McGhee and Haney-Lopez make a plausible argument, but as debates over Sanders among blacks or between races show, it's one thing to denounce racism, as Sanders does quite regularly, and another to overcome it. The best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently endorsed Sanders, but did so reluctantly because the Senator does not support reparations; other blacks may be less forgiving even if Clinton is no more likely to indulge that ultimate fantasy. Again, it will be one thing to convince whites that racism is bad because it divides the working class against itself, and something much different to sell them the continuation and even the enhancement of the sort of compensatory regime black progressives still insist upon. The Nation authors fail to appreciate this. Their account of how Republicans succeeded in turning angry whites against "activist government" has a blind spot in it.
In the New Deal and Great Society years, white majorities broadly supported activist government because they perceived it as helping people like themselves—hardworking, deserving, decent. But as government programs became available to people of color, conservatives saw that they could gain ground by dog whistling about welfare and criminals, using racially coded terms to invoke the specter of liberal government coddling people of color—the very groups whose fortunes seemed to be rising just as life was getting harder for the white working class in the 1970s.
Their account makes it sound like whites resented even sharing government benefits with blacks, but surely the main grievance among angry whites was that blacks and other minorities were receiving "special" treatment and getting "breaks" that whites weren't. Their resentment extended from ignorant assumptions that only blacks received welfare to protests against affirmative action or anything that specifically benefited minorities at the apparent expense of individual whites. Beyond that, the obvious reason no Democratic candidate for President will ever endorse the idea of reparations is that most whites, no matter how they reject racism, also reject the idea that, as individuals and citizens, they still owe something to black people. Most, I suspect, have grown impatient with the whole compensatory regime, blaming it rather than conservative economics for today's misery, while many question whether blacks even envision its end. This is problematic because black progressives want to hear Sanders tell what he will do about racism, and some won't be satisfied until they hear an answer guaranteed to alienate many whites. How would McGhee and Haney-Lopez have Sanders explain how the white working class will benefit from more affirmative action and other compensatory programs, much less reparations? I don't think they can answer because their proposed strategy would only point Sanders toward a "color-blind" ideal that some black progressives already reject as inadequate. It's peculiar, in any event, that they came up with a plan for Sanders to preach anti-racism to whites as a way to build up his support among blacks, which I assume was the actual goal. If I'm right, then Sanders shouldn't look to The Nation but to those blacks like Lee and Coates who've made calculated, pragmatic and principled decisions in favor of Sanders. They may not be the black political establishment -- some of whom, you may recall, resented Barrack Obama because he didn't have to curry favor with them in 2008 -- but they just might be the first sparks of another anti-establishment explosion in this most interesting year.