Bernie and the White Savior Shuffle


Walk on water? Perform the miracle of five loaves and two fish?

To hear rhapsodic left-progressive Sanders’ acolytes tell it, these are just two of his many gifts as a beacon of social justice. It was not always so.  Over the past two years, Sanders has been challenged by Black Lives Matter and Black Alliance for Just Immigration activists, as well as African American commentators, about his mantra that remedying economic inequality is the only antidote to racial inequity.  Flash forward to the 2016 presidential campaign and the #FeeltheBern magic has captivated many African American and people of color progressives critical of Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal complicity in building the carceral state. Forced into a swift baptism, Sanders has become a regular civil rights evangelist, condemning the evils of racial discrimination and mass incarceration during high profile campaign appearances that have made him the darling of celebrity black intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornell West as well as filmmaker Spike Lee.

Yet, Sanders’ dubious record on racial justice in his own state appears not to have presented a meaningful hurdle for his most fervent black supporters.  Although African Americans are 1.2% of Vermont’s population, their small numbers only partly explain Sanders’ well-documented disdain of intersectional analyses of race, poverty and economic inequality.

A recent article in the Daily Beast outlined his rocky relationship with leaders in Vermont’s African American community. “Feeling the Bern” in another way, black leaders in Vermont have long criticized Sanders’ paternalism on race and racism. In a 2014 NPR interview about his presidential aspirations, Sanders was asked about racial disparities in job access and income.  He dismissed the question, implying that it was short-sighted if not petty; briskly pivoting to the more pressing issue of the Democrats’ failure to court white working class voters.   According to Curtiss Reed, head of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, Sanders constantly deflected on providing solutions to institutional racism with platitudes about addressing income inequality “overall”.  As one African American leader from Vermont contended, “voters of color are simply not on his radar” and are treated with “disdain”. One activist dubbed Sanders as MIA on issues of racial profiling, black mass incarceration and maintaining the state’s charter to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. So while Sanders’ newfound fiery rhetoric on the New Jim Crow has elicited black adoration, according to The Sentencing Project, African Americans “are sentenced to prison in Vermont at 12-and-a-half times the rate for whites. The percentage of blacks in Vermont prisons is nearly twenty times greater than the percentage in the general population.” Blacks account for over 10% of the state’s prison population and are incarcerated at greater rates than in lockdown champions Wisconsin, Texas and Louisiana.  In addition to its appalling incarceration numbers, Vermont’s African American students are disproportionately suspended and expelled.

Sanders’ reductive stance is a familiar one in the racially polarized history of left-radical alliances. In the early twentieth century, African American involvement in interracial communist-socialist organizing and coalition-building was undermined both by overt white racism and the white socialist thesis that capitalism alone posed the gravest threat to disenfranchised people of color (see for example Earl O. Hutchinson’s Blacks and Reds, Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe and Jeffrey Perry’s Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism).  White segregationists, often driven by white immigrant animus toward black workers, played a key role in early twentieth century socialist organizing. Socialist icon and four-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs once commented that we “have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”  This stance elicited scorching criticism from prominent socialist-aligned African American leaders like radical black freethinkers Hubert Harrison and A. Philip Randolph.

Until his Road to Damascus awakening, Sanders, like Clinton, said nary a word about the role white supremacy plays in black folks’ struggle for jobs, housing, equitable education and redress of the pervasive institutional violence against black women. Nonetheless, on the other end of the spectrum, African American leaders in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) rallied around Clinton and openly disdained Sanders’ oft-trotted out reference to his civil rights involvement back in the 60s.  This was no surprise given the CBC’s lockstep march with the Clinton regime and the Obama administration.  In a recent column in The Nation, New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander argued that Clinton was “not deserving” of black votes yet dismissed the prospect of a viable Bernie-led revolution within the confines of the Wall Street-aligned Democratic Party.

As Alexander contends, “Even if Bernie’s racial-justice views evolve, I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”  And if Sanders’ tenure with black folk in Vermont is any indication, he’s hewing to the Democratic Party playbook—ignore black voters until you have to go south of the Mason-Dixon or Black History Month rolls around, then “freedom fight”, and photo op, like hell.


Bernie and the White Savior Shuffle

7 thoughts on “Bernie and the White Savior Shuffle

  1. 1

    I’m on the outside looking in, but I get the feeling the African american bernie-love isn’t naive about this. Killer Mike and the rest, I feel like they see the way open racism exploded recently and know a rethuglican in the white house will give it even more state sanction than it already has, and are just looking at electability + trying to sell their people on the one they think can win – hence the lack of close criticism. It’s at least secretly cynical, just a sales pitch? I’m probably projecting.

    Awesome writing as ever. Interesting history.

    On the subject of starting a new political party, it seems like it would be a waste of resources to try for the presidency (why do 3rd parties still bother with it?), but local elections like DeRay McKesson’s mayoral bid could definitely make good use of something like that. A commonly used argument for pushing third party candidates is that it lets the oligarch dems know progressive and minority support aren’t a given. This might be the exact right moment in history to do even better – to have a realistic shot at actually *taking* those local offices away from the undeserving. Build enough power that way, and fielding candidates for the national legislature becomes feasible. Get enough people in congress or the senate, and you can have them sweating bullets.

  2. 3

    @1 Great American Satan

    “A commonly used argument for pushing third party candidates is that it lets the oligarch dems know progressive and minority support aren’t a given.”

    This has, as you should know, failed in the past. The reason is they (the oligarchs), frankly, don’t seem to care that much. Some of the attitudes I’ve seen toward Bernie supporters who have threatened to not vote for Hillary in the general election has been along the lines of, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out!” Frankly, they are probably going to be much more worried about the voter that could switch their vote to a Republican than those who just won’t vote at all or 3rd party. That makes sense as a switched vote is a 2-point swing against them, whereas the non-vote or 3rd party vote is effectively just a 1-point swing.

  3. 4

    That’s why I distanced myself from the reasoning by saying “a commonly used argument is.” It probably isn’t as useless of a notion as you say, depending on various circumstances. I particularly see local elections as a great place to bust down some doors. I was fortunate to be able to help vote in Kshama Sawant before I was priced out of living in Seattle a few years back. So cool.

    In those races you really can make the big parties sweat. Seattle politics have been dominated by fake-ass corporate liberal robots forever, because people feel helpless against the system. But it doesn’t always have to be like that, and it’s starting to change. And if enough parties build enough local power around the country, they can start to take shots at national office. If the majority of a state’s voters are progressive leaning urbanites, even if 19 out of 20 counties vote conservative, you might even be able to get a few national senators out of the deal.

    We’re far from that now (Kshama failed a bid for state senate but won later for city council), but change is happening very fast. I’d love to see a straight up Black Power Party start taking southern & rust belt cities from the oligarchs. The democrats can’t help the oppressed with their half-stepping horseshit, but a third party might. Really.

  4. 5

    Civil rights rhetoric is a ritual Democratic candidates grudgingly go through to maintain form. It’s not even an afterthought to their white-centric agendas, because an afterthought usually comes with a modicum of substance. Their rhetoric does not.

    If they incorporate anything at all that’s even remotely useful to non-Whites, it’ll come in the form of appropriating the work of People of Color and passing it off as their own idea, without giving credit. I’ve yet to see a white politician, in the U.S. or elsewhere, who would listen to ethnic minorities and then make an effort to come up with creative ideas on how society as a whole can address minority issues. The best you’ll get is patronizing “suggestions” that willfully ignore what minority people are actually saying. And then, of course, you get identity politics that involve Whites generously appointing – usually conservative and “respectable” – template minority members as “leaders” and expecting every member of the group in question to match that template.

    That’s because listening, seeing individuality and individual issues and needs in minorities, and making an effort to answer these needs, would actually require them to care. In reality, they couldn’t care less. Ethnic minorities are not humans with thoughts, feelings, and needs to these people. Democrats and other supposedly “left-wing” Whites see African Americans and other PoC as a material resource which will be available to them automatically as long as they perform a meaningless ritual.

    I’m increasingly inclined to make that resource unavailable to them, so they can’t get away with going through the motions anymore and instead are forced to seriously reexamine their attitudes.

    1. 5.1

      Spot on as usual — the tokenism is all the more egregious this cycle because they’ve been forced to step up their rhetoric/posturing due to the pressure I referenced in the article. Consequently, we have Sanders commiserating with we downtrodden PoC in the “ghetto” (re., his debate remarks last night) and Clinton showing how down she is with Afr-Am shorthand on racial profiling (re., her comments about giving one’s child “the Talk” about navigating state violence).

  5. 6

    Many thanks for taking the time to write the Bernie post and present a point of view that many of us wouldn’t otherwise know. Oh, how I wish all the candidates were flawless.

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