Bernie was asked about the issue of reparations for contemporary African American ancestors of slavery, in his CNN town hall in April 2019. The media got some mileage out of criticizing Bernie on this issue on tv shortly afterwards. Regarding Sanders’ response, CNN op ed contributor LZ Granderson noted that Bernie did not mention the word ‘reparations’. Why not? The overall tenor of Granderson’s opinion piece is that the term ‘reparations’ is unclear (just as Bernie had alluded to on live TV) so Bernie’s response was completely justified. However, the political hit and run happened in real time on CNN and is not to be remedied by an obscure op ed which virtually nobody who watched the town hall will ever see.
Furthermore Granderson’s op ed (on CNN’s web-site) is a subtle smear on Bernie, masquerading as a compliment. Granderson quoted House Speaker Nanci Pelosi as having said:
"We have to reduce the disparity in income in our country . . . We have to reduce the disparity in access to education in an affordable way in our country, reduce the health disparities in our country ... so while we're studying how we deal with the reparations issue, there's plenty we can do to improve the quality of life of many people in our country."
(Note how Pelosi doesn’t mention disparity in wealth in the quotation above, something that Bernie has repeatedly stressed.)
Granderson goes on to claim:
“Let me be clear: I believe generational wealth accumulated by white people over centuries of systemic racism is directly connected to a significant number of obstacles impeding economic progress for African-Americans, and moral progress for the country.
For example, the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farmers and domestic workers, two occupations that were predominantly black, while the Wagner Act of 1935 allowed unions to exclude minorities.
So as FDR worked to uplift white Americans from the depths of the Great Depression, his policies not only made it legal to leave black people behind, they enabled whites to pass wealth down to their children while their black counterparts depended on their children for help in their later years.
And this cycle went on for decades. Another example of the long term effects of systemic racism came via housing, where less than 2% of $120 billion worth of government-backed home loans were awarded to minorities because the appraisal system that was used identified integrated communities as high risk. This went on from 1934 to 1962.”
The reader of Granderson’s op ed piece is invited to arrive at the conclusion that Bernie (who has championed FDR’s New Deal) is just as connected to systemic racism as FDR’s New Deal allegedly was, i.e. Bernie is racist. Apart from any detailed analysis from Granderson about the motivation behind FDR’s New Deal the main problem with his analysis is that Bernie does not condone racism. Bernie cites FDR’s New Deal not to promote a white agenda but to combat the wealth inequality between American workers of whatever ethnic background and the 1% (billionaire class). Anyone who is familiar with Bernie’s history of e.g. fighting against the segregation of off-campus university housing in Chicago in 1962, marching with MLK (fellow socialist) etc. knows this.
One might agree contrary to Granderson’s implication that Bernie is not racist, but what should Bernie (and all other Dem candidates) say specifically regarding the issue of reparations for the ancestors of slaves? What would a serious look at the issue of reparations involve, and why is Bernie the best Democratic Party 2020 candidate on this issue?
To answer this question one must realize that the main injustice in society is intellectual, not racial or sexual. In the opinion of progressives in the Democratic Party (not Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden or the un-Democratic DCCC), society distributes economic rewards unfairly.
This progressive opinion aligns with that of prestigious American philosopher - Thomas Nagel. As Nagel argues in his book ‘Mortal Questions’ (chapter seven: The Policy Of Preference) economic rewards are not distributed on the basis of an individual’s effort, rather, on average, there is a bias in favor of superior intelligence.
Nagel offers the following four-step analysis of how we reached the current situation in which a ‘policy of preference’, in the context of employment is in effect in the USA (a policy of preference/reverse discrimation policy should be thought of as a minor first step compared to a reparations policy). Nagel wrote the book alluded to decades ago - things have got much worse since then.
He claims that first of all, not too long ago, there was a widespread acceptance of the notion that deliberate discrimination against people on the basis of skin color or gender should be condemned. Secondly, it was also realized that even without these deliberate barriers to employment, there could still be (consciously or unconsciously motivated) unfair discrimination, and this gave rise to greater self-conscious efforts on the part of employers to be impartial. Thirdly, it was recognized that socially caused inequality to compete for positions may persist, since some groups in society are systematically advantaged and some are systematically disadvantaged, because of differences in e.g. education, housing, diet, etc. Those who are advantaged in these sorts of respects have a better chance to compete for desirable positions, and the economic rewards that accompany them. By the same token, those who are disadvantaged in the above respects are typically prone to a loss of self-esteem, self-confidence, motivation, ambition, etc. all of which contribute to competitive success. Finally, Nagel claims that it was generally acknowledged that these socially caused disadvantages cannot be rectified merely by initiating special programs of remedial training.
Two alternatives now become apparent. On the first, we do all that we can using just means to remove unjust inequalities in ability to compete for desirable positions, e.g. by condemning deliberate unfair discrimination. However, once remediable unjust inequalities have been justly removed, we admit that further steps to neutralize these socially caused imbalances by reverse discrimination would be unjust. So we allow the effects of socially caused injustice to continue to confer some disadvantage in the ability to compete for desirable positions.
On the second alternative, we claim that a policy of preferential treatment for those from well-defined disadvantaged groups is justified because such a policy compensates in an imperfect, approximate way, for the inequalities of opportunity produced by past injustice. (In other words, reverse discrimination, though imperfect, may be justified in that it tends to neutralize the present disadvantages that those from certain groups face, simply because they are members of that group.)
Nagel points out that in a competitive society, employers are primarily concerned with *efficiency* – not justice. They try to find employees who can perform the relevant tasks most efficiently; this is just a fact of life in a market economy (if any business enterprise did not act like this, it would be put in a poor competitive position). Accordingly, a competitive economy is bound to provide greater economic rewards for those with superior training and abilities. However, the qualities, experience etc. that make success in a position likely do not in themselves *merit* the economic rewards that happen to come with that position in a competitive economy, since it is just a matter of luck (not merit) that an individual was born with certain natural talents, or into circumstances that allowed those talents to flourish. So, one might hold that if women or African Americans are less qualified, for whatever reason, then it would be just to compensate for this disadvantage (given that candidates for jobs, while perhaps not the most efficient, are at least *minimally* efficient at them). Nagel claims that certain abilities and characteristics (e.g. intelligence, and to a lesser extent, beauty, athletic ability etc.) are relevant from the point of view of efficiency, but not from the point of view of justice, since ‘these abilities don’t provide any indication that one *deserves* the rewards that go with the job.’
On the view just described, preferential treatment would not simply be linked to the attempt to neutralize the present disadvantages caused by past injustice. If one abandons the condition that to qualify for preferential treatment, an inequality must be socially caused (i.e. be the result of past unfair discrimination), then there is no reason to restrict compensatory measures (e.g. reverse discrimination) to well-defined racial/sexual groups. Rather, preferential selection procedures would have to be applied on an *individual basis* (again, within the limits of minimal efficiency).
However, Nagel points out that if we were to act on the principle that different abilities do not merit different rewards (as it is just chance that different people have different talents and abilities), this would result in much more equality than is demanded by proponents of preferential treatment/reverse discrimination.
Nevertheless, Nagel contends that this discussion has revealed something important – the primary injustice with which we have to contend lies with the system itself, whereby people are rewarded economically as a result of their natural talents and abilities. In Nagel’s view, these different abilities are not usually among the characteristics that determine whether people deserve economic and social benefits (although of course, they do determine whether they in fact get these benefits). In Nagel’s view, nearly all the different natural characteristics that people have are irrelevant to what people (economically) deserve. Most people deserve to be treated equally, in this respect, he claims.
Nagel admits that perhaps voluntary differences of effort (or maybe moral differences in conduct) do have some bearing on economic desert (what different people deserve); but these are features in which most people don’t differ enough to justify the huge differences in economic reward that exist in our society. For instance, why do super-models (whether white or black) deserve to make millions, due to the fact that they have a particular physical appearance? The fact that they have this appearance is not primarily due to any effort on their part; rather, they were just ‘blessed by nature’ in a certain way. Of course it will require effort to maintain physical looks, but this effort may not significantly differ from the effort other people who earn much less put in to their jobs (e.g. compare supermodels with white or black New York City fire-fighters in this respect.) One could make the same sort of point about those who have been blessed with more natural athletic ability than others. Why should (white or black) professional footballers, or NBA stars, deserve to make lots more money than e.g. firefighters? Depending on one’s natural talents, one may deserve more opportunity than someone else to develop and exercise that talent, but not necessarily any greater economic reward than others get.
Relatedly, in Nagel’s view, the greatest injustice in society is neither racial nor sexual, but is intellectual. On average, society provides much larger economic rewards for tasks that require superior intelligence than for those that do not. This is due to how things work in a market economy, which allocates economic reward on the basis of efficiency, not justice. Bernie, the only democratic socialist running as a Democratic candidate for the 2020 presidential nomination, is an advocate for economic justice in the sense elucidated above. No other Democratic candidate comes close to having the above sort of progressive platform as Bernie.