Dear Ta-Nehisi Coates: Senator Bernie Sanders is an honest man.
If you ask him a direct question, he will answer. If he doesn’t know, he will admit that he doesn’t know. He will tell you he wants to raise taxes. He will tell you he does not want to fight a war in the middle east. These are things other politicians will never admit, even if they are true, because in modern American political culture, the prevailing wisdom is that it is better to lie to the voters and win under false pretenses than to speak an unpopular truth and lose.
It was not always like this. Of course, there always have been liars among our politicians, but they did not always rule the roost. George Washington once wrote to Alexander Hamilton “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.” Abraham Lincoln published the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which he framed slavery as a violation of the founding principle that all men are created equal, an honest assessment so unpopular that his election precipitated the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats are catalogs of hard economic and military truths supported by facts with no spin and no sugar coating. They sound like a Bernie Sanders’ stump speech.
Recently he was asked if he was in favor of reparations for slavery. This was his answer:
“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.”
I believe him. He’s been saying the same things about social justice and the economy for forty years. Now they’ve suddenly become popular opinions. Why would he change what he’s saying? My answer to this question is that Bernie Sanders is an honest man. He will consider new information and, if his previous assessment proves to be incomplete, he will reassess and move forward.
His answer will undoubtedly be duplicated by the Clinton Campaign. It sounds like a Clinton answer, pragmatic, incremental, redirecting back toward safe well-rehearsed talking points. Bernie can do better than that. He is not afraid to speak when other politicians cannot be reached for comment. The truth is that if the Senator reads Ta-Nehesi Coates 2014 essay, The Case for Reparations, he will likely change his mind.
Once he considers the continuing oppression, which has been systematically kept hidden from him, as it was from me, he will probably see this issue for what it really is, an integral component of the movement to establish universal justice for all Americans. I imagine him introducing in the Senate some form of Congressman John Conyers Jr.’s house bill, Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act.
Once he realizes that the literal cornerstone of Wall Street is an auction block for slaves, he’ll step up and fight to root out systemic injustice. Once he considers that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by the big banks’ targeting of black Americans, that the subprime loans were designed to fail, that black Americans were pushed towards these loans even if they qualified for better terms, that banks intentionally robbed black families of everything they owned, he will agree that America needs to have this conversation.
For Bernie Sanders, it’s not about how the Clinton Campaign is going to attack him next. It’s not about whether white voters in swing states will be outraged. If they are more outraged by racial justice than by socialism, that will only prove that we need to have this conversation. When Roosevelt signed the New Deal in 1935, two thirds of black Americans were ineligible. Bernie can do better, and if this gets Trump to start talking about Bernie instead of Hillary all the time, then we’re really cooking with gas.
As I understand it, Ta-Nehesi Coates has repeatedly reached out to the Sanders Campaign, hoping to discuss this very subject. I hope that conversation will happen, soon. If we all work together we can make America worthy of its place in the world, a shining city on a hill, a bastion of freedom, undimmed by the specter of our past. The future is ours for the taking, if we have the courage to be honest. Let’s do this.