Marissa Johnson, left, Mara Jacqueline Willaford and Sen. Bernie Sanders, far right (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
I will say upfront that I like a lot of what Bernie Sanders says he stands for: I support his position on student debt relief and free college tuition, he says the right things and supports the relevant bills regarding financial regulation and the breaking up of the big banks. He seems to be supportive of LGBT Rights and has a relatively sane point of view when it comes to foreign policy (with the exception of a little too friendly attitude to Israel, who I actually see as an enemy to the interests of our country). I will consider voting for him in the Illinois Primary next year, and I probably will end up voting for him as I will cut off my own hand before voting for that hawkish corporatist shill Hillary Clinton…
Here comes the “But”…
I am concerned about the response Bernie Sanders has had to the black activist movement in particular and the Black voting bloc in general. African Americans are THE key voting block that lets the Democratic Party get into power at all. Without the almost unified Black Vote in presidential elections, every President after Lyndon Johnson would have been a Republican. Bernie Sanders seems to have the “all lives matter” mentality when it comes to his policy prescriptions i.e. if we reform the economic and regulatory systems of the US everyone will benefit and advance equally. US History has shown that is never the case. From the New Deal to Federal Housing Assistance to the Great Society to Welfare Reform in the 90s, every upgrade or expansion of the welfare state has either passed black Americans behind, ignored them entirely, or in the case of Housing actively held them back. I am not saying that Bernie Sanders’ remedies will have the same issues, but there is no historical or logical reason to believe they will be any different. If Sanders wants to really address the true institutional racism problem in the US he will embrace the Black Lives Matter movement’s values totally, and start an ongoing dialogue with the black communities across the US in order to understand what THEY think must be done to address the deeply racist United States government and society. He is a older, White, Upper Middle Class, man in a position of power.That is a fact, not a condemnation, and this fact comes with its fair share of privilege and biases. Take his tone deaf response to the Black Lives Matter disruption of his appearance at the Netroots conference:
Instead of addressing the actual concerns of the Black Lives Matter protesters or even debating them on the merit of their positions, he let his privilege get the better of him and he scolded the activists. A quote from a Salon article on the Netroots debacle quotes Sanders as saying this in response to the Black Lives Matter disruption: “But I’ve spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights. If you don’t want me to be here, that’s okay.” He then went on to “remind” people that he “marched with MLK” and was a big supporter of Civil Rights back in the good ol’ days of white liberal activism. This is the political rhetoric equivalent of the “but some of my best friends are black” argument against examining ones own privilege. Sanders repeated this sort of defensive white liberal guilt speak when he was confronted once again at his speech in Seattle. When interrupted by protesters who said they were with the Black Lives Matter Movement (which is very much a grassroots and decentralized movement) he reacted like a deer caught in the headlights and eventually left the stage. Instead of saying he respected the fact that they were outraged over institutional racism and that he would devote his campaign to addressing the concerns of the one voting block he CANNOT afford to alienate if he wants the nomination, he harrumphed off stage and muttered aloud “I guess I’m not wanted hear.” One could almost hear the collective black political activist head slamming into the desk. Black voters are savvy, perhaps THE most savvy political bloc in the entire country (Black Women especially vote at a higher rate than any other group in the nation). They know when they are being pandered too, and also when they are being taken for granted. The response of White Bernie Sanders supporters online is not helping. When I deigned to criticize (rather gently) Sen. Sanders’ response to the disruption, I was inundated with dozens and dozens of responses saying that black voters should “know why their real friends are” and that “Bernie is the ONLY person” who can “solve” structural racism. Some even said that “those people” are not acting intelligent and don’t know how to protest “the right way” so as not to “force” white voters to not support black issues. Talk about taking a group for granted…
Political activism is messy, it is often annoying to outsiders and unpleasant. It is rarely polite or even civil. That is exactly the point though: activism is never effective unless it galls and disrupts, especially those with authority, especially those who actually have the potential to do something and the willingness to listen if pestered enough. Black Lives Matter doesn’t bother protesting Donald Trump or Rick Santorum for the same reason SNCC or MLK didn’t bother showing up at Strom Thurmond or George Wallace rallies: those on the racist and bigoted Right and Far Right will NEVER care what black protesters and activists have to say, not matter what they do or how much they disrupt or protest. They have already decided that black people are the enemy and nothing will change them. It is a waste of time, creativity, and energy to try and get the attention of folks who already see you as less than human. You make REAL change happen by embarrassing, manipulating, disrupting and petitioning moderates and liberals, people who may actually do something concrete if they see that the political stakes are too costly to ignore. But no establishment leader, no matter how progressive, will act on the issues important to a oppressed minority, even a politically essential one, unless they are MADE TO. This was proven over and over again during the Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ and Clinton administrations. Black activists have never gotten the desired results for themselves and their communities by “playing nice” with the white liberal savior of the moment. Bernie Sanders is on point with a lot of things, but he is not the “only person who can save us” or the “solution to institutional racism”. SNCC and MLK had to agitate against and antagonize liberals all over the country, from the White House and the Justice Department on down, before they deigned to do things like send in the national guard to desegregate schools or sign the Voting Rights Act. These things did NOT come about because of the beneficence of White Liberal politicians.
The great political commentator and activist Imani Gandy got right to the heart of the issue of White Liberal privilege and political entitlement in an article on her “Angry Black Lady Chronicles” blog (which I will link to at the bottom of this post):
“As a white liberal of adult age in the 1960s, [A White Liberal was] politically required to do these things, right? And if the answer is yes—and we all know that it is—why the hell are you tossing Bernie Sanders’ record of doing them in Black people’s faces in order to shut down conversations about structural racism, police brutality, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement?”
White Liberals may have good intentions and many good ideas, but they DON’T understand what is “best” for the black community and black activists, who are as varied and diverse in their interests and issues as any other segment of the population. We have to realize that it is not Black Lives Matter who needs white liberals, but white liberals who need Black Lives Matter.
Here is a Link to the positively genius article Imani Gandy wrote about Bernie Sanders and his supporters response to Black Lives Matter: http://rhrealitycheck.org/ablc/2015/07/22/youre-white-marched-dr-king/
At his 27,000 person rally in L.A. tonight Bernie Sanders opened by inviting #BlackLivesMatter activists onto the stage to speak to the crowd. This information comes from Los Angeles Times politics reporter Kurtis Lee. I have to say, that is a very impressive and prompt response to the criticism leveled against him by #BlackLivesMatter and people on the far left like me. Very Impressive.