Bernie Sanders and The Reparations Discourse
2020 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recent CNN town hall has spurred quite a bit of controversy among some members of the Democratic base. When asked a question about whether or not he supports reparations for the descendants of American chattel slavery, Sanders pointed out the fact that the legacy of slavery has resulted in long-standing inequalities that continue to haunt us and that he would do everything in his power to close those gaps. While this sounds like a fine answer, some took exception with the fact that he did not immediately say yes to whether or not se supported the concept of reparations (although he eventually did in an admittedly roundabout way). Sanders even openly wondered what people mean exactly when they float the idea of reparations, because more than anything else, reparations must be thought of practically.
We still find ourselves in a moment where reparations only exist as an abstract idea when it comes to the mainstream discussion around the concept. Reparations for African Americans has taken on an amorphous quality in our discourse which allows some bad-faith critics of Sanders to cynically use it as a bludgeon against him. These same critics will also prop up other candidates who pay lip-service to the idea of reparations without actually supporting any policies that would resemble reparations for Black Americans.
I do find it troubling that Sanders will not simply say yes to the question of whether or not he supports reparations, and I do believe that he should equivocate a bit less on the topic. But his acknowledgement of the legacy of slavery, his knowledge of the empirical data that highlights our existing racial inequities and his promise to combat those issues directly are as far if not farther than any other candidate not named Elizabeth Warren has gone on the topic.
So if we are to hold Sanders accountable on this issue we must also hold virtually every other candidate responsible and we need to begin to introduce within the discourse ideas of what reparations would look like in a practical sense. On an issue that is as important as this one, we can no longer allow for “reparations” to be an effectively empty term that is used for the sole purpose of testing how superficially woke a politician is. So let us consider the specific goal we are seeking to achieve with reparations and some specific measures that would have to be pursued in order to truly achieve those goals. This way we can see who truly supports reparations, and who does not.
It has to be said that repayment for the damage done by chattel slavery would be a massive undertaking that when put in concrete terms shows how far behind we are in this discourse. We must understand that the American capitalist economy was built on exploited Black labor and still thrives on exploited Black labor in 2019. Once Black people were freed from slavery, they were subject to vagrancy laws (among other draconian racialized laws) that virtually made it illegal to be Black and not working for a white man during most hours of the day. Many Blacks in the south often had to resort sharecropping which placed them back into a massively exploitative labor dynamic, often being at the mercy of the same people who exploited them during slavery. More recently we have watched a prison industrial complex lock up Black men and women for petty offenses (or for just being too poor to afford bail), and then subjecting them to what can only be described as slave labor. In short, repayment for such exploitation would probably number in the tens of trillions when considering the value produced by these terribly exploited laborers, and that is only a part of any reasonable plan for reparations.
Beyond just compensating Black Americans financially (through whatever mechanisms are decided upon), the largest barrier to full Black economic and social inclusion in the United States is the rampant and pervasive issue of residential segregation. Significant swaths of the Black community are locked into purposefully engineered ghettoes which leave them trapped in a crushing cycle of poverty, violence , exploitation and social alienation. Where you live often determines your outcomes. Because of the refusal of white communities throughout the nation to welcome Black people as their neighbors and peers (with the explicit support of the federal government), we have seen entire communities and generations of Black men and women be cut off from the benefits that the mainstream economy provides to white men and women.
Using the power of the federal government to break down the walls of segregation that have been erected throughout the nation would have to be a central feature of any effective reparations plan. There is no way that we can tackle the legacy of slavery and truly undo it as long as millions of Black Americans continue to be treated not as American citizens, but as occupied colonial subjects. The government would have to commit to doing something that it has never done before, and that would be pushing forward policy that adequately addresses racial inequality without considering the comfort of white America. The government faltered in the face of white backlash both during reconstruction and the period following the major victories of the Civil Rights Movement. The failure of our government and our society at large to stop the racialized violence and marginalization experienced by Black Americans is what has brought us to this moment where such radical measures must be taken.
Simply put, the goal of reparations should not only be to repay Black people for past harms, but to finally make good on the words that are enshrined in the constitution. America has always viewed Black Americans as simply being a means to an end, bodies to be exploited, and a people to be shunned. That reality is what reparations are meant to destroy. Any reparations plan that falls short of that goal is not one that is worth pursuing. The standard for what we consider to be reparations should be incredibly high (I suggest that everyone looks into all of the incredible writing done on reparations for even more depth) and right now many of those being praised for supporting reparations do not come close to meeting that standard.