The recent controversy around the Sanders campaign reminded me of some remarks that Erwin Marquit made about his experiences in the Communist Party in the 1970’s. Erwin mentioned that he got into a big fight with the national leadership over the party’s position on LGBT rights at that point. He was frustrated that ‘the Democrats are ahead of us on that question.’ In effect, the Communist Party was looking bad because local Democrats were beginning to recognize the struggle for GLBT rights at that point framed under the rubric of gay liberation and the party had not yet shifted its positions on the same questions. The ability of the party to claim a radical or even progressive position within the political terrain of the day was being lost. In effect, the Sanders campaign is in a similar situation with the question of reparations for slavery. The question is not a new one for Sanders. He took a similar position in 2016 to the position his campaign is taking today and was similarly criticized. However, there were limits to that criticism. After all, his position was no different than any of the major candidates and in some ways his position was closer to supporting reparations than many of those candidates. This story has changed four years later. Sanders’ position is no longer universally adopted by the Democratic Party. As a few more mainstream Democratic presidential candidates, ranging from Kamala Harris to Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren have embraced the call for reparations for slavery, Sanders’ refusal to follow their lead is making the candidate look less and less like the most progressive candidate running for the office and potentially sabotaging his ability to win the nomination.
To understand the significance of the problem we both need to examine how the Sanders Campaign has framed his attempts to win the nomination and to think about the question of reparations within the larger contemporary political field. To begin, as several critics have pointed out, the Sanders Campaign has attempted to frame his candidacy far differently than other candidates. As supporter Corey Robin has frequently noted, “Bato, Harris, Klobachar, Biden, Gillibrand, Booker: The basis of their candidacies is them, their person. That’s what they have in common. Sanders and Warren are the only 2 candidates whose basis is a set of ideas, well worked over the years, about the economy and the state.” One can go even farther by distinguishing Sanders as a candidate that has not only run on a set of consistent principles, but as a candidate that has been trying to use his candidacy to create a kind of mass movement and to frame his candidacy as a response to a variety of mass movements, drawing from the legacy of the Rainbow Coalition and bringing in select issues from both the Occupy protests and the Black Lives Matter protests. This aspect of Sanders’ candidacy has created a very strong base for his candidacy and has created a strong coalition of supporters who have been both rhetorically and economically very supportive of the candidate, to the point where Sanders is and was a strong candidate despite a lot of official Democratic Party opposition.
At the same time, it has made his position on reparations even more damaging. To explain why, we need to contextualize the demand for reparations. The demand for reparations is by no means a novel demand. One can go back to the Reconstruction era to find demands for recompense for stolen labor on the part of former slaves and demands that the federal government should live up to its unfulfilled promise of forty acres and a mule on the part of General William Sherman. More recently, Michigan Representative John Conyers had introduced a bill every year into congress starting in the late ‘80’s calling for a committee to investigate "impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation” as the beginning of a process of reparations. However, it has been two essays that in many ways frame our current focus on the issue and successfully transformed the demand into a popular slogan that shape activist and academic debate. The first was Randall Robinson’s polemic, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, which brought the slogan to mainstream attention in 2001 and more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates essay, “The Case for Reparations,” which renewed Robinson’s call and returned the topic to public attention. Both efforts contextualized the demand for reparations in the long history of anti-Black racism, starting with the effects of slavery and moving into the effects of Jim Crow and the later affects of redlining and other practices. Both made the arguments that the only way some sort of genuine equal opportunity could be created would be through the act of reparations, making up for the millions of dollars of damage done by the systemic racism of the dominant institutions of the country. That framework not only produces an immense amount of discussion, but it helped shape the popular activism that followed it, ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to the demands of the NAACP and more local campaigns such as the efforts on the part of the University of California, Irvine Black Student Union to base financial aid on wealth, rather than income.
This creates a profound incongruity on the part of the Sanders Campaign, who attempts to frame their campaign as a collective effort to move popular demands forward, while refusing to recognize the force and legitimacy of this extremely popular demand. That disjuncture means that the refusal also in a sense translates into a refusal to incorporate the demands of a wide swath of African American activists and at times other activists of color into the campaign and winds up standing in for the distinct limitations in the campaign’s anti-racist imaginary. Sanders in particular has been quite direct in his criticism of the demand, arguing that reparations are both impractical and not the best way to approach social problems, despite proposing programs that are not entirely dissimilar to the proposals for wealth redistribution that look like the NAACP proposal. At one level, its hard not to notice that Sanders’ critique of the demand is not entirely dissimilar to the critiques of mainstream Democrats of Sanders proposals of free college education for all and Medicare for all. Sanders is asking us to abandon a certain neoliberal notion of realism with his demands, why start demanding that form of realism here? Even if we accept the notion that the proposal isn’t feasible in the short term, framing the demand within the context of the campaign would acknowledge the profound transformations that need to be undertaken to overturn the long history of white supremacy that are foundational to the country.
At this point, if they are still reading, there are probably many supporters of the campaign who are probably thinking of any number of moments that the Sanders Campaign has been mistreated, placing me into that category of criticism. They would point to a series of commitments that the campaign has taken, around reforms of the criminal justice program and other no less important issues. They could also point to the efforts on the part of the campaign to reframe its campaign slogans and demands, along with the campaign’s efforts to create conversations with indigenous communities for instance. These responses shouldn’t be discounted, but they are often undercut by the profound mistakes and limitations of the campaigns attempt to create a substantial anti-racist politics, which is most often undercut by Sanders himself. One can point at the many cynical comments by supporters of the institutional Democratic Party to deflect these concerns, but it would be a mistake to ignore why those cynical comments have influence.To be clear, the mainstream media hasn’t been terribly fair to the campaign, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising. After all, despite all its problems the campaign is making a genuine effort to challenge the neoliberal consensus that defines contemporary mainstream politics, despite rhetorical framings of a resistance to Trump. That isn’t going to change with any changes in the campaign, but the campaign can avoid giving the cynics of the Democratic Party more ammunition to criticize it. It can reorient itself to develop a more meaningful coalition to pose a radical reimagination of politics in the current moment.
To return to the example of the Communist Party that opened this essay, we might use Asad Haider’s analysis of the Party’s embrace of Harry Haywood’s theory of the Black Belt nation. In response to the popularity of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism, Haywood proposed that the historic Black Belt in the south constituted a distinct African-American nation. The Communist Party within that context embraced the concept of self-determination for that entity acknowledging the desire for self-determination. Haider argues that the accuracy of Haywood’s theory is less important than the strategic reorientation that the party took in relationship to the aspirations of Black workers and sharecroppers. The demand for socialism was aligned with the aspiration for self-determination and the party broke away from a long history of radical institutions minimizing the forms of racialized violence that shape every aspect of daily life. Whatever one thought of the specific framework, the embrace of a specifically African-American nation both recognized the value of the struggles taken on by black communities and the dramatic transformations that would need to occur to create the kind of equality that would translate into a genuine project. It embraced decolonization not as a metaphor, but a concrete project of governance. Perhaps, the embrace of a project that placed reparations as a center demand to an admittedly more modest social democratic imaginary could play a similar role, standing in as a promise for a more substantial program of social transformation and as a sort of promise to create a significantly different set of social relations within the organization itself.
In this sense, my concern is less about the Sanders Campaign itself, and more with the broader organization that coalesces around the campaign, in formal organizations like the DSA, but also in the informal structure of feeling that has been created by the campaign. The latter, in particular, has contributed a lot to the suspicions held by activists of color for this new formation. As long as the new social democratic imaginary is perceived by so many within the framework of whiteness, it will necessarily fail at its program of transformation. At the same time, its an imaginary that could potentially play a real role in social transformation and we are at a point where we need to see dramatic change and that change needs to come soon.