While some have suggested that at least one presidential candidate has a so-called “Black man problem,” it would appear that Bernie Sanders, another White House hopeful, hasn’t seemed to solve his own apparent problem when it comes to American descendants of slavery. The Vermont senator who might be guilty of overstating his role in the civil rights movement may have distinguished himself Monday night on the topic of reparations, but it was for all the wrong reasons.
Sanders was in the middle of his town hall event televised on CNN when an audience member asked him about his stance on reparations, something that at least two other non-Black presidential candidates have said they were in favor of. But the 77-year-old, who has been a bit iffy (some might say he’s flip-flopped) on the topic, blurred the lines even more when he ended his very noncommittal answer by stating, “It depends on what the word means,” he said.
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind a moment to the question Sanders was asked before that, which actually served as the perfect segue into reparations.
Another audience member asked Sanders how he addresses concerns that some Black people may have about him — namely, the distrust that has festered over the last couple of years because of Sanders’ perceived lack of support for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that may have helped pave the way for Donald Trump to be elected.
That prompted Sanders to first go on a diatribe against the assertion that he may have played a role in Trump’s victory before he reverted to his old faithful talking points about wealth inequality along racial lines and providing the very generic vow “to do everything that I can in every way to end all forms of racism in this country.”
Sanders quickly tried to move on to the next question, but that was the one about reparations in the context of racism being the “legacy of income inequality in the U.S.” That should have been right up Sanders’ alley. Instead, he deflected (dodged?) what should be a simple question for a seasoned politician seeking the presidency: “What is your position on reparations to the descendants of slaves?”
To Sanders’ credit, he did say he likes Jim Clyburn’s 10|20|30 amendment, which focuses on federal resources in a very significant way on distressed communities. But that proposed legislation focuses on fighting poverty and isn’t necessarily geared toward descendants of slaves in particular. Furthermore, the word “reparations” doesn’t appear once in Clyburn’s description of the bill. Sanders then went on to say he would “pour resources” into “distressed communities” to improve lives for those people who have been hurt from the legacy of slavery. But of course, that’s not very specific, now is it?
Moderator Wolf Blitzer noticed that, too, which forced him to step in and ask Sanders directly: “So what is your position specifically on reparations?”
Blitzer quoted presidential candidate Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as saying that “Black families have had a much steeper hill to climb. We need systematic, structural changes to address that.” And while she may not have the best track record when it comes to race — she just apologized for lying about being Native American — Sanders, showing hints of being agitated by the line of questioning, said he agreed with Warren.
He then couched that language.
“She means, I think – I don’t want to put words in her mouth – is what I said,” he said to light, awkward applause. “As a result of the legacy of slavery, you have massive levels of inequality. It has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed now.”
He had one last, very curious thing to say about reparations: “It depends on what the word means.”
That, dear readers, is not a good sign for the senator.
His multitude of racial blunders — remember when he said that white people who didn’t vote for Stacey Abrams “are not necessarily racist” because they felt “uncomfortable” voting for a Black candidate? — have also been far from a good look for Sanders, who has seeming reversed (or, at least, altered) course when it comes to reparations.
Folks might recall that Sanders was much more clear on the issue during the 2016 campaign. He first said in no uncertain terms that, “No, I don’t think so,” when asked if he was in favor of “reparations for slavery.” He then went on to call reparations “very divisive” and insisted it had no chance to pass through Congress.
That prompted author and journalistTa-Nehisi Coates to astutely break down Sanders’ very definitive answer (at that time).
“Sanders’s anti-racist moderation points to a candidate who is not merely against reparations, but one who doesn’t actually understand the argument,” Coates wrote for the Atlantic in January 2016.
“Reparations is not one possible tool against white supremacy. It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy. One cannot propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt, propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy.”
Coates then summed it up succinctly: “Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?”
You can watch the entire CNN town hall event from Monday night below.