Coates vs. Sanders on Reparations

So, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest contribution to the race debate in America is the claim that, by not endorsing the payment of reparations to black Americans for historical racism, Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a hypocritical socialist (since BS can see class disparities clearly, but he goes color-blind when confronted by “white supremacy.”) This, in my view, is a ludicrous claim — one betraying an impoverished understanding of both “reparations” and “socialism.”
As it happens, I addressed the subtle issues at play in this debate nearly a decade ago, in this essay linked here for your edification, which someone on Bernie Sanders’s staff should probably read before he makes his next speech about black lives mattering:

Trans-Generational Justice – Compensatory vs. Interpretative Approaches

The essay is long, and time is short, so here’s an abstract:

Black Reparations advocacy is problematic not because (as many critics would have it) the people pushing it are quarrelsome jerks. It is problematic, and bad for this country, and bad for black people ourselves, because it squanders blacks’ dwindling political capital and misses our chance to show genuine moral leadership in this nation, as the early civil rights era heroes had done. We are still a multi-racial nation, and will be for as far into the future as anyone can see. The moral and political issues most salient in the context of “blackness” remain to be addressed (over-crowded prisons, ghettos from which opportunity for social betterment has fled, and so on), and “compassionate conservatism” doesn’t even begin to address them. But, then, neither will the payment of financial reparations for historical harm.

The issue confronting those black leaders and intellectuals brave enough to think outside the box today is how to convert our historical inheritance of moral authority and our claim on the public’s attention — an inheritance derived from the sufferings and heroic triumphs of our ancestors — into a moral and political currency that is relevant to our time. Mournful recitations of the old civil rights mantras are obviously inadequate to the task. The fact is that there are no problems facing the “black community” that are not also problems for a vast number of brown, yellow, red and white Americans. And there are no solutions for these problems that can, or should, be enacted solely (or even mainly) to assuage the legitimate concerns of blacks. But there is a criticism of the regnant interpretation of America’s racial history in contemporary political discourses that can and should be made, in the name of historical and racial justice. I have tried in this essay to indicate what the broad outlines of such a criticism might be.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Glenn Loury

Glenn Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences, Professor of Economics, and Watson Institute Faculty Fellow at Brown University. For more than three decades, Professor Loury has been deeply involved in critical writing for a broad public audience on key issues of social justice and inequality, in contemporary American society and on a global scale. Professor Loury is also an academic economist who has made significant contributions to the fields of welfare economics, income distribution, game theory, industrial organization, and natural resource economics. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Econometric Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society, has served as vice president of the American Economics Association, and as president of the Eastern Economics Association. He received the John von Neumann Award in 2005 (given annually by Rajk Laszlo College of the Budapest University of Economic Science and Public Administration to “an outstanding economist whose research has exerted a major influence on students of the College over an extended period of time.”) He gave the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University (2007), the James A. Moffett ’29 Lectures in Ethics at Princeton University (2003), and the DuBois Lectures in African American Studies at Harvard University (2000). He has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carnegie Scholarship to support his work. He has been a visiting Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and is currently a resident Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, where he is writing a memoir on his intellectual and political journey over five decades. In addition to his scholarship, Professor Loury has published over 200 essays and reviews in journals of public affairs in the U.S. and abroad. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor at The Boston Review, and was for many years a contributing editor at The New Republic. His books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (Free Press, 1995 - winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award); The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Harvard, 2002); Ethnicity, Social Mobility, and Public Policy: Comparing the US and the UK (Ed., Cambridge, 2005); and Race, Incarceration, and American Values (MIT, 2008).