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The Bernie Sanders and reparations controversy, explained

Bernie Sanders in South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The Iowa caucuses are 10 days away, so naturally everyone is talking about … Bernie Sanders's position on reparations?

This week, a controversy has arisen around Sanders's recent statement that he does not support reparations for black Americans — payments to compensate for centuries of US policies that oppressed black people — partly because he doesn't think they could ever be enacted. This strikes some as hypocritical because Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, supports many policies that seem just as politically unrealistic, like single-payer health care.

The critics in some ways misunderstand Sanders's views on this issue. It's not solely that he thinks reparations are too politically unrealistic, but also that he believes they'd be too divisive. That word — divisive — is key, because so much of Sanders's campaign is built on starting a political revolution that will unite the country, including the white working class, against the wealthy and powerful.

Nonetheless, the reparations spat helps demonstrate what his critics and even some of his supporters have consistently called a blind spot in his campaign: racial issues. From that perspective, the reparations controversy isn't really over whether Sanders should come out in favor of reparations, but rather why he's consistently perceived as stumbling when it comes to race — especially when, as the liberal candidate in the race, he should have a stronger position on this big issue in the Democratic primary.

Still, this is definitely an unexpected place for the Democratic presidential campaign to be in — especially because the reparations issue doesn't even divide the candidates, since Hillary Clinton opposes them, too. So let's start with how we got here.

How reparations became a Democratic campaign issue

This latest chapter of the Democratic campaign began on January 13, after Nando Vila at Fusion asked Sanders if he backs reparations for slavery. Sanders said:

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. I think 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, and incarceration rate among 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, working on child care — basically, targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most, and where it is needed the most are impoverished communities, often African-American and Latino.

On Tuesday, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a much-lauded Atlantic article titled "The Case for Reparations" in 2014, picked up on this answer. He asked why Sanders opposes reparations even as he, unlike Clinton, backs all other sorts of politically extreme policies:

The spectacle of a socialist candidate opposing reparations as "divisive" (there are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist) is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist. 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. Considering Sanders's proposal for single-payer health care, Paul Krugman asks, "Is there any realistic prospect that a drastic overhaul could be enacted any time soon—say, in the next eight years? No."

Other political commentators backed this critique. Here's Jelani Cobb, who writes for the New Yorker:

That article prompted a response from rapper Killer Mike, a Sanders supporter, who emphasized his support for reparations but said they will never happen. Here are some of Killer Mike's tweets, which argued that Sanders's platform would most benefit black communities even if they don't explicitly set out to achieve that goal:

But perhaps the strangest reaction came from the Hillary Clinton campaign. Even though Clinton does not support reparations, campaign spokesperson Brian Fallon decided to raise the issue on CNN as an example of Sanders's inconsistency:

We'll see over the coming weeks if he can explain some of these plans that he's laid out on health care. He hasn't said how he would achieve a single-payer system when we couldn't even get a public option with an entirely Democratic Congress. And yet when it comes to something like reparations, he dismisses it as completely unfeasible.

These criticisms mischaracterize Sanders's position. For one, he has said how he would get a single-payer system — by leading a political revolution of the broad-based American public against special interests, which would help swing Congress toward backing such a plan. That may seem like a naive idea, but Sanders genuinely believes he can achieve this. And his answer on reparations actually explains how he hopes to do it.

Reparations clash with Sanders's vision of a political revolution on economic issues

Bernie Sanders speaks in Birmingham, Alabama. Hal Yeager/Getty Images

The most important part of Sanders's response wasn't that reparations are unrealistic, but that they are "divisive." This is crucial to understanding Sanders's campaign, which hopes to inspire a political revolution that unites the country against the wealthy class and establishment that have let inequality run amok.

To make this plausible, though, Sanders believes the Democrats have to win over many more white voters to their cause. As he told Vox's Andrew Prokop in 2014, "I do not know how you can concede the white working class to the Republican Party, which is working overtime to destroy the working class in America."

To Sanders, getting this voting bloc is critical to building the majority he hopes will bring about his political revolution — sweeping through Congress and forcing the passage of his policy platform, including a $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill and a single-payer health care system.

But supporting reparations would endanger Sanders's chances of getting support from the white working class. A 2014 YouGov survey found only 6 percent of white Americans support cash payments for black Americans who are the descendants of slaves, and 19 percent support education and job training programs:

There is a huge racial divide on support for reparations. YouGov

If you look at this survey from the perspective that you need white working-class votes to lead a broader wave of change in America, reparations seem not just unfeasible but dangerous to your overall mission.

Beyond the polling, reparations could be particularly divisive because they effectively use taxpayer money to compensate black Americans. Whether that compensation is deserved or not, that could be seen by a lot of people as the government favoring a certain group of people.

Single-payer, a huge jobs program, and other policies in Sanders's platform, on the other hand, stand to benefit every American — which, in Sanders's view, makes them much more sellable to the general public.

Critics see a broader problem with Sanders and race

Bernie Sanders waves.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The broader issue here, however, is not reparations but Sanders's consistent problem addressing racial tensions in America in a way that satisfies liberal advocates — the same advocates who are supposed to be see Sanders, a self-described radical and democratic socialist, as their candidate.

Coates dug into this in a follow-up post on Sanders and reparations, arguing that Sanders is supposed to be the radical, liberal candidate in the race but doesn't act like it when it comes to race issues:

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.

In his previous post on the issue, Coates also argued that Sanders had the fundamentally wrong approach to race issues in general:

This is the "class first" approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn't really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. Housing discrimination, historical and present, may well be the fulcrum of white supremacy. Affirmative action is one of the most disputed issues of the day. Neither are addressed in the "racial justice" section of Sanders platform.

The criticism of Sanders's tepid "class first" approach is something that has been leveled at his campaign time and time again. It was one of Black Lives Matter activists' criticisms last year when they protested Sanders's rallies.

From Sanders's perspective, economic inequality is the central issue facing the country — a truly existential problem. It's not that Sanders doesn't see racial or other forms of inequality as serious problems in the US (he has, after all, a racial justice platform), but he has built his campaign on emphasizing how to fix this economic inequality above all else.

He even sees, as he explained to Fusion, the fixes for economic inequality — such as a massive jobs program and single-payer health care — as a way to also address racial inequality, since black communities are so often poor communities, too.

Many Black Lives Matter activists and other racial justice advocates simply don't share this view. They feel, justifiably, that black people have been oppressed by centuries of US policies — from slavery to segregation to housing laws. And they feel those centuries of oppression warrant policies that specifically help black communities that have been held down for so long. The slogan "Black Lives Matter" speaks to this: It is not that other lives don't matter, but that America needs to prove that black lives also matter. Reparations could go a long ways to proving that.

But these activists don't really have a candidate in the race that truly represents their values. Instead, the very liberal wing of the party that may have backed such a view has been enamored of a candidate who is emphasizing economic over racial inequality. Ultimately, Sanders's opposition to reparations demonstrates this rift between liberal activists — and that's why his opposition has disappointed commentators like Coates.

Watch: Bernie Sanders on his political revolution