Ever since Bernie Sanders explained his position on reparations, and Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized him for it, the mainstream media has been abuzz about “Sanders’s reparations problem.” At the same time, it has ignored Clinton’s position even though she was asked pretty much the same question at the same event. So, why is nobody talking about it? Does the media’s position on Bernie’s alleged “reparations problem” point to its own “Bernie problem”?
Coates’s piece was prompted by an interview that took place at the Iowa Brown & Black Forum, where Fusion’s Nando Vila asked if a president Sanders would support reparations for African Americans “for the many years of stolen labor through slavery.” Bernie replied, “No, I don’t think so,” elaborating,
I think first of all it’s likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. I think the real issue is when we look at the poverty rate within the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, when we look at the incarceration rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.
So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most, and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African-American and Latino.
Grantland contributor Rembert Browne asked Hillary if she thought that “2016 is the year… on a federal level, we should start studying reparations?” To which, she replied,
I think we should start studying what investments we need to make in communities to help individuals and families and communities move forward. And I am absolutely committed to that. There are some good ideas out there. There’s an idea in the Congressional Black Caucus about really targeting federal dollars to communities that have had either disinvestment or no investment, and have had years of being below the poverty level. That’s the kind of thing I’d like us to focus on and really help lift people up.
Clinton’s responses were indirect and vague—not only about the reparations itself but about social welfare. And her “lift people up” rhetoric turned a matter of justice into a matter of charity.
So, why is this a Sanders problem only? Well… to find out, we invited Nando Vila onto The Katie Halper Show. While Vila was “slightly disappointed that he didn’t support it,” he understood “the politics” and pragmatism of not endorsing reparations. Moreover, Nando appreciated how direct Sanders was: “I was pleased that he didn’t… tiptoe it. Hillary was more politically adept about it. She kinda tiptoed around it. He was straight up about it, which I was surprised [by].” Sanders’s greatest mistake may have been his bluntness, a stark contrast to Clinton’s evasive platitudes. But in terms of policy, as Nando said, “certainly Bernie has proposed the most materially beneficial platform for African Americans…”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, who placed the debate about reparations into our national conversation, responded to Sanders’s statement with disappointment. It disturbed Coates that Sanders would be so radical on class issues but not on race. In no way does he absolve Clinton for her politics or policies: “Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state….Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral ‘anti-crime’ bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage…” He also criticized Clinton’s “craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name,” and acknowledged that, “one does not find anything as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform.” But to Coates, progressives should have higher expectations of Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist and radical.
Coates makes strong arguments for both reparations and expectations. But picking up Coates’s critique, the mainstream media has revealed its own Bernie problem.
On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd interviewed Clinton right before Sanders. He asked Clinton about the enthusiasm gap, but nothing about her reparation comments in Iowa, and he was not confrontational about anything. When it was Sanders’s turn, he pressed him on reparations. Was Todd disappointed in Sanders? Is reparations an issue close to his heart?
And Todd wasn’t the only one. Headline after headline draws attention to Sanders’s “reparations problems” and “race problem.”
Coates’s entire critique of Sanders functions within his history of calling out Clinton for her “immoral,” “damaging” and “craven” positions on issues that disproportionately affect African Americans. The least the mainstream media could do is acknowledge that she has her own bigger reparations problem, and, from her policies on areas from welfare to criminal justice to banking, a “race problem” of her own.
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