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An open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the liberals who love him


When asked recently if he supported slavery-related reparations for African Americans, US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders replied, “Its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil.” He continued:

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.

Ta-Nehisi Coates seized on this comment to assert that “Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy.” Coates went on to suggest that social-democratic reforms of the kind envisioned by Sanders don’t do enough to address racism. He even seemed to imply that any socialist project in America is doomed to fail because of the country’s deep-seated white supremacy.

In Jacobin magazine, Cedric Johnson, an African American author and union organizer, refutes this position, arguing that socialism is a powerful weapon against racism, and critiquing Coates’s position on reparations. Check out an excerpt below, or the full text here.

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.

Image: Workers on Chicago’s South Side play checkers before going to work in May 1973. The US National Archives / Flickr. Via Jacobin.