Baltimore City Paper

Bernie Sanders' approach to reparations should sober Black America

It's hard to miss rapper Killer Mike. His tenacity, stature, presence, and the fact that he will go down in the history of hip-hop legends—a living, breathing political hip-hop genius in our lifetime. And the rapper's brilliance goes far beyond moving the crowd as he performs songs like 'God In The Building' and 'Reagan': He has wept for Black America in light of the cycle of cataclysmic injustices and galvanized the perked ears of Black voters.

His presidential candidateof choice, like many other Black American leaders, is Bernie Sanders. Why he'd walk this path with Sanders is obvious. Sanders has made it clear that he wants to do right by an American people marred by two decades of explicit oligarchic plunder and bought elections. If you're middle class, he's the best thing since sliced bread. If you're impoverished he is sliced bread. If you're wealthy, he's robbing your bread factory. Killer Mike's message to Black America: Either you "Feel the Bern," or risk getting burned again.


But there are reasons to question unequivocal support of Sanders. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out recently in the Atlantic, there is Sanders' placid aversion of reparations, and that is on top of his far too class-oriented radicalism. That Sanders is endorsed by many beloved members of the Black community should open the eyes of Black voters for sure, but it should also lead to more challenges of Sanders' platform.

Sanders has experienced a hailstorm of criticism about both the case for reparationsand his evasiveness on the topic. The inquiry is clear: Does Bernie Sanders believe in and plan to make reparatory actions given slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the current wholesale jailing of black bodies via the war on drugs? To the naked eye it seems as if some of us are putting him exclusively under the searing light of an interrogation room. But as Coates pointed out, this is what Sanders has called for when he introduced the word "radical" into his campaign lexicon. And "radical," in the Black American tradition, has always meant making amends for historically protracted tyranny legitimized at federal or state levels.


Here is what Sanders said to NBC's Chuck Todd, after Todd asked him why he stops short on reparations: "We have got to invest in the future. What we have got to do is address poverty in America, something that very few people talk about, and especially poverty in the African-American community and the Latino community. And if you look at my record and if you look at my agenda, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, creating millions of jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure, focusing on high rates of youth unemployment. I think our candidacy is the candidacy talking to the issues of the African-American community."

Should Sanders reverting to class-based reforms be accepted due to the need to unite his voter base? Should we, Black America, settle for the broad brush proposals like free public higher education and health care engineered by a lofty single-payer system before exploring what else comes with his presidency? Absolutely not.

The current stirring of emotions in Black America in response to his cold candor about reparations is exactly what we needed. It's a punch to the gut. This toxically elegant love affair that we have with America is what Booker T. Washington so eloquently characterized in his Atlanta address: "When we love, we love hard." Coates is loving Sanders hard by highlighting a critical issue at the heart of the Sanders platform. Outside a strong argument for restitution, he's also reminded many that class-based reform does not equal the racial justice African-Americans have labored, it merely provides a bandage. Race will still matter, even with Sanders shutting down plutocrats. On a macro level, 2008 painted this picture very well with a housing crisis that left the top half of African-American families with less than half of their original wealth in 2007, as opposed to white families in the same category losing only 14 percent. It would also do us justice to remember the assault of ex-tennis pro James Blake, to see how racism waterboards class whenever it sees fit. Journalist Van Newkirk offered recently, "[I]f a goal of anti-poverty programs is to lift black people out of poverty into the middle class, it must grapple with this peculiar fact; that black people of all income levels are less likely to make it to the middle class than are the poor people of other races."

But when a candidate has the blessing of Killer Mike, Cornel West, and many others, opposing some of his ideas (not necessarily him, as a candidate) as a Black American might seem like public suicide, which is precisely what Coates and many others hope to counter. No candidate is above reproach. Along with fumbling on the question for reparations, Sanders has in the past spoken directly about race only after he was pushed.

There are other troubling elements of Sanders' campaign: His recent poverty tour to Sandtown-Winchester, which he described as "a third-world country," was disappointing. He also said and that some areas require tighter gun control than others—citing Baltimore as a place that does but his home state of Vermont as a place that doesn't—which can only be interpreted as a belief that you cannot trust Black Americans with guns the way you can rural whites. Activist DeRay McKesson said this after meeting with him earlier in October 2015: "Sen. Sanders has a long history of discussing economic justice and often focuses on income. We pushed him to think about the racial wealth gap as a clearer indicator of ending inequity."

Still, Sanders is the rational candidate and Sanders' presidency may still be in Black America's interest. But until he show that he can be less dismissive on a subject near and dear to those who still have grainy plantation photos in cabinets, stories lodged in the memory of aunts being spat on in Jim Crow South, and cousins locked behind privatized prison walls for marijuana trafficking, he should be challenged. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton chauffeured hordes of Blacks and Latinos into the prison industrial complex, describing them as "super-predators" at one point. It would be ahistorical to say the term super-predators doesn't have roots in demonizing African-Americans. In many ways, Clinton posing as any kind of friend to Black Americans is as absurd as O'Malley's similar claims.

That Sanders is not Clinton, however, is not enough. The Sanders platform, if it maintains a heavy-handedness about reform, must grapple with race and this country's history of racism. His belief that cemented disparities will evaporate with an overarching agenda is simply wrong. The record indicates otherwise.

I don't foresee anyone turning down benefits from reparations should they come to pass some day. Black America agrees on that at least. We should then look at what else we agree on and let the candidates do their best political dances for our vote. A part of that process is asking the brutal questions that make even white liberals squirm and Blacks hold their breath as they wait for the proper answer. And the argument for reparations has done that job masterfully. Racism unaddressed will leak out the pores of everyday life—2015 put the world on notice of that. Anyone who wishes to hold local or national public office has to be brought to account by the people they wish to represent with these realities at the forefront. Black America should always be vigilant in prioritizing its interests over political theater.


Tariq Touré, a native Baltimorean, is a Muslim essayist, poet, educator, humanitarian and public speaker. Since the age of 19, Touré has mentored at-risk African American Males in Baltimore and Washington D.C. He is also a columnist for Islamic Monthly Magazine & Muslim Matters' online blog. His book of poetry, "Black Seeds" is out soon.