The Evolution of Bernie Sanders on Race

Thinking about the Black Lives Matter interruptions in today’s civil society

Picture by AFGE. Via Flickr. Licensed under CC-by-2.0.

Bernie Sanders flip-flopped too, and that’s okay. People keep mentioning Hillary Clinton’s shifting on issues as a mark against her, but as she explains, this is only evidence that she is a person who responds to new information and develops their opinion, not a block of granite. Sanders, too, has shifted left on race issues and gun control in the past several months. This is a wonderful thing.

Bernie Sanders is a senator from a 95% white state. When he sees the racial struggles of the people of Ferguson, the Michael Browns, the Trayvon Martins, the Eric Garners, and the many others, he sees close parallels with the struggles of the Poor White in his state. The Poor White indeed face similar struggles in the face of a capitalist society, they are denied opportunity, are more likely to be victims of police brutality, and more likely to end up in jail.

It is thus sound and not at all unreasonable for Bernie Sanders to hold his initial belief: that fighting income inequality will be sufficient to address the racial issues in America.

Sanders, who has not been a leader on civil rights issues in Congress and at times suggested the root of racial problems was largely economics, has now wholeheartedly embraced the language and policy positions of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. — Perry Bacon Jr, MSNBC

The last most people have heard about Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders was probably in July and August where Bernie Sanders was interrupted at two events by Tia Oso, and by Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford.

The interruptions were widely met negatively, and some Black Lives Matter activists distanced themselves from these actions. These moments were all but forgotten in the following months, for many only remembered as a thorn in Black Lives Matter’s history. In reality, these interruptions were a turning point that got Sanders to engage with activists and, eventually, deliver a solid racial justice platform.

From their point of view, the activists were engaging in civil disobedience to make a point: while Sanders sympathizes with their cause abstractly, he doesn’t deeply understand their suffering. These activists, and many others, feel that there is a racial crisis, a black lives crisis, that is separate and distinct from — though often intersects with — the income inequality crisis. This is a desperate attempt to be heard, one that was meant by condemnation from the internet (and booing from the Seattle crowd), but eventually by some interest from Sanders.

Tia Oso explained her misgivings eloquently:

I […] decided we would use the platform of the Presidential Town Hall to demand that [O’Malley] and [Sanders] #SayHerName and address the crisis of structural racism and their plans to make sure that black lives matter should they be elected president. […] Racial justice intersects with all progressive issues, especially immigration. […] Though some don’t agree with how we went about bringing the issue to the forefront, by thrusting ourselves into the national spotlight, we shed new light and gave greater importance to this urgent issue. We hope our choice will inspire new and bold action toward dismantling systemic racism.
Photo by Tiffany Von Arnim. Licensed under CC-by-2.0.

For the most part, Sanders’ response was tone deaf. Black Lives Matter Seattle Co-Founders Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford went so far as to describe it as a “silencing” response. This “silencing” reaction was identified as their impetus to speak out. Their protest was received by booing from the crowd. This negative response reminded diversity and inclusion consultant and blogger Jamie Utt of a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, which he recalled in his post Interrupting Bernie:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Unlike the Internet, however, Sanders and his campaign understood that he is not connecting with black youth over this issue. They decided this was a problem they wanted to correct. Sanders met with racial issues activist Symone Sanders and subsequently decided to hire her to build a racial justice platform for his campaign.

“One of my suggestions, he took it and ran with it on Meet the Press, is that racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues,” she said. “I [told him,] you know, economic equality is an issue. It’s something we need to address. But for some people it doesn’t matter how much money you make, it doesn’t matter where you went to school, it doesn’t matter what your parents do. It doesn’t matter that Sandra Bland had a job and was on her way to teach for her alma mater. It doesn’t matter. None of that matters.”

“He took it and ran with it.” It is beautiful how much you can get done when you have someone’s attention. A reasonable person, like Bernie Sanders, who knew and fought the racism of 50 years ago, but today was largely one of the “white moderates” that Dr. King spoke of, learned, in a single meeting, that he had to offer more. So he did.

The result of their collaboration was a racial justice platform praised by the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Means and Ends

The bold disobedience of the Tia Oso, Marissa Johnson, and Mara Willaford worked. This much, I can say. It is hard to imagine that their actions did not directly lead to the Symone Sanders meeting just a few days after.

If you think the ends justify the means, then we are done here.

Many were still upset by the acts of these women. Those people might reflect on these actions and say: it still could have been done in a better way. But in our desire to maintain order, and to stay comfortable, one must wonder how much longer are we OK with having these women — and the millions who share their suffering — wait. Another Dr. King quote comes to mind:

“The words ‘bad timing’ came to be ghosts haunting our every move in Birmingham. Yet people who used this argument were ignorant of the background of our planning… they did not realize that it was ridiculous to speak of timing when the clock of history showed that the Negro had already suffered one hundred years of delay.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait

To these women, there was only now. Independently of income inequality, black youth suffered, and they suffered greatly at the intersection.

  • When these women speak up and are greeted with tone deaf responses,
  • when they face a world where they see immovable oppression,
  • when they do not feel like the system and the mainstream processes see and acknowledge them, or allow them to properly communicate their ideas in a way that is taken seriously

… then can we, the comfortable, white allies — who are taken seriously by the system — really tell our black brethren to act any differently? Few of us in this position, or understand to the fullest where these women are coming from.

When standing in solidarity with others in a diverse, progressive movement, the most important thing you can do is avoid subconsciously projecting your own privilege and predicament, onto others. Diversity is not about erasing differences, it is about embracing them.

Further Reading