THE BLOG
01/22/2016 01:41 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Are Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bernie Sanders Both Wrong on Reparations?

Leigh Vogel via Getty Images

In his extraordinary article, "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates stated, "What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal ... a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history." 

In a more recent piece, Coates criticized Bernie Sanders for dismissing the concept of reparations for the wrongs done to African-Americans, saying, "Reparations is not one possible tool against white supremacy. It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy."

The latter article left me questioning both men.  As Coates pointed out, Sanders engages in the selective magical governance by considering universal, single payer healthcare politically doable but reparations for blacks politically impossible. Both are political unicorns in this America.

Coates, on the other hand, seems steeped in a universalist, civil rights era vision that this country left behind long ago, and which I question whether the majority ever accepted in the first place. Seeking an American 'spiritual renewal' via acknowledgement of America's crimes against Afro-America sounds uplifting. However, this is a country in which, per The Washington Post, "white perceptions of anti-black bias have diminished to the point where [whites] are more now likely to think anti-white discrimination is a bigger problem than bias against blacks."

A society in which whites now believe that they, not African-Americans, are the real victims of racial discrimination is not one in which reparations for blacks are on the horizon. To suggest that we must nonetheless push for reparations in order to foment a "revolution of the American consciousness," and finally align American realities to American ideals smacks of putting too much emphasis on the moral betterment on the majority, and too little on our own needs.

The idea that reparations is the indispensable tool against white supremacy rests on an unsound premise.  Is our goal to free whites from their centuries-long embrace of white supremacy? Or is our goal to free ourselves from whites' embrace of white supremacy? These are two very different goals.

Americans are woefully ignorant of the facts of our racial history.  We recently had a national "debate" as to whether or not the confederate flag was the symbol of race hatred that it is, or an expression of "southern pride."  America's great crime is taught in schools and presented with mainstream contexts as a temporary aberration of the few, instead of a permanent mindset of the many.  

In his book, "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," Cornell history Professor, Edward E. Baptist writes:

Textbooks segregate twenty-five decades of enslavement into one chapter, painting a static picture. Millions of people each year visit plantation homes where guides blather on about furniture and silverware. As sites, such homes hide the real purpose of these places, which was to make African Americans toil under the hot sun for the profit of the rest of the world. All this is the "symbolic annihilation" of enslaved people, as two scholars of those weird places put it.

Unfortunately, throughout America's history, blacks have absorbed the same lessons of white supremacy and our historical annihilation as everyone else.  Since we rely on public schools for the bulk of our education, we are almost as ignorant of the economic, political, and social facts of our enslavement and subjugation as most whites. We do not learn the unfiltered facts of our history in public schools, and we have no structured method passing on our unique historical and cultural information to young African-Americans.  

I would suggest that freeing ourselves from the weight of an entire history of white supremacist teachings would be the priority instead of leading the majority to redemption through forcing them to acknowledge what they move mountains to ignore. For us to demand reparations, we must know in our bones why they are owed.  When African-Americans have the tools in place to teach ourselves the facts of our history--some of which were so skillfully imparted in Coates' "Case for Reparations"--then we will be better armed to demand that this nation acknowledge its crimes, its debt, and pay the cost. If we know the facts of our American situation from our own Afro-American point-of-view, the spear of white supremacy will be blunted, we will be far less likely to internalize its poison, and better positioned to acknowledge and fight for our due.

Redeeming the American soul warped by its un- and insufficiently-acknowledged history of growing fat on on our blood and bodies is not our primary responsibility.  White redemption is not our raison d'être.  We are not America's moral maids.  Our goal should be to ensure that we are free from the historical, cultural, and social lies and distortions that still so tightly shackle the majority--and with which they have bludgeoned us throughout American history.  If Coates' case for reparations rests on a desire to redeem the majority, it is a shaky one.  It's like saying the room's on fire, but we must push white folks to safety first because that's the only way to save ourselves. That smacks of an acceptance of our historical annihilation. And that is not a foundation on which to build a case for anything.