The Apolitical Hubris of Black Progressivism

Ideological bullishness makes poor politics—and maybe that’s the point

Millennial Athwart

What I both admire and dislike most about black progressivism is its staunch unwillingness to compromise. Not with the American political process, not with the American people—especially conservatives of color, and certainly not with even more radical strains of progressivism.

At the very least, for a movement with clear political ends, it’s one that is unwilling to navigate by political means.

A few weeks ago, Bernie Sanders spoke out against the demand for reparations—a popular argument that black Americans today should be monetarily compensated for the moral and financial wrongs their ancestors suffered from the dawn of slavery to about the 1960s.

When asked if he believed whether the U.S. government should dole out reparations, 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. 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."

To any early follower of Sanders’s politics, his statement should come as unsurprising. Like many democratic socialists, Sanders prefers to view Americans as populating classes, not races—and like many conservatives incidentally, he views employment as the most effective solution to addressing the litany of woes touted by black and Latino progressives.

After all, “more jobs” was his response to Black Lives Matter before protestors infamously interrupted his rally in Seattle this summer, compelling him to release an official racial justice platform despite little ideological interest among his adherents or, frankly, himself. His nationalist economic populism is similarly the reason why he’s against open borders, albeit less staunchly after Latino progressivism’s poster child Jorge Ramos expressed his chagrin—sure, open borders would boost the livelihoods of poor Hispanics coming into the country, but such a policy would also steal jobs from America’s poor.

Yet for the umpteenth time, black and Latino progressives seethe in outrage at Sanders’s disagreement with them on reparations, feeling blindsided by their sometime-ally’s predictable betrayal, enraged by the notion that progressivism as a political movement can be both palatable and aracial.

To the credit of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who became the first to feign puzzlement over Sanders’s comments with his piece in The Atlantic last month, the pundit later announced that he will nonetheless vote for Sanders when given the chance. But this is more an affirmation of his democratic prerogative than an indication of ideological compromise. Coates made it clear: “I’m not going to make any calls. I’m not going to volunteer. I’m not doing anything. I answered the question because I was asked the question. But, I just want to be clear. I reject the term supporter. I reject the term endorsement. I’m a voter.”

And to the credit of the substance of Coates’s ire, the Senator’s case against reparations is indeed a tad hypocritical. His arguments that a successful reparations bill would be implausible within the political system and would moreover divide the country is a risible affront to the public image of unapologetic radicalism and partisanship he so carefully manicured. Why haven’t implausibility and divisiveness ever disqualified Sanders’s support for single-payer healthcare and unprecedentedly high tax rates?

Unlike Coates, Jamelle Bouie—another pundit at the helm of black progressivism—forgives Sanders’s hypocrisy by chalking it up to the insurmountable clout whites wield on political victories in this country. Sanders must be a pragmatist before Election Day, the argument goes, in order to afford not being one from then on out. That is to say, the Sanders movement necessitates race-based handouts—but Sanders and his supporters, both current and potential, either don’t know or don’t care about this yet.

I think Mr. Bouie is kidding himself. The very lifeblood of black progressivism is its clout, its spectacle, its omnipresence in both intellectual and popular discourse. That’s the reason why it matters that black actors are boycotting the Oscars, that politicians are arguing over Beyoncé’s ode to the black condition, that Kanye can get away with brazenly condemning the "white publication” the New York Times for having the audacity to comment even approvingly on music made by “the great grandson of an ex slave.” Frankly, that’s the reason why Sanders released a racial justice platform and softened his rhetoric on closed borders despite his conscience.

Based on the evangelical powers of black progressivism, I wouldn’t put it past Sanders to come out in favor of reparations tomorrow. If he does, it’s because he’s playing his cards right—not because all progressivism must be black progressivism, the myth so many like Coates and Bouie attempt to perpetuate. And if he doesn’t, he’ll simply prove that black progressivism transcends politics. It’s an ideological exercise in special-interest radicalism that not even a man who wants a 90 percent tax rate is willing to support.


Shubhankar Chhokra '18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Follow him on Twitter @shubchhokra.

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