The Slatest

Democrats Have Long Been Terrified of the White Moderate. Elizabeth Warren Apparently Has No Such Fear.

Coates and Warren pictured side by side, both wearing a jacket over a shirt and holding a microphone.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elizabeth Warren.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Annapurna Pictures, Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Here’s Elizabeth Warren answering a question about slavery at a CNN town hall on Monday night in Jackson, Mississippi.

America was founded on principles of liberty and freedom and on the backs of slave labor. This is a stain on America. And we’re not going to fix that, we’re not going to change that, until we address it head-on, directly. And it’s not just the original founding. It’s what’s happened generation after generation. The impact of discrimination handed down from one to the next means that today in America because of housing discrimination, because of employment discrimination, if the average white family has $100, the average black family has about $5. So I believe it’s time to start the national full-blown conversation about reparations in this country. And that means I support the bill in the House to appoint a congressional panel of experts, of people who are studying this, who talk about different ways we may be able to do it, and to make a report back to Congress so that we can as a nation do what’s right and begin to heal.

Warren noted that one way to discuss reparations is within “the frame of an apology, the frame of national recognition.”

Here, meanwhile, is Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a new interview with Eric Levitz at New York magazine, discussing the way he thinks the argument outlined in his 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” could fit practically into the current political discourse:

In terms of political candidates, and how this should be talked about, and how this should be dealt with, it seems like it would be to support HR 40. That’s the bill that says you form a commission. You study what damage was done from slavery, and the legacy of slavery, and then you try to figure out the best ways to remedy it. It’s pretty simple. I think that’s Nancy Pelosi’s position at this point.

There’s a whole line of thinking that says the recommendation for a study is somehow like a cop-out or weak. I don’t really understand why that would be the case. Look, if you have a sickness, you have an illness, you probably start with diagnosis. The first step is to get some idea of what actually happened. We’ve never really done that. You’re talking about an epic crime that literally has its origins before there was a United States of America, and carries all the way up to this very day … You need time. You need people to actually put some resources behind an actual study … If we’re going to do it, then let’s do it. Let’s put it all out there. Let’s tell folks how we imagine this new America being.

Levitz asked Coates about polling results that show the idea of reparations to be broadly unpopular. In response, Coates argues that part of the reason such poll results exist is because mainstream political figures have always treated reparations as too radical an idea to touch—in his words, “the people who have the megaphone not taking it seriously at all.” Well, Warren seems to be.

Other 2020 candidates, most prominently Kamala Harris, have also endorsed the broad idea of reparations (and it’s true that Pelosi has said she’d back HR 40). But where Harris has argued that facially race-neutral programs that happen to disproportionately benefit black Americans would count as reparations, Warren is more directly adopting a Coates-like framing of the issue. Later in the town hall, for example, when Warren talked about her housing affordability plan, she noted that “into the 1960s in America, the federal government was subsidizing the purchase of homes for white families and discriminating against black families. That’s redlining.” The history of redlining was a crucial part of Coates’ argument in the Atlantic, conveying the way that even white Americans who might say their ancestors weren’t responsible for slavery benefited (and continue to benefit) from its legacy.

It should be noted that, from Warren’s perspective, supporting HR 40 does mean somewhat conveniently that she doesn’t have to describe the specifics of a program that would redistribute wealth to black Americans. Still, by talking about redlining and the ongoing benefits that white Americans derive from segregation, Warren is endorsing (broadly speaking) a worldview that was on the radical edge of the media-politics ideas ecosphere just five years ago. It’s the kind of envelope-pushing position that you might expect from a younger candidate hoping simply to shift the terms of national debate—or to benefit from the national exposure of a presidential run. But Warren is 69, and she’s already a senator and nationally known figure. She gets little out of this campaign if she doesn’t win, and her position is an electoral risk, especially given that roughly 90 percent of the Democrats who participate in the Iowa caucus are white.

On that front, Warren furthermore said at the Jackson town hall that she thinks Confederate monuments should be removed from public spaces, which is another position that’s generally unpopular among white people, and that the Electoral College should be abolished in favor of a national popular vote for president, which would reduce the political influence of the disproportionately white, rural population in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. As a member of a party that has long lived in fear of the white moderate, especially on racial issues, Warren is running her primary campaign into uncharted territory. It’s exciting!