Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Voting for Bernie Sanders Despite the Senator's Opposition to Reparations

February 10, 2016
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Ta-Nehisi Coates

national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. He is the author of Between the World and Me, which is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Coates is also the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. And he is the recipient of the 2014 George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story, "The Case for Reparations."

The acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of "Between the World and Me," has written some of the most discussed articles on the presidential race looking at Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his position on reparations. Coates wrote the articles after Sanders appeared at the Black and Brown Forum in Iowa and said he did not support reparations for slavery because it is too "divisive" an issue. While his critique of Sanders generated headlines, today Coates talks on Democracy Now! about why he still plans to vote for the Vermont senator.


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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk more about the presidential race, we’re joined by the acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. His book Between the World and Me recently won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates has written some of the most discussed articles on the presidential race looking at Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his position on reparations. Coates wrote the articles after Sanders appeared at the Black and Brown Forum in Iowa and said he did not support reparations for slavery because it’s too, quote, "divisive" an issue.

NANDO VILA: A lot of African Americans are starting to call for reparations for the many years of stolen labor through slavery. Is that something that you would support as president?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I think it would be—first of all, its likelihood of getting through our Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be, you know, 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, 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, in creating millions of decent-paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, in 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 are in impoverished communities, often African-American and Latino.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bernie Sanders speaking at the Black and Brown Forum in Iowa in January. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also said at the forum she didn’t support reparations for slavery.

Following the forum, Ta-Nehisi Coates challenged Sanders’ position in an article for The Atlantic entitled "Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?" In the piece, he wrote, quote, "Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy. ... This is the 'class first' approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible," end-quote.

The piece has sparked both praise and controversy from across the political spectrum. In one response, University of Illinois professor Cedric Johnson wrote in a piece for Jacobin magazine, quote, "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," end-quote.

This comes as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns shift attention away from New Hampshire toward South Carolina, where black voters could decide the primary.

Well, to discuss the 2016 presidential campaign and the case for reparations, we are joined by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. He’s the author of Between the World and Me, which is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He won the 2014 George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story, "The Case for Reparations."

It’s great to have you back, Ta-Nehisi.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thanks for having me back, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And congratulations on this new nomination of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, but before we go to the issue of reparations, your response to what just took place in New Hampshire? Again, the first two contests—because Iowa is a caucus, New Hampshire is a primary—in two of the whitest states in the country.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I don’t know that I have anything particularly more intelligent to add. I think, like everybody else, I’m stunned. You know? I mean, I guess [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: What are you stunned by?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I think, had you told me this like a year ago, I certainly would not have expected, you know, an avowed socialist to be putting up these sorts of numbers and actually be contending for the Democratic Party nomination. But I think it’s awesome. You know, I think it’s great. You know, like a lot of people, I’m very, very concerned about Senator Clinton’s record. I’m very, very concerned about where her positions were in the 1990s, when we had some of the most disgusting legislation in terms of our criminal justice, really, in this country’s history. I get really, really concerned when I see somebody taking $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, will not release what they’re actually saying. That’s concerning. And so, having options, not having this be a coronation, I think, is a good thing. So, I’m stunned, but I’m pleasantly stunned.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about your critique of Bernie Sanders and his opposition to reparations, but saying the money has to be put into black and brown communities in terms of jobs, and we’ve got to fight economic inequality.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, the first thing is, obviously, I’m in favor of fighting economic inequality. The second part of his answer, which you just played, you know, I completely support. But I think one thing that we have to understand is, you know—and I’ll put this in two parts—first of all, the injuries that African Americans experience are not just the injuries of class. It’s not just a matter of being impoverished. We had particular policies in this country that resulted in the larger share of poverty that we have in African-American communities. At the same time, the issue of class does not break down the same way in African-American communities as it breaks down in other communities. You can’t make a direct comparison between middle-class African Americans and middle-class white Americans, affluent African Americans and affluent white Americans. The amount of wealth tends to be less. The neighborhoods that black people tend to live in tend to be of lesser quality. The institutions and the services that black folks receive from the government tend to be of lesser quality. And so, the notion that you can have an all-encompassing policy, universal policy, to really address what is actually a very, very specific injury, I think, is wrong.

I think, secondly, folks need to be aware of the history of how racism actually injures universalist policy. Every time we’ve had to, you know, put forth universalist, socialist—social policy in this country, at every moment, we’ve had to contend with the fact that there is a relatively large amount—a relatively large population of Americans in this country that are concerned about black people being included in those policies, too. That was true in the New Deal. It was true in Obamacare. And it likely would be true with President Sanders also.

AMY GOODMAN: W. E. B. Du Bois’ the problem of the 20th century is the color.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It remains with us. It’s very sad, but it remains with us. And so, thinking that we will get away from it by changing the subject or talking in a different way, I just don’t think will work.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 2008, CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux asking then-Senator Barack Obama about his view on reparations.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX: When it comes to reparations, would you take it a step further in terms of apologizing for slavery or offering reparations to various groups?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, I have said in the past, and I’ll repeat again, that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed. And, you know, I think that strategies that invest in lifting people out of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but that have brought applicability and allow us to build coalitions to actually get these things done, that, I think, is the best strategy. You know, the fact is, is that dealing with some of the—some of the legacy of discrimination is going to cost billions of dollars. And we’re not going to be able to have that kind of resource allocation unless all Americans feel that they are invested in making this stuff happen. And so, you know, I’m much more interested in talking about: How do we get every child to learn? How do we get every person healthcare? How do we make sure that everybody has a job? How do we make sure that every senior citizen can retire with dignity and respect?

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama—well, actually, Senator Obama in 2008. Your response, Ta-Nehisi?

TA-NEHISI COATES: It just always makes me sad to see that. I really want to believe him. I really, really want to believe Senator Sanders. But the fact of the matter is, in America, you know, throughout American history, it’s been very difficult to deliver on those promises that he said at the end: every person a job, every person a quality education, every person quality healthcare—while avoiding the issue of white supremacy. I just don’t know how you deal with that. We just went through an era, during the housing crisis—and when I say "housing crisis," it sounds like it hit everybody in the same way. It didn’t. We had, you know, mortgage companies in this country that deliberately targeted middle-class African-American neighborhoods and deliberately gave them predatory loans, despite the fact, even when you look at the conditions of the folks who were borrowing money, they looked on paper just like other white families. They were targeted because they were black communities. How we get past this without talk—I just—I just don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you write this remarkable piece for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." You originally were not for reparations yourself.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I was not. I believed what he just said.

AMY GOODMAN: So what changed you?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, one of the great luxuries of my job at The Atlantic is, you know, I’m encouraged to read and research. And there is a great deal of research, for instance, on New Deal legislation, which, you know, we’re sort of repeating ourselves right now. There’s a great deal of research on neighborhood poverty out there in the academe. And there’s a really, really budding field of, you know, I would say, reinterpretation of the legacy of slavery, which shows exactly how much wealth was extracted out of the community. And once I began to see white supremacy and anti-black racism as a specific thing, not just something—you know, not just a matter of black people being accidentally poor, but a specific trend in American history that’s with us up until today, it became very difficult to hold onto a universalist solution.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from an episode of Behind the News on KPFA radio last month. This is Adolph Reed, the noted African-American public intellectual and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was speaking with radio host Doug Henwood.

ADOLPH REED JR.: You can go down the Sanders platform, issue by issue, and ask, "So how is this not a black issue?" Right? I mean, how is a $15 minimum wage not a black issue? How is public works employment, massive public works employment programs, not a black issue? Right? I mean, how is free college higher education—I mean, free public higher education not a black issue? And on down the line, right? The criminal justice stuff, the rest of it. So one head-scratching aspect of this is, what do people like Coates imagine is to be gained by calling the program—or, calling the redistribution racial and calling it—and calling it reparations?

DOUG HENWOOD: I am not Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I imagine he and people who call for reparations would respond by saying that it’s meant to address wounds that were specifically racial in their origin, starting with slavery, carrying on through Jim Crow, redlining, the structure today of the criminal justice system. These are all highly racialized injuries, and only a highly racialized remedy would be appropriate to cure it. What do you say?

ADOLPH REED JR.: Well, I think the logic fails on its own terms. I mean—and my question is—you know, look, you can grant, even for the sake of argument, that—that the injuries were in their origin highly and explicitly racialized. It does not necessarily follow from that that the remedy has to be in the same coin. And I have not seen Coates—well, I haven’t seen an argument from Coates about anything, really, but I’ve not seen Coates or others who make that assertion actually argue for it—right?—give a concrete and pragmatic explanation of how that works, right? I mean, that is to say, how—or what the response to atonement, I suppose, for past harms would look like and what they imagine—yeah, well, I mean, you can tell I’m flustered. I mean, what they imagine the response would actually be.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s University of Pennsylvania professor, public intellectual Adolph Reed being interviewed by Doug Henwood. Your response, Ta-Nehisi Coates?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, let me respond to the—he made three points in there, but I’m going to respond to the last one, the specificity of it, which I think is really, really important. What he said was, you know, he hasn’t seen anybody making an argument or imagine what reparations would look like. In fact, you know, since the article was published, several times, at least two or three times, I have written very, very specifically about what it would look like in my case.

In terms of "The Case for Reparations," I focused on housing and the damage done through redlining, which was not a highly racialized form of damage—it was a racist form of damage. I think we need to be really, really clear about that. It was specifically—you know, did specific damage to black people because they were black. And in the case of redlining, we have the maps. We know exactly where the communities are that were damaged. We have census report. We know who lived there. In cases of, for instance, the GI Bill or FHA loans that black people were not allowed to give, we have folks who could go before a claims office and say, "I tried to do this. This was denied to me." So we don’t have a problem of knowing where folks live. We don’t have a problem knowing what communities were affected. I would target those communities for investment and target those specific people, you know, given that they could prove what happened to them, for investment. That’s a very specific—that’s a limited case of reparations, but it’s what I focused on in terms of housing. And certainly someone could make a case—someone could make a case for reparations in terms of other things, in terms of education, in terms of healthcare, in terms of the criminal justice, and could argue for specific solutions in the same way.

The second thing I wanted to respond to is, you know, Professor Reed, whom I have great, great respect for, read a lot of when I was at Howard University, in college, and his critiques of public intellectuals, but I think—you know, when he says, "What is to be gained by calling it reparations?" what is to be gained is the truth. That’s what it is. An injury was done; recompense should be made for it. It’s no different than any other injury that’s done to any other group of people in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk—

TA-NEHISI COATES: It’s not a political tactic. It’s what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about some of those examples. What are the precedents you look at?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, in "The Case for Reparations," I obviously looked at, you know, the grand precedent of the Holocaust, you know, and specifically how reparations were given to Israel in recompense specifically for folks who had to—who had to leave the areas where Nazis came in. And what they did was they invested in Israel. They basically sold them goods that Israel then used to build themselves up. But again, you know, that’s a country-to-country transfer. You know, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there were many Holocaust survivors who also—

TA-NEHISI COATES: That’s right. That’s right. And there were individual reparations made to, you know, Holocaust—there still are individual reparations being made, to this very day, for Holocaust survivors. So—and in fact, even in this country, we’ve actually had reparations, in specific cases, to black people: in Chicago, for the crimes of Jon Burge; in North Carolina, in the crimes in terms of the sterilization campaign that was made down there. The state of Oklahoma, during the Tulsa race riot, admitted that they had actually perpetrated a pogrom, dropped bombs on black people and black communities down there. They declined to give reparations, but it was really, really clear. And so, I think it’s very, very important—we’re talking about specific people here. It’s not some vague sort of, you know, mass of African Americans. These are specific people, who have been injured by specific policies, who deserve a specific remedy, and not a universalist one that applies to people who may or may not have been injured.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have Senator Obama, before he was president, saying, well, not exactly reparations, but these other issues of equality; Hillary Clinton basically saying the same—

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —and Bernie Sanders saying the same. But you’re focusing on Bernie Sanders.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I expected more. And maybe I’m wrong for that. I just expected more, you know? As I said earlier in the interview, I’m thrilled. You know, I was stunned to see how far he’s come. But I’m thrilled to see an actual radical, left-wing, you know, uniquely left-wing option in the Democratic Party. If we can’t get the left—if we on the left can’t embrace this idea that black folks have been specifically injured and that there should be specific remedies for that injury, then we have no hope. You know, we really, really have no hope. And so, you know, forgive me for expecting more of Senator Sanders than I expect of Senator Clinton, but I do.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Killer Mike, hip-hop artist Killer Mike, who you two have a love affair going. I mean, you both have great respect for each other. Last month, he took to Twitter—you know, he introduced Bernie Sanders at a big rally in Atlanta. And he took to Twitter to defend Sanders after you criticized him for not supporting reparations. Killer Mike tweeted, "The truth of my support is this. I am pro Reparations for any people used and abused like Blacks have been here and other places," and, quote, "I believe the Govt of this country will NEVER do this but if I can have a POTUS who will be open to a federal loan program to help," and, quote, "Candidate that I think wud be most sensitive to the very accomplishable goal and the other things that can/will help Black people is Sanders." That’s Killer Mike.

TA-NEHISI COATES: There’s actually very little in that statement right there that I disagree with. One can be very, very critical of Senator Sanders on this specific issue. One can say Senator Sanders should have more explicit antiracist policy within his racial justice platform, not just more general stuff, and still cast a vote for Senator Sanders and still feel that Senator Sanders is the best option that we have in the race. But just because that’s who you’re going to vote for doesn’t mean you then have to agree with everything they say.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be voting for Senator Sanders?

TA-NEHISI COATES: I will be voting for Senator Sanders. I have tried to avoid this question, but, yes, I will be voting for Senator Sanders. I try to avoid that, because I want to write as a journalist—do you know what I mean?—and separate that from my role as, I don’t know, a private citizen. But I don’t think much is accomplished by ducking the question. Yes, I will vote for Senator Sanders. My son influenced me.

AMY GOODMAN: And your son is right here, right outside of the studio. Well, I want to thank you, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for joining us. I have a few more questions for you, where we’ll do a post-show, and we’ll post it at democracynow.org. Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent at The Atlantic, writes about culture, politics and social issues—we’ll link to his piece in The Atlantic about reparations—and wrote the book Between the World and Me.


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