Ta-Nehisi Coates has created a bit of a firestorm amongst multiple commentators over the past couple of weeks with his critiques of Bernie Sanders, in particular his rejection of reparations. In a nutshell, Coates points towards what he sees as a general unwillingness of the “Left” in America to take white supremacy seriously and argues that this blind spot makes the American Left insufficiently anti-racist. In reply, Cedric Johnson, writing from Jacobin, offers a fairly conventional Marxian reply to Coates that defends the universalist claims of more socialist, or social democratic, theorists and activists, and offers compelling historical evidence as to the efficacy of such policies in helping Black workers. Furthermore, he brings in, though does not go into great detail, the intra-racial class differences within the Black community and how ignoring these class distinctions have hurt working class Blacks over decades, if not close to two centuries.
While reparations is the policy choice on which this “debate” is held its clear that both commentators are arguing something much different and much greater. For what we have here in this first exchange of columns is not only a debate of which policy is more efficient but it is actually a battle of who gets to define what is the Black “Left” in this country.
It is on this ground, delineating the borders of a Black leftist political position, that Coates and Johnson are arguing but that neither necessarily dominates, and the question of reparations is a wholly inadequate policy position, in my opinion, to actually fight this battle because it falls into the easy trap of a homogenous Black body politic. Johnson admirably displays this by offering a neat counter to Coates’ mining of the plunder of the west side of Chicago’s Black community by predatory white real-estate actors by referencing the intense intra-racial conflict between landlords and renters on the city’s Southside. Unfortunately, he does not go far enough in more accurately tracing intra-racial class antagonism, instead assuming his readers are already well aware of such conflict. Instead of focusing of what class antagonism has meant historically and exploring legitimate Black class based politics he moves onto critiques of reparations as being managed by a Black managerial-technocratic class with no real take on what this means, or doesn’t, for Black working class folks.
In assuming that folks are aware and familiar with the idea of a Black class antagonism, Johnson misses the essential point of differentiation between himself and Coates- Coates is an avowed liberal (in the classical or more formal sense, not contemporary ideological sense, see here for more on this). Coates, ultimately, sees nothing wrong or dangerous within capitalism and its attendant social relations. In positing white supremacy as a wholly separate force (though one that interacts with other social processes) Coates is able to demand racial redress sans a greater critique of inequality and exploitation cemented in place by capitalism. It is on this point that Black leftists who disagree with Coates should focus and one where additional readings of history, something that Coates has shown a facility for, would offer many opportunities to demonstrate where Coates falls short in his political vision.
In particular, I think it is telling that Coates does not engage at all with the writings or thoughts of actual Black leftists who write about racism or historical groups of Black radicals. The history of Black leftist thought is as varied and differentiated as greater leftist thought but Black leftists have always had to explicitly engage with the “Race question” whether they conveniently dismissed it out of hand as secondary to class or centered it as the primary mechanism of capitalistic plunder, Black leftists, particularly Marxists and Communists, have never shied away from examining racism. So it is all the more curious to see Coates simultaneously paint the “Left” as insufficiently non-racist while naming himself the oracle to show leftists the proper way to liberation while ignoring the most fundamental critiques of leftists-black, brown, yellow, and white- since forever- that capitalism and its attendant social relations create the environment in which other forms of exploitation and inequality can flourish.
Black Radical Traditions
A clearer critique, or re-examination, of Coates’ liberalism and understanding of leftist politics and theory should draw from the grand history of Black radical thought, particularly Black socialist and communist thought. It is telling that Coates cites no real Black Marxists and Johnson focuses primarily on Black trade union representatives (and brief aside to discuss the Black Panther Party) but he doesn’t actually explore Black working class radicals of the early or mid-20th century. I only recently became aware of this great repository on Black women radicals (props to @tressiemchphd for the link)but it is a treasure trove of histories and primary documents of great early 20th century Black women radical thought.
One of the women profiled on the site is Claudia Jones, a bad ass Trinidadian activist, journalist, scholar, and Communist who was one of the first true theorists that we would now call “intersectional”. In her “End of the Neglect of the Negro Woman” Jones succinctly lays out the hyperexploitation visited upon Black women by virtue of their sex, race, and class position. But even more than simply mapping out intersecting oppressions, Jones relates the history of the militancy of Black women and their central role in resisting not only racism but the injustices of capitalism ranging from leading sharecropper revolts to getting Black representatives elected to congress in the South. These were actions lead by Black women trade unionists, socialists, and communists who knew their true enemies were the managers, landlords, Jim Crow, and often, their own husbands and fathers. It is a radicalism that sought to smash all of the many -isms, but was always firmly planted in a material understanding of suffering and violence.
My goal is not to simply recite her essay but to try and show that the false choice that Coates presents, and that Johnson plays into, is that one must either be for racial-specific policy or one must be for universal policies, and that has never truly been the position of Black radicals of the past or present. Missing that essential point is to run around in circles accusing each other of being either insufficiently socialist or insufficiently anti-racist all the while ignoring the near century long Black radical argument that to be anti-racist one must be anti-capitalist and to actually be an anti-capitalist means that one must be anti-racist. Neither precedes the other, though the historical question of which came first remains fascinating, if not potentially unanswerable. We must pursue both. Anti-racism without a recognition of how capitalism provides the scaffolding for the plunder of Black property and labor is empty. And an anti-capitalism without anti-racism, especially in the West, is to doom whatever emancipatory project comes to be before it can ever be. Not only because Blacks, in particular Black women, have often been at the forefront of the American radical tradition, but because such a project ignores the material social relations that undergird racism in this country.