“We want a nation where a young black man or woman can walk down the street without worrying about being falsely arrested, beaten, or killed,” Bernie Sanders told some 8,000 supporters in Dallas on July 19, the day after his contentious encounter with protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement at Netroots Nation.
While Sanders, the socialist U.S. senator from Vermont who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, appeared to have learned his lesson quickly, the same cannot necessarily be said for some of his most ardent followers, or for the progressive movement more broadly, where power rests primarily in the hands of white men.
When Sanders announced his candidacy, I welcomed it—and I still do. Standing far to the left of likely nominee Hillary Clinton, Sanders’s presence in the race, coupled with the impressive crowds he draws at his campaign events, offer the chance for a real debate about substantial issues in the primary campaign, not least of them the hijacking of the economy by the wealthiest Americans, and the struggles of everyday people to make ends meet.
Then two weekends ago, Sanders responded poorly to protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement at a Netroots Nation town hall, and his reputation as a progressive hero took a hit for having displayed a dismissive attitude toward the group of women who rose to demand that Sanders and the other candidate on the stage, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, say the name of Sandra Bland, a young black woman stopped for an ostensible traffic violation who wound up dead in a Texas jail three days after she was pulled over by a state trooper.
In addition to his bad attitude, Sanders suggested his econocentric agenda as the answer to racism, making him appear to be clueless about the siege African Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement and the ravages of institutional racism throughout society.
If you were a woman or a black person of any gender watching the exchange, you saw encapsulated in that moment every frustration you’ve experienced as part of the progressive movement.
The ensuing uproar over Sanders’s encounter with the protesters lasted for days after the candidate himself shifted his messaging to reference violence against black people as something distinct from the economic oppression experienced by others. That’s because Twitter lit up with some Sanders followers complaining that Black Lives Matter protesters were picking on their allies, had chosen the wrong venue for their protest, had specifically targeted Sanders and not the town hall forum itself, or were simply shills for Hillary Clinton. Or that they just didn’t get how Bernie’s economic plan would cure what ails them. (This is what led me to describe, in last week’s column, Sanders’s followers as “cult-like,” and indeed in my fury, I painted with too broad a brush, considering that the Sanders champions on Twitter are perhaps not a representative sample of all of the senator’s supporters.)
The fact that these sorts of defenders are mostly white did not help their candidate’s cause; they appeared to be mostly male, as well.
At the blog of the Democratic Socialists of America, Lawrence Ware, a philosophy professor from Ohio State, wrote plainly: “Bernie Sanders has a race problem.”
I know, I know. Your sighs of indignation have become audible. We have a Democratic Socialist running for the presidency! Why can’t I just be happy? He worked for racial justice in the 1960s!
At every major Sanders rally, the attendance has been overwhelmingly white, and a NBC/WSJ poll shows that he has yet to develop a following among black voters.
But if Sanders is a standard-bearer for the progressive movement, then his lack of resonance among black voters is a problem not just for the senator’s campaign, but for the movement itself.
It is easy for a white progressive like me to point at Sanders’s stumble before the Netroots audience and say, “See, he just doesn’t get it—and neither do all of those white guys who love him.” That way, I get to be one of the good ones. Far more difficult is to do the real work that white people of good will need to do in progressive circles: be active participants in knocking down the barriers that keep non-white people—and black people, especially—from winning agenda-setting positions in the organizational charts of policy and advocacy organizations, on the mastheads of progressive publications, in the planning of direct actions.
Among the most daunting obstacles to racial equality is the white liberal who thinks he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. Because we all do. This is America, after all, where we all have brains peppered since birth with racial stereotypes and tropes. Denying that won’t cure the ill; transcendence is the real medicine.
Transcending beliefs virtually etched in one’s DNA requires sustained and conscious effort. It’s uncomfortable. It meets with resistance from within and without. But until white progressives are willing to take a cold, hard look at why our movement is viewed with suspicion by those who feel shut out, a truly progressive future will be a promise unfulfilled.
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