Over the past several years the issue of reparations has received more traction than at any other time in the 21st century. While activists have been working on the issue for decades, Ta-Nehisi Coates' work in The Atlantic has been largely responsible for bringing reparations back into the public purview. With the race for the presidency in full swing, the issue has, for a brief moment at least, come up as a way to push the political imagination of Bernie Sanders specifically, and as a way to bring up the race-vs.-class divide in general. For Coates and many others, the class-based approach Sanders and others on the left have focused on leave what I call a "racial residual" that still leaves black populations sicker, poorer, and less educated than their white counterparts.
While it's important to note that Coates is not solely criticizing Sanders and the left flank of the Democratic party—he has some harsh words for its moderate to liberal wing and Hillary Clinton as well—I think a few things bear mentioning in considering how those interested in the lives of black people should respond.
First, it's worth mentioning that the "racial residual" Coates and others are concerned with is real. If Sanders were to somehow get legislation through Congress making universal health care the law of the land, we know that black men, women, and children will disproportionately benefit as black people are disproportionately poor. However, we also know that black people with the same level of education, the same income, the same occupation as other races tend to live shorter lives, and tend to get less quality treatment from doctors. If Sanders were to somehow get legislation through Congress making public colleges like the University of Maryland College Park free, such a policy would benefit black college-age children because they are disproportionately poor. However, we also know that the University of Maryland system, like many state public education systems, is tiered, and because black children are hypersegregated by class and race, they are less likely to receive the type of high school education that will enable them to gain access to the higher-tiered public colleges. Finally, as black activists concerned with anti-black police violence have made crystal clear, while poor people of all backgrounds are more likely to be subject to police violence, black people are overrepresented in the ranks of police victims. A class-based policy here may reduce the overall number of police victims and may give those victimized by police more power to hold police accountable, but black men and women will still be more likely to be victimized by police afterward. This racial residual is real, and is significant.
Second, it bears mentioning that this racial residual is the consequence of public policy. In the case of Baltimore specifically all one has to do is look at the 1930s housing map policymakers used to determine which neighborhoods were quality investments and which neighborhoods were risky investments. One of the measures they used to distinguish risky from quality investments was the black population percentage of the neighborhood. A neighborhood with a high percentage of black residents was by definition deemed a risky investment and was "redlined." Many if not most of the neighborhoods redlined in the 1930s experience high levels of poverty, joblessness, and low education now. So while reparations is often articulated as a policy designed to deal with slavery, we don't have to go to 1865 to see how racist public policy severely reduced the ability of black populations to live fulfilling lives.
So the racial residual is real, and it is the result of public policy. The natural consequence of these two factors should be at the very least an intellectual reckoning with this consequence. What Coates suggests is that the natural consequence should not just be an intellectual reckoning but a political reckoning. Is he right?
Morally and intellectually? Yes.
I don't know.
But I distinctly remember seeing Coates in Baltimore for the first public reading of "Between the World and Me." Someone asked him about reparations and whether he expected to see it. I recall him saying he did not. He didn't expect his son Somari to see it. He didn't expect his son's children to see it. I don't even think he expected those children's sons and daughters to see it. However, he understood that if reparations did come in one way or another, it would come in part because someone tried to speak it into being when the time wasn't right.
Along these lines then, a better question would be, for those who do support reparations as a way to wrestle with the racial residual, what are they willing to do politicallyto make the time a little bit "righter"?
Lester K. Spence is a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is "Knocking The Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics."