Coates writes Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?. C.K. MacLeod pushes back from the right with The Argument for Reparations, and the Question of Justice, and Cedric Johnson pushed back from the left with An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him. I don't really buy any of these positions.
First, MacLeod's position is fatally flawed. MacLeod argues that the Civil War is a credit to white people, that we spilled a lot of our own blood in an effort to eliminate the worst kind of racial injustice, literal chattel slavery. I agree with MacLeod, but only at the most superficial level. I don't think white people need to be ashamed of the Civil War, and I don't think Coates is correct to include it as a charge against white people. But Coates' case of the injustices perpetrated by white people against black people remains overwhelming, even with the war accruing to our credit: the "blood sacrifice" at the very best atones for chattel slavery, but the list of injustices runs far longer than just slavery itself.
MacLeod then descends into nonsense. He asks, "At what point in the process are alternative theories of justice to be considered?" Um... right in your column? This sort of meta shit (in the passive voice, no less) drives me crazy. By all means, propose an alternative theory of justice for us to consider. Indeed, MacLeod does so: he proposes for us to consider that the Civil War has wiped out all need to sacrifice to correct the oppression of black people in the United States; MacLeod believes we have sacrificed enough. I've considered it... and rejected it. But in general, right here, in the public debate, which includes Coates' essay, MacLeod's, and Johnson's is where we do in fact consider alternative theories of justice.
Johnson's essay addresses only an implication of Coates' essay, an implication I'm not sure is actually justified, although it might be. (I think that the author is this Cedric Johnson, and he's probably more hip than me to unspoken implications.) But the implication is really important, and deserves to be made explicit.
The implication is this: racial justice (and by extension other forms of status injustice, e.g. sexism, or homophobia) is in some sense in opposition to socialism. I don't think anyone, Coates included, believes that socialism requires racial injustice, but they are, to some extent, different things, and at least we must prioritize.
To a large extent, I disagree with Johnson, at least as a socialist. (I am white, so I entirely cede to black people the strategic and tactical decisions about how they fight for their own justice under present conditions.) As a socialist, I welcome Coates' efforts in general to hold our feet to the fire to actively work for not just socialism but also racial justice per se. And, similarly, I welcome women's efforts, and gay people's efforts. We cannot simply ignore these kinds of issues and focus exclusively on class issues.
I also don't think that we can ignore issues of class and general economic inequality.
First, I don't think it's possible to eradicate racism under the present capitalist system. If we prioritize the fight against racism without also fighting against capitalism, we will lose both fights. Theoretical considerations aside, 21st century capitalists have so deeply adopted racism and sexism that they will never abandon them. And without the fight against capitalism as capitalism, the present capitalist class will always have more power to perpetuate racism and sexism than people of color and women will have to eradicate them.
More importantly, it is theoretically possible to have capitalism without racism and sexism, but is that what we want? If we were to truly eradicate racism and sexism under capitalism, we would liberate only 0.1 percent — or at most 10 percent — of women and people of color. The 0.1 percent ruling, and the 10 percent serving with privilege — and the 90 percent exploited — would be racially and gender-neutral, but we would still be oppressing the 90 percent. If by "justice", you mean "justice for 10 percent", then I have to say our ideas of justice are entirely incompatible.
Which is why Coates' focus on reparations is, while not completely full of shit like MacLeod, at least problematic, because reparations rely on capitalism; reparations are incoherent under real socialism.
On the one hand, a pro-capitalist presidential candidate such as Sanders should support reparations (although Sanders probably sees tactical reasons not to). To the extent that reparations would be effective under capitalism, and capitalism is what we actually have right here right now, it makes perfect sense for Coates to advocate for it. Of course, reparations will never actually happen; as noted above, the capitalist class will never abandon racism as a tool to maintain social and political control, and anything more than token reparations would entail abandoning racism. But demanding reparations does make sense: you don't get half the pie by demanding only half the pie; you have to demand all of it.
However, socialism (real socialism, not Sanders' weak tea welfare capitalism, which was already decisively defeated in 1980) obviates the possibility of reparations because it already requires radical economic equality for everyone. Under socialism, there is no one to pay the reparations. If reparations are the sine qua non of racial justice, then racial justice is absolutely incompatible with socialism.
As a socialist, I have concerns about calls for "justice" of any kind that merely demands equal access for this or that group to enter the capitalist ruling class, and the privileged professional-managerial class that serves the ruling class. Yes, a racially and gender neutral capitalist ruling class is better than a racist and sexist ruling class, but not by that much. It sure is not justice.