It is too easy to view the verbal tirade of Ta-Nehisi Coates against the radical bona fides of Bernie Sanders from the perspective of Democratic presidential battle lines and, if you "feel the Bern," to immediately decry Coates as a threat to Sanders successfully wooing black voters.
Mind you, few people beyond Sanders and Hillary Clinton partisans, political junkies and Coates fans even know about, much less care about, this teacup kerfuffle. But the alarm—the sense of betrayal from the allied camp—misses Coates' point while also insulting the intelligence of prospective black voters.
Let me start with the notion that Coates singled out Sanders while giving Clinton a pass. He did no such thing.
He is a writer and a thinker in the mode of James Baldwin, though more analytical, and as he has found his voice—and an audience—these last few years through his writings in The Atlantic, he has demonstrated that he is beholden to no political camp when he issues his pronouncements on the state of the nation vis-à-vis black people. He revels in stirring the pot. He also enjoys inviting his readers along on his intellectual roller-coaster rides. And he can switch directions when he thinks the evidence requires that he do so. Coates has been as critical of Clinton as of Sanders, as critical of Democrats as of Republicans. He operates in a rarefied sphere where "sometimes the moral course lies within the politically possible, and sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible."
His treatise on reparations shook the reading world nearly two years ago and provided intellectual heft to a black nationalist demand that predates by decades the bill that Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) has tried to get before Congress since 1989, a bill that would "acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865" and "establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes." So Coates thought that if any candidate would embrace the case for reparations, it would be Sanders, the self-described radical who is willing to do battle to shake up the status quo in the name of social justice—except on the question dear to Coates' heart.
When asked at the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum whether he supported reparations, Sanders hardly paused before saying no and offering two un-Sanders-like reasons: "First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be divisive." I see why Coates leaped on that answer—and the attention he could draw to the reparations cause. Since when, he rightly asked, has Sanders limited his legislative imagination to what is doable and what does not rock the boat?
It is because Coates expects more from Sanders that he has borne down on him, perhaps thinking he would come around as quickly as he did on criminal justice issues when rudely confronted by representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement. But Clinton should not be sanguine. In Coates' eyes, she "has no interest in being labeled radical, left-wing, or even liberal." But Sanders, the guy who recorded an album called "We Shall Overcome" in 1987, the man who embraces high unemployment among black youth, mass incarceration, and income inequality as his issues—that man, in Coates' eyes, must also embrace that which would address the root cause of so much that has stunted the progress of blacks as a race in the United States: a dismantling of white supremacy in all its forms and reparations for the plunder of blacks on whose bodies the wealth of a nation was created.
This is Coates' message: "To destroy white supremacy we must commit ourselves to the promotion of unpopular policy. To commit ourselves solely to the promotion of popular policy means making peace with white supremacy."
His argument is more complex than awarding every black person the 21st-century equivalent of 40 acres and a mule promised at the end of legal slavery, though sometimes jesters have fun with the notion. (There's a question being bandied about in social media now: Would you take a $250,000 reparation check on the condition that you leave America?") His is a moral argument bound by neither pragmatism nor election cycles.
From the sidelines, it is rather funny to see all the commotion Coates has caused, for it once again reminds me that even our putative allies on the left do not quite understand blackfolks. Black voters, like other voters, will decide for themselves which candidate is the best choice among Democrats and Republicans based on immediate self-interest. They will hardly be persuaded by anything that one writer, even one as mesmerizing as Coates, has to say. To think otherwise is ignorant and condescending.
E.R. Shipp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and an associate professor at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication.