Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stated that he is against reparations for African Americans, and the declaration has spurred a fair number of back-and-forth pieces between authors on the political left. One notable article by writer and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to an open letter by Cedric Johnson, a professor of African American studies and political science who critiqued Coates’ call for reparations. Johnson tries to make the case that those who call for reparations are missing the main point: if broad class inequality is addressed, the economic and other inequalities faced by blacks will fall away. Further, Johnson characterizes liberals who disagree with him as uninterested in promoting solidarity. As Coates explains, however, race is far more complex. Whiteness and white identity still confer privilege, and that enduring system is another form of “solidarity,” a historical collection of forces that reinscribe inequality.
Using research from, among others, sociologists Patrick Sharkey of NYU and Robert Sampson of Harvard, Coates shows that white and black poverty are distinct. First of all, blacks are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods in which structural issues such as limited access to healthy groceries and banking are more heavily felt. After all, living in a poor neighborhood can have independent effects on poverty, effects which disproportionately affect African Americans. For example, Sampson’s research shows that incarceration rates in poor black neighborhoods can be forty times higher than in poor white neighborhoods, and incarceration rates are tied to further poverty in many ways. Trying to reduce issues of race to issues of class is, Coates explains, a disservice to both dynamics. Race and class intersect and overlap in ways left untouched by Johnson’s black-and-white characterization of poverty, reparations, and inequality.