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Fuel for the Journey: Bhaskar Sunkara, Black Exclusion, and Reparations

In 2006, a couple years before Bhaskar Sunkara would attend George Washington University and eventually start the leftist quarterly Jacobin, the county in which he grew up was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a private civil rights group alleging that local government in Westchester County was violating the terms of an agreement to receive federal funds contingent upon their being allocated to undo obvious, longstanding patterns of segregation.

These terms were set forth in a provision to the 1968 Fair Housing Act which legally required federal grantees to affirmatively further fair housing in jurisdictions which—like those in Westchester County—visibly bore the obscene and enduring signature of slavery and its aftermath of deliberate, anti-black economic exclusion. In court documents submitted by Andrew Beveridge, a demographer at Queens College, it was revealed that 25 of Westchester County’s 31 municipalities had an African-American population that was less than 3%, and that those municipalities were “characterized by exclusionary zoning that perpetuates the segregation of African-American households.”

Sunkara was born and raised in the village of Pleasantville, N.Y., which—when the lawsuit was initially filed in 2006—had an African-American population of 0.0%. It is referenced explicitly in Beveridge’s sworn declaration. And like many jurisdictions in Westchester County, it appears to have remained particularly keen on preserving the broader region’s rich history of enforced separation of black people. In Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, the author recounts the origins and pervasiveness of the area’s racist housing ethos: “[A] survey of 300 developments built between 1935 and 1947 in Queens, Nassau, and Westchester Counties,” he writes, “found that 56 percent had racially restrictive covenants. Of the larger subdivisions (those with seventy-five or more units), 85 percent had them.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her article, “Soft on Segregation: How the Feds Failed to Integrate Westchester County,” puts it more pithily: “As the Great Migration brought thousands of black Southerners to New York City in the 20th century, Westchester’s towns and cities snatched up the welcome mats.”

Those welcome mats were—with the majority of African-Americans effectively quarantined to southern Westchester County by racial deed language—then unraveled by developers in places like Pleasantville to receive a more economically advantaged pool of prospective buyers; buyers who—like the Sunkara family—were able to access the opportunities in those communities whose organizing principle seems to have been (and still remains) the deliberate exclusion of native black citizens. And while Sunkara has described his family as having been “some of the least wealthy people” in their “pretty affluent suburb,” they nonetheless were afforded a critical foothold for becoming upwardly mobile in America only because the black community in Westchester County had been specifically denied the ability to ever realize those same opportunities for themselves.

Which is what makes Sunkara’s most recent commentary on the issue of reparations in The Guardian so totally objectionable; because his life in America simply does not exist in any recognizable way without the fact of that manufactured black failure. Jacobin arguably does not exist without that black failure (Sunkara’s parents’ names both appear on Jacobin Press LLC’s business license filings, with his dad listed as the company principal 1, and the company address being listed at an apartment that the family owns in the Bronx). And so the question is, then, what does it mean for an individual whose life and professional career, which in so direct and unambiguous a way has been made wholly possible by the specific oppression suffered by black people, to then use his position in the media to promote the message that specific policy designed to redistribute such opportunities back to those very people “can’t adequately address racial inequality”? How does someone whose family has only ever enjoyed material success from the racial inequality in the U.S. have the outright temerity to withhold support for even the most modest and benign of proposals currently affiliated with reparations: to simply get some people together in a room to just go over and evaluate what it might look like? How does he suggest that reparations is not only outside the realm of what’s possible, but outside—as he writes—what’s even “comprehensible,” particularly in light of how thoroughly intelligible and straightforward are the racist underpinnings of both his own and his family’s eventual ability to succeed and have a normal life in America. What would it mean for Sunkara to take to the pages of The Guardian to elucidate readers on that fundamental component of his life rather than encouraging them to dismiss reparations in favor of universal policy which, even at its most effective, preserves that most baleful and odious distinction of American society: the persistent subordinate status of the black race.

In his pedantic diatribe against implementing race-specific policy, Sunkara naturally closes with the hoary counsel that we all be good little observant Leftists and hold in our minds the idea of “our shared destiny.” This is—as becomes more and more apparent with each deployment—nothing more than an attempt to put an ideological sheen on the most shameful and damning aspects of our own experiences of American citizenship as known through its essential dimension of systemic black exclusion. After all, if anyone should be out there full-throatedly advocating for the prioritization of applying specific, targeted redress for American Descendants of Slavery, Bhaskar Sunkara (since it has been black exclusion that has so clearly fueled his journey so far) would seem to be an ideal spokesperson for the cause of reparative justice. That he instead chooses to shout down to those same people who languish in the lowest rung of American society—people put in that position of profound suffering and marginalization which conditioned his ascent—that they share one destiny reveals far more about the depths of his political cowardice than it does an apparent concern to see meaningful justice done.


1. From Investopedia: “Principals have different roles depending on the nature of an individual business, but the universal responsibility of a commercial business principal is significant influence. Some principals are also the founder, owner and CEO. Others own a large portion of company equity and sign off on major decisions. Some principals are simply considered major parties to a business transaction. Many legal documents designate a ‘principal,’ the majority of which refer to someone with decision-making authority.”

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