January 28, 2016

Slavery reparations: Has Ta-Nehisi Coates hit a #neoliberal foul ball?

While my support for Bernie Sanders is by no means guaranteed beyond the Texas primary election vote, if he should somehow get the Democratic nomination, it's "interesting" that Atlantic senior writer Ta-Nehisi Coates not only did a takedown on Sanders' stance on slavery reparations, he later doubled down on it after being called out.

That said, while he himself may or may not be angling for a potential Clinton Administration II job, the Atlantic has Clinton 1.0 alums, and they and other younger people are surely Clinton 2.0 wannabes. I mean, the magazine, and the broader foundation, reeks of centrism, largely already known by me.

That said, to look more at Coates' second piece, since he took a focus beyond America there. He asks, in the middle of a flurry of rhetorical questions, if the social welfare state of western Europe, above all, Scandinavia, has "vanquished racism" or not.

First, that full blurry of questions:
Across Europe, the kind of robust welfare state Sanders supports—higher minimum wage, single-payer health-care, low-cost higher education—has been embraced. Have these policies vanquished racism? Or has race become another rubric for asserting who should benefit from the state’s largesse and who should not? And if class-based policy alone is insufficient to banish racism in Europe, why would it prove to be sufficient in a country founded on white supremacy? And if it is not sufficient, what does it mean that even on the left wing of the Democratic party, the consideration of radical, directly anti-racist solutions has disappeared? And if radical, directly anti-racist remedies have disappeared from the left-wing of the Democratic Party, by what right does one expect them to appear in the platform of an avowed moderate like Clinton?

Next, a critical, gimlet-eyed view of this.

First, Coates' questions are all rhetorical ones. Not actual. Coates doesn't try to see if there are answers for any of them.

Second, they're all straw men. Let's take the "vanquished racism." Coates knows that racism can include individual attitudes. He also knows that he's setting up a polarity of "vanquished-unvanquished."

That's why he didn't ask, even in a rhetorical way, let alone in a way seeking an answer, whether the social welfare state has lessened racism. (It's his essay, though, not mine; it's not my "job" to go googling for something to refudiate him.)

If it has, that's an answer that he probably doesn't want to hear, for the reasons the likes of Adolph Reed presents below, on career advancement, as much as anything. 

On to this paragraph, then:
Here is the great challenge of liberal policy in America: We now know that for every dollar of wealth white families have, black families have a nickel. We know that being middle class does not immunize black families from exploitation in the way that it immunizes white families. We know that black families making $100,000 a year tend to live in the same kind of neighborhoods as white families making $30,000 a year. We know that in a city like Chicago, the wealthiest black neighborhood has an incarceration rate many times worse than the poorest white neighborhood. This is not a class divide, but a racist divide.
I, and non-guilty white leftists of some sort don't deny that.

However, reparations will do nothing to fix that. And, Coates, YOU know THAT. What will fix that is a robust U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. YOU know THAT as well. 

And, speaking of non-guilty white leftists

Anyway, besides my own thoughts, here's a very good, real, insighful, takedown of Coates, primarily of his first piece and, it's by "don't call me a liberal" skeptical, sometimes curmudgeonly, leftist Doug Henwood, interviewing Adolph Reed. Reed starts by saying "it's so utterly empty and besides the point."

Having read the original, I might not go quite that far, but I'd come close enough to wondering if Coates, like other Atlantis, I mean Atlantic, denizens, doesn't have ulterior motives.

I do agree with his biggest premise — unlike single-payer national health care, where a broad outline is sufficient for a starter because we know where we're starting, what do the likes of Coates have in mind for reparations? Straight cash grants? Double-down on affirmative action? Something else?

Speaking of that second, I'd be OK myself with a "grand compromise": some sort of more explicit reparations, but in exchange, affirmative action programs get an explicit class-based factor added. However, I suspect Coates would not; read below for more.

Also damning for Coates' angle that Bernie, as a more radical candidate, should be radical on reparations?

The NAACP agrees with "the traditional liberal argument," per my second rhetorical question, that affirmative action and related programs, such as environmental justice, with improvements, are de facto reparations. Per Coates' Twitter feed, we have him saying "Yup" to:
So, how is this different than the NAACP supporting more aggressive affirmative action?

Ted Rall also weigh in. His piece is "nice," given the size restraints of a cartoon.
However, I think he doesn't turn a critical enough eye to Coates' backgrounding.
I'll still take Henwood/Reed, Johnson at Jacobin, or myself on analysis.
And, per the above, I reject the whitesplaining angle.
Assuming it's not that different (and I Tweeted Coates asking that), then isn't reparations, or to be more precise, the use of the word "reparations," a symbol more than anything else? It's true that Germany paid millions in reparations to Jews. It's true that the U.S. paid reparations to African-Americans. However, I don't think the Federal Republic ALSO offered affirmative action programs to Jews staying there after WWII. Nor did we do that for the Japanese-Americans.

And, although Hispanic Americans largely chose to move to the U.S., and thus arguably should not be considered for reparations, except for families in New Mexico and a few in California cheated out of land grants, there is another ethnic group that has as much claim as African Americans, and that's American Indians. (It should be noted Coates agrees with that idea. And, even with the possibility of the British needing to pay reparations to the Irish, etc.)

But let's go back to Reed with Henwood, because the takedown gets better, for an interlude from the seriousness. He accuses Coates of having the primary goal of wanting to be James Baldwin 2.0. Henwood then says (accusingly) that this is the type of stuff that plays to "guilty white liberals."

That said, if you like takedowns, Reed, especially, gets even better from there, snarking on Coates' literary aspirations otherwise, and how they might tie into Henwood's comment.

On the more serious side, he says that reparations are themselves a form of class-based politics. I agree, at least somewhat, especially with my observation that Coates seems to be using the word "reparations" as a symbol.

Beyond that, he says the reparations issue, once it becomes class-based, can at times become a career path. Reading that, I'm surprised that neither Henwood nor Reed mentioned Jesse Jackson; I had big old light bulb go off with his name inside, when I got about two-thirds through.

Coates leaves himself open, on his Twitter feed, to exactly that, with this:
Without guns, the likes of a Jackson accepted money to "hush," though.

Reed ends with this:
There’s a sense in that these people are the black shock troops for neoliberalism.

Well, it might be hard to argue with that. And, that gets back to the issue of Coates’ possible ulterior motives, especially how long he's been at The Atlantic. Probably pays better than a place like The Progressive, too.

I'm guessing that he would like a position as some sort of official explainer of a potential Clinton Administration to the public. On teevee. Maybe CNN, but more possibly MSNBC.

That said, related to this, Reed has long been writing about this issue. See his 2000 piece, originally at The Progressive, here.

And now, as of Feb. 3, Jacobin has weighed in with an even longer piece than this, or the Henwood/Reed text transcript. Cedric Johnson reaches the same basic serious answer, though, ultimately: Coates is a left-neoliberal who won't think outside that box.

That said, why "should" he, if he's angling for "skin in the game" within the neoliberal market capitalism world?

That said, Johnson does go on, like Reed, to tackle the Baldwin issue:
Unfortunately, the arrival of the black intellectual as gadfly and conscience of the nation in the television era bore a new set of problems. Too many well-meaning whites mistook their guilt and pleasure of self-flagellation for genuine unity with blacks and authentic antiracist political commitment — in other words, solidarity. 

Like Baldwin, I think Coates fulfills a similar historical role in assuaging white guilt. What we need instead is solidarity.

I do not have any illusions about what Sanders or any other presidential candidate can accomplish, especially given the Republican control of Congress. Popular struggles and mass pressure have been the most effective means for advancing the most progressive changes in American society. But I’m also not so young and naïve to think that elections do not matter. We cannot expect to achieve greater equality through an election cycle, but elections can shape the political arena in meaningful ways and create openings for progressive social movements.

To his credit, though this was a layup, Coates did (along with hundreds of other media outlets) call out Clinton for promoting the Lost Cause version of Reconstruction at the Monday Democratic town hal

Meanwhile, if we call Coates, oh, say a left-neoliberal, he's not the only one trying to do a takedown of Sanders. The Jacobin calls bullshit on two leaders of Inside the Beltway Brat Packers, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, for their cheap shots on Sanders' health care plans.

Update, Feb. 9: Coates now has a rejoinder up. And, early on, I'm calling disingenuousness. Coates said his original claimed that democratic socialism alone couldn't address racism:
I asserted that western Europe demonstrated that democratic-socialist policy, alone, could not sufficiently address the problem of white supremacy.

"Sufficiently address" is far different from "vanquish(ed)." And, he's sticking by his strawman of "alone." 

Second, I didn't find Johnson doing a "bait and switch." Related, I think Coates is raising the housing issue precisely because he didn't raise it in his original and Johnson didn't raise it in response.

Third, housing is arguably a red herring. It's an issue that, if social-democratic policy is focused on wages, labor issues and economic class, is outside its purview. But, unless Coates is proposing to expropriate houses owned by white people, it's outside reparations' purview as well.

It is, though, firmly within affirmative action law on fair housing standards. Which, again, per the NAACP, vigorous enforcement of such laws is the best de facto reparations.

So, when Coates says:

When an argument is divorced of this clarity, then deflection, subject-changing, abstraction, and head-fakes—as when Johnson exchanges“laborers” for the victims of white supremacy—all become inevitable

I'm willing to offer him a mirror for self-examination. 

Fourth, Coates never even mentioned Henwood-Reed.

I await seeing if Johnson has a follow-up back to Coates.

Update, Feb. 10: Despite those three pieces, and especially his busting Sanders' chops in the first, Coates is now publicly endorsing Sanders.


Matthew Martinez said...

Coates' rebuttal to Johnson is a lot more thorough and airtight in my opinion. Just looked at it tonight, but I think it's a helluva reach to say he's vying for a position as a potential explainer for the Clinton administration.


Gadfly said...

The "explainer" is just my theory. That said, Reed/Henwood is an even more thorough "takedown." I've not read Coates' response to Johnson yet, but last I checked, he'd never responded to Reed/Henwood.