Ta-nehisi Coates’s Straw Bernie

Yes, what you call yourself matters, but has Bernie really ever described himself as “radical”?

On Tuesday, January 19, The Atlantic’s Ta-nehisi Coates published a piece called “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?”, in which he skewers the Vermont senator’s admittedly terse and dismissive response to a question posed by Fusion’s Nando Vila on whether he would support reparations for African Americans.

On the off chance that Vox Media and other centrist click-baiters have so far failed in their dogged determination to inform you of Bernie’s terrible response, here it is again, in full:

No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment 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.

There have been several excellent responses so far to Coates’s piece: this from Killer Mike, this from Shaun King of NY Daily News, this from Benjamin Dixon, and this from Ryan Cooper of the Week. For the most part, these responses center on Coates’s choice of target, who happens to be the most progressive candidate running in a political context where virtually no elected official, and certainly not his Democratic rival, supports reparations. Coates has an answer for these responses.

A day following the inevitable spread of his piece across social media, Coates went on All In with Chris Hayes to discuss his essay. In this segment he rejected the comparisons to Hillary Clinton’s position on reparations as “deflecting the question” by reiterating that “what you call yourself matters” and repeating the assertion from his Atlantic essay that Bernie calls himself “radical,” a contention for which I’ve so far been unable to find any evidence.

I was first turned on to Bernie in 2007 and have followed him closely ever since. Not once have I known him to self-identify as “radical.” (I’m a democratic socialist and don’t really even consider him an actual democratic socialist, nor do many who fully understand his politics in a global context.) Indeed, a survey of literally every message using the term “radical” tweeted by Bernie Sanders’s staff reveals a pattern long familiar to anyone whose observed Bernie’s career with interest: He uses the term only to argue against the radicality of his proposals or ideas. Here are a few examples to give you a sense:

(And plenty more where those came from here. If you can find any substance to the claim that Bernie actually self-identifies as a “radical,” please share these details with me.)

So where does Coates get the idea that Bernie claims to be radical? I suspect he confers the designation from a punditry accustomed to a right-center political consensus and, perhaps, the throngs of Bernie’s young new followers, who are only now beginning to explore their own politics and recognize that Bernie’s ideas are an outlier in American political discourse without realizing that he’s actually quite moderate in a global context.

In any case, surely Coates understands that simply designating oneself a democratic socialist is not in itself identification with “radical,” particularly in America, where truly radical politics stand no chance of support within a political system jealously controlled by two parties whose priorities have been molded by monied interests from the beginning. Even so, he scoffs at the notion of “Sanders posing as a pragmatist” when saying that the likelihood of getting reparations through Congress is “nil.” Coates writes:

Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is ‘nil,’ a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform. The chances of a President Sanders coaxing a Republican Congress to pass a $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill are also nil.

The trouble here is that, however much of a stretch it may seem (and, yes, regardless of what even Paul Krugman thinks), the political possibility of securing a $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill from a Republican Congress is not at all comparable to the political possibility of a bill that neither party will even fleetingly entertain and that only three members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a mere 15% of Americans support. What Coates seems not to recognize is that a President Sanders would not even be able to get reparations through a Congress filled to capacity with Democrats.

This offers us another glimpse of Coates’s straw man: his rather drastic inference from Bernie’s terse, politically oriented, two-part answer to the question on reparations. By blurring the line between the politically unlikely and the politically impossible, he appears to arrive at an answer to the question of why “precisely” Bernie doesn’t support reparations: He suspects Bernie doesn’t think African Americans deserve reparations and is only using its political feasibility as cover. Coates writes:

[I]f Bernie Sanders truly believes that victims of the Tulsa pogrom deserved nothing, that the victims of contract lending deserve nothing, that the victims of debt peonage deserve nothing, that that political plunder of black communities entitle them to nothing, 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.

Look, I strongly disagree with Bernie’s unwillingness to support reparations as policy and wish he’d at least contacted Coates to talk about it. That said, Bernie neither stated, suggested, or hinted that he believes African Americans to be undeserving of reparations, nor is this a remotely reasonable interpretation of his answer to Vila’s question.

Coates, brilliant though he is, fails to see that his assumptions about Sanders were wrong from the outset. Bernie is not radical, nor does he actually consider himself to be.

UPDATE:

On Sunday, January 24, Coates published a follow up to his piece last week. This latest essay focuses more on his justification for singling out Bernie. He basically makes the case for an autocritique. He writes:

When a candidate points to high unemployment among black youth, as well as high incarceration rates, and then dubs himself a radical, it seems prudent to ask what radical anti-racist policies that candidate actually embraces. Hillary Clinton has no interest in being labeled radical, left-wing, or even liberal. Thus announcing that Clinton doesn’t support reparations is akin to announcing that Ted Cruz doesn’t support a woman’s right to choose. The position is certainly wrong. But it is hardly a surprise, and doesn’t run counter to the candidate’s chosen name.

This, as is the rest of the essay, is impeccably argued. Except that he’s still eviscerating a largely fictitious candidate. The problem, again, is Coates’s literal read of “radical” when Bernie uses it in reference to himself or his campaign. To help illustrate this, we’ll use the very quote Coates uses as the basis of his take-down. Here’s the quote, as excerpted in Coates’s piece:

Youth unemployment for African American kids is 51 percent. We have more people in jail than any other country. So yes, count me as a radical. I want to invest in jobs and education for our young people rather than jails and incarceration.

As I argued above, Bernie most typically applies the term “radical” to himself in an ironic way, so as to stress how not radical his ideas or proposals actually are. (Otherwise he simply states that what he’s saying is not radical.) Bernie’s use of it in this quote is no exception. What Bernie is in effect saying is that “So yes, [if it’s radical to want to improve on this dire circumstance, then] count me as a radical.” Unlike Coates’s interpretation of Bernie’s statement, this is the only consistent way to read what Bernie is actually saying when he uses the term.

This is important to point out because Coates justifies his exclusive focus on Bernie on the basis that he self-describes as a “radical.” Coates either misunderstands Bernie’s subtle use of irony here or understands it perfectly well and is deliberately misreading him. I’m genuinely stumped as to which.