Bernie Sanders Doesn't Support Reparations. Why Is That So Surprising?

The answer says as much about the state of American politics as it does about Sanders.

01/22/2016 07:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2016
  • Nick Wing Senior Viral Editor, The Huffington Post
  • Matt Ferner National Reporter, The Huffington Post
Matt Rourke/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently said that he does not support the federal government giving reparations for slavery.

"Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?" asked Ta-Nehisi Coates this week in an article for The Atlantic.

Days before, Sanders had claimed that compensating the descendants of slaves, a proposal that Coates has written about at length, would be "divisive" and unfeasible in Congress. He suggested the path to racial equality should instead be pursued through comprehensive economic initiatives, like job creation, free college and increased government investment in economically depressed communities and especially communities of color.

Sanders' response sparked heated debate about racial double standards and his supposed blind spot on race. But it also revealed how the conservative bent of American politics has shaped the public's opinions and expectations of Sanders, leading some observers to misinterpret his political leanings as far more radical than they actually are.

Sanders' "radical socialist" tag has led conservatives to demonize him, and liberals, in some circles at least, to mythologize him. It's become an effective part of his brand, backed by a strong congressional record and a campaign committed to progressive ideals. All of this has even earned him the support of actual radicals, who see him as the closest they can get to the White House. But a look outside mainstream American politics gives a more accurate accounting of where Sanders stands.

In his article, Coates writes that Sanders has become the candidate of "partisanship and radicalism," willing to aggressively defy political orthodoxy and put forth wildly ambitious, even impossible policy proposals, like single-payer health care or a $1 trillion stimulus package to rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

But Sanders' temperament doesn't extend quite this far when it comes to challenging white supremacy, argues Coates.

"If this is the candidate of the radical left -- then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and lifetimes of our children," he writes.

At a time of unprecedented political interest in race, the most liberal Democratic presidential candidate in a generation says he thinks reparations are beyond the pale. That's reason enough for many people to be disappointed.

But Sanders' response also raises a more essential question: Is his position really that shocking?

In an interview with MSNBC Wednesday, Coates conceded that political expediency could have played into his response. Sanders is now polling neck-and-neck with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in some primary states. He may have seen announcing support for reparations as a way to shatter the racial coalition the Democratic Party has formed and disqualify him from a race that he may now actually have a chance of winning.

A less cynical answer to the question suggests Coates may have given Sanders too much credit in portraying him as a radical iconoclast dead set on a wholesale restructuring of American society.

Despite what Sanders' critics say, his ideas are left of center, from what's traditionally understood as the left, although this very debate shows how outdated those terms have become. In some areas, they're further left than others. But even his most controversial proposals, like overhauling the health care system to provide universal coverage for all Americans -- apparently a radical idea for some Democrats and Republicans alike -- would be seen as conventional in the rest of the developed world.

Indeed, some figures to the left of the senator say the state of U.S. politics -- in which Donald Trump remains the GOP front-runner and Hillary Clinton has become a standard-bearer for many progressives -- has exaggerated the extent of Sanders' radicalism.

Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor emeritus and noted radical -- as well as a proponent of reparations and onetime Sanders donor -- told The Huffington Post in an email that while he hadn’t been following the reparations debate, he believed many Americans were confused about Sanders’ political identity.

"I like Sanders and think he is doing important things, but I think he should be understood, essentially, as an honest and committed New Dealer,” Chomsky said.

The New Deal was an expansive package of programs enacted in the 1930s under Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt, aimed at providing relief for the poor, new jobs and economic recovery in the post-Depression era. Sanders' rhetoric and platform, in many ways, echoes FDR's.

“In today’s political climate, sharply skewed to the right, that may seem 'radical' and 'socialist,' but it’s far from that,” Chomsky added.

Hatem Moussa/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Noam Chomsky says Bernie Sanders is better understood as "an honest and committed New Dealer" than a radical socialist.

To get a better sense of who Bernie Sanders is, it's helpful to look at who he isn't.

Bernie Sanders is not a Green Party candidate. That would be Jill Stein, the presidential nominee for the fourth-largest political party in the U.S., which advocates for many of the same issues Sanders has championed, with a number of key differences. Here's what the Green Party’s platform says about reparations:

The community of people of African ancestry whose family members were held in chattel slavery in what is now the United States of America have legitimate claims to reparations including monetary compensation for centuries of human rights violations, including the Transatlantic slave trade now recognized by the United Nations as a "crime against humanity."

The Green Party would also end all federal aid to any nation whose laws enable imprisonment or persecution on the basis of gender identity or expression. The party also wants to legalize marijuana possession and begin decriminalizing all drugs in the U.S. -- just a few of the positions that go significantly beyond what Sanders has proposed.

Dyed-in-the-wool socialists are no doubt aware of their substantial differences with Sanders. The official platform for the Socialist Party USA specifically calls "for reparations from the federal government for its role in the slave trade and the genocide of Native American nations, with the reparations programs administered by the oppressed communities themselves."

It also calls for the nationalization of all financial and insurance institutions, the abolition of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency and steps to begin cutting the U.S. military to 10 percent of its current level. None of those proposals appear on Sanders' campaign website, unsurprisingly.

And while you might not have heard of the Socialist Party USA's presidential candidates, they are running.

None of this is to suggest that Sanders would have to dramatically reinvent himself to endorse reparations for black Americans. Sanders has made it clear that he's aware of the catastrophic effects of centuries of racism, still evident in institutions across many sectors of society. And he's made social justice and civil rights key parts of his campaign, with a platform that covers everything from police reform, to voting rights, to black unemployment and environmental racism. As Coates points out, those positions are indeed within the realm of what is acceptable in the current political climate. Clinton, who dodged a direct answer to a similar question about reparations, has incorporated many of the same points in her platform.

But Bernie Sanders does not support reparations, which would indeed be a radical position, especially in a nation that still isn't totally sure if racism exists at all anymore.

We should absolutely have a debate on whether his stance is right or wrong. But to suggest that it's inconsistent with an otherwise radical platform filled with grandiose, unattainable ideas, says more about misperceptions in American politics than it does about Sanders.

The reality is that Sanders is far less radical than his critics in either party -- and perhaps even some of his supporters -- insist he is. The efforts to portray him as an unreasonable fringe candidate have succeeded in many ways. They have allowed Republicans to summarily dismiss his candidacy and led many of those who might actually agree with him to evaluate him based on the inaccurate, and in some cases impractical, standards they have set for his campaign. 

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