations, beyond the Fair Housing Act of 1968, for redlining practices that denied blacks the opportunity to own homes outside of slums. Scholarships nationwide for black students are reparations. Museum exhibits about slavery and the horrors of the black experience represent a nation deeply concerned with psychological reparation.

Educated white Americans’ focus of late on atoning for white privilege is reparations. The American intelligentsia’s reception of Coates’ book is reparations.

The idea that America is a country callously blind to the horrors of the black past is fiction. Yes, the educated tend to be more aware than others, but the notion that nothing significant has happened until every average Joe on every barstool is exquisitely sensitive to black concerns is needless utopianism.

The old reparations didn’t work?

Now, an objection here will be that despite the reparations I have noted, black America still has a great many serious problems. That is, the old reparations – and this is what they were – didn’t work, and so apparently we need new ones. But to insist on this as if anyone who disagrees is either stupid or morally callous is, again, oversimplification.

Let’s say Congress somehow granted large sums of money to black people. Just what evidence do we have that this would create significant change in black America in contrast to the reparations we had before? If the money were granted to organizations, which ones, and for what purpose? Given the myriad conflicting visions as to what black America needs, who would decide? Who would decide who would be among the deciders?

And something else. I venture a guess: Wouldn’t the response after reparations happened, among certain people, be, “Now, they better not think they can just pay us off” – or more tactfully, “Reparations is a beginning, not an end”? Why not just work on doing the things these very people would insist still hadn’t been done – police reform, fixing schools, ending the drug war – especially since, again, reparations have already happened?

In other words, Coates’ analysis of black history is not truth, but one proposition among many, and by no means so self-evident or empirically impregnable that anyone deserves to be beaten over the head as morally obtuse for not agreeing with it.

A passage in Coates’ “Between the World and Me” illuminates the kind of problem in historiography we are dealing with. Coates depicts belligerent young black men committing crimes as “girding themselves against the ghost of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ‘round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away.”

This may be good literature, but it fails as history or psychology. The idea that the guys Coates depicts are doing what they do as a response to the lynching of ancestors they didn’t even know is abstract at best, and at worst, dehumanizing.

Where’s the evidence that these men are thinking about what happened to their ancestors eons ago? It implies that the descendants of African slaves are the only humans in history incapable of moving beyond their past.

Of course, I may be taking Coates too literally, lacking what we might call “soul” on the matter. Opinions will differ on these matters, and legitimately.

However, to declare a socialist who has spent his life committed to helping the poor to be someone who gives comfort to “white supremacy” because he doesn’t support as fragile and unpromising a notion as a new round of reparations for black America is hasty, uncivil, and bordering on slander, reminiscent more of Fox News than James Baldwin.

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