Moral Courage and the Politics of Reparations: Uncle Bernie Drops the Ball


On Fusion Television’s Iowa Black and Brown Forum, Senator Bernie Sanders was asked if he favored reparations for African Americans.  Uncle Bernie delivered what I can only describe as a Clintonian response, arguing that favoring reparations would be both futile and divisive.

At a time when the Clinton machine is on the defensive and actively building a Southern strategy to counter potential losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, Senator Sanders passed on an opportunity to deliver a powerful appeal for the black vote.  Reparations is a place Hillary Clinton will not go.  It is a word she will not utter.  It is a debate she does not wish to have.  Senator Sanders could have and should have.

Instead, Uncle Bernie dropped the ball.

I support Bernie Sanders for president.  In the age of unlimited corporate contributions, the fact that Sanders could even mount a serious run is astounding.  But I find the rationale of the senator from Vermont desperately inadequate.  We expect Hillary Clinton to take the easy road.  We expect the triangulator to sidestep difficult and potentially divisive issues.  We do not expect Uncle Bernie to take the same path.

Had the good senator taken the issue head on and welcomed the debate, he would have demonstrated not only moral courage but political acumen as well.  He would have forced Hillary to respond and that response would very likely have exposed her loyalty to the black community as a politically expedient fabrication.

Reparations belongs in the public forum.  Americans are long overdue for a full, open and in-depth discussion of the debt this nation owes for its past misdeeds.  That discussion does not begin with slavery.  It begins with genocide.  It begins with a concerted attempt by our government, under a succession of presidents, to exterminate the Native American population.   When that attempt failed, we slaughtered the buffalo to eliminate the vital resource upon which the plains Indians relied.  We rounded up the tribes and relocated them to lands the white folks did not want.  We later seized those same lands and divided them into individual allotments (the Dawes Act of 1887) in an attempt to destroy tribal and cultural identification.

When Europeans first set foot on American soil an estimated ten million Native Americans populated the North American continent.  By 1900 the Census estimated the native population at just over 237,000.  [1]

Genocide.  Plain and simple.  Do we really think we’ve paid our debt to the surviving Native American communities by allowing casinos on reservation lands?  Plain and simple:  We have not.  Native Americans remain the most impoverished and under-represented minority in the land.

In 2010 Congress passed the Claims Resolution Act in an attempt to settle long-standing grievances of mismanagement and outright theft of tribal resources for 3.4 billion dollars.  The settlement remains in stasis while the courts try to determine its fairness.

In 1988 Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act compensating more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who were wrongfully imprisoned during World War II.  Surviving members of the aggrieved community were given $20,000 and a formal apology.

In both cases, the compensation was and is woefully inadequate but the precedent is set:  Reparations is an issue in American law.  Why should it not have a place in American politics?  Why should the American electorate be denied a full hearing?

Every year since 1989 Representative John Conyers of Michigan has introduced a bill to establish a commission to study the enduring impact of slavery and make recommendations for appropriate remedies.  The proposal has never reached the floor of the House of Representatives for an up or down vote.

Notwithstanding the feud between Cornel West and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the latter makes a strong case for reparations in the June 2014 edition of The Atlantic: 

“Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated.  Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages.  Police brutalized them in the streets.  And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.”

I made a distinctly different case in May of 2006:

“We are not a nation of justice.  If we were … we would honor our debts.  We would make just reparations to natives and African Americans who were compelled to migrate as slaves.  What the nation owes to the Lakota [4] and Cherokee [5] alone amounts to more than what we will ultimately spend to destroy the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq – more even than our national debt.”

This nation has never made account for the crimes of genocide and slavery.  Generation after generation of Americans were taught in our public schools that the native population had to give way to the manifest destiny of a superior civilization and the great Civil War was not fought to abolish the scourge of slavery but to preserve the union.

America may never be able to make just reparations for crimes against humanity on this scale but it is a discussion we desperately need to have.  At the very least, if we taught our children the truth, we would no longer have to hear arguments by Supreme Court justices that the real problem now is reverse discrimination.  We would no longer have to endure the prevailing opinion that affirmative action is no longer necessary.

I appeal to the Sanders campaign as one who supports his candidacy:  Change your mind.  If you cannot support reparations outright then at least support the Conyers bill to study the issue.  Challenge your presidential opponents to do the same.

It is the right thing to do.  It is what we expect of Bernie Sanders that we could never expect of Hillary Clinton.


[1] Native American History by Judith Nies, Ballantine Books, 1996.

[2] “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, June 2014.

[3] “Misconceptions in the Immigration Debate:  What Would Crazy Horse Do?”  Dissident Voice, May 19, 2006.

[4] Payment for the Black Hills and all the resources extracted there from in accordance with the Fort Laramie Treaty.

[5] Recognized as a sovereign nation by the US Supreme Court (Worcester v. Georgia 1832) in a decision that was ignored by President Andrew Jackson who subsequently carried out the mass relocation recorded in history as The Trail of Tears.

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Jack Random is the author of Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press.)

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