The concept of structural racism posits that for centuries whites in America have retained consistent advantages over other groups thereby ensconcing themselves at the top of the political and economic tree. The concept may seem somewhat dated given that an African-American was elected President in 2008 and by 2013 Asians had surpassed whites in terms of per capita income, although not household wealth.
Nevertheless, structural racism remains a valid prism through which to examine American society given the fact that non-Asian communities of color suffer from disproportionately high rates of 1) unemployment, 2) poverty, 3) incarceration, 4) police abuse, 5) poor health and premature death.
Bernie Sanders proposes realistic solutions to structural racism in his platform. His promise to stop entering into new “free trade” deals and to try to renegotiate ones currently in force will have an immediate salutary effect on victims of structural racism. Agreements like NAFTA and conferring Most Favored Nation Status on China have disproportionately harmed communities of color by leading directly to the loss of millions of middle-class manufacturing jobs. Likewise, cheap American foodstuffs dumped into Latin America as permitted under NAFTA have destroyed agricultural communities throughout the region.
Sanders wants to decriminalize marijuana and more generally end mass incarceration policies. This will obviously reduce the number of African American and Latino inmates. The war on drugs has fueled bloody violence in Latin America cities and, along with NAFTA, driven legal and illegal immigration from Latin America here. Low-wage immigrants exert downward pressure on wages and of course they are poor as well and often living in the shadows. Reducing incentives to immigrate from Latin America will reduce structural racism.
Private prisons warehouse a disproportionate number of black and Latino arrestees and convicts. Sanders’ plan to end the use of private prisons in America would eliminate a special interest that has lobbied hard for increases in sentences and even been found to have bribed judges to impose harsh sentences. By decriminalizing pot, reducing the federal government’s role in drug interdiction, and eliminating private prisons, Sanders would be tearing giants stones out of the foundation of structural racism.
The single biggest factor determining a child’s future socioeconomic status is that of her parents. The second biggest factor is how much education she receives. Bernie Sanders explicitly addresses both in his platform. Regarding the economic status of African-Americans, His platform includes a $15 minimum wage which would automatically increase significantly the incomes in many black families. Regarding education, the high cost of college and the difficulty of getting and paying back loans is a significant hurdle for many minority families. Sanders’ platform eliminates those problems by calling for free college at state schools.
Police violence against and oppression of African-Americans is a serious problem and one that Sanders has repeatedly decried in his campaign speeches. He explicitly calls for cops who break the law to be prosecuted and convicted. He also wants better training for police, an emphasis on minority hiring, reduced dependency on military equipment, and perhaps most importantly an end to “for-profit” policing.
African-Americans have much shorter lives than whites and Asians. This is partly because they have less access to medical treatment when needed. Sanders’ medicare-for-all plan would eliminate this disparity. Increasing their economic security would reduce stress which kills. Much more needs to be done but it is clear that Sanders is focused on the disparity in longevity which forms a part of structural racism.
The cause of reparations for slavery has become prominent in recent years. Its foremost proponent Atlantic writer Ta-Nahisi Coates makes a powerful case given the seemingly intractable disparity between conditions experienced by most whites and most blacks in America. Although Sanders opposes reparations, Coates is still planning to vote for him because he is much more progressive than Hillary Clinton and she opposes reparations as well. Nevertheless, the author criticizes the democratic socialist for not supporting direct payments to descendants of slaves.
Sanders has two strong arguments for keeping the reparations movement at arm’s length. One, there is not a consensus, even on the left, that reparations are the ideal way to address structural racism. Two, it is not politically viable even if Democrats could win national elections with no support from the white working class and adopting it as part of their platform would make it much harder for Democrats to get elected.
Political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., suspects the good faith of those calling for reparations arguing they are embracing an issue that is guaranteed to divide working-class whites and blacks at a moment when they are closer to uniting politically than they have been in over 50 years. Reed contends also that there is simply no fair way to decide who should pay reparations and to whom. Instead, he says African-American leaders should embrace Sanders’ agenda which directly targets the various victims of what he calls “naked capitalism.” Since such victims are disproportionately African Americans, they will benefit disproportionately from Sanders’ proposals if they are enacted just as they would from reparations. Coates himself has expressed reservations about the cause he is leading.
Still there are those who claim embracing reparations would not hurt Sanders politically and might even help him. This is absurd. A coalition of minority voters joined by many whites elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Whites who comprise about 72% of the US electorate were a key part of Obama’s constituency even though Mitt Romney won the demographic overall. President Obama did garner about 41% of the white vote in 2012 and won the popular vote by just under 4%. The incumbent needed about 36% of the white vote to break even with Romney. Six percent of whites say they support reparations in the form of direct cash payments to the descendants of slaves.
A very significant minority of white voters were a key part of the Obama constituency as were of course the vast majority of African-American voters. Latinos and Asians also overwhelmingly supported Obama. Since they would not receive reparations, one has to assume they too would be less inclined to support Democratic candidates who embraced reparations for slavery. Calling for reparations would cost Sanders votes among whites, Latinos, and Asians both in the primaries and in the general election if he were to garner the Democratic nomination.
Perhaps a few more African-Americans would vote for Sanders if he embraced the cause of reparations. But since Democratic Presidential candidates are now getting upwards of 90% of the black vote, there is far more downside than upside to an overt appeal to African-Americans that alienates all other demographic groups. Simply put, championing the cause of reparations would doom Sanders’ campaign and therefore an opportunity to elect President a candidate committed to reducing and ultimately eliminating structural racism.