The Democrats’ Big Question: Can’t we have both?

Yes. We need both racial activism and economic justice.

Bernie Sanders got trounced at the end of November by suggesting that Democrats need candidates who don’t only campaign on issues of equality and diversity. Trounced might be putting it mildly:

“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry,”

Sander didn’t phrase his point well. When this is backed up by the fact that his own campaign spawned a wave of misogyny against Hillary Clinton, this is more problematic. When we think about how Bernie’s campaign and proposals favored woefully inadequate economic solutions to systemic racial inequality, let’s get even more skeptical. But he made a point, albeit inarticulately. And it’s a point that this week was made more clear than Sanders’ minced words could ever do justice.

Example A: Cory Booker.

On Wednesday Cory Booker gave a passionate testimony against Jeff Sessions and his nomination to be our Attorney General. His testimony was a powerful call for justice and equality — and for a national law enforcement that will ensure justice for all.

“Challenges of race in America cannot be addressed if we refuse to confront them. Persistent biases cannot be defeated unless we combat them. The arc of the universe does not just naturally curve toward justice — we must bend it.”

Cory Booker is a better advocate on racial issues than just about any Democrat in the Senate. Which, sadly, isn’t saying a whole lot. Democrats have many problems, but here are their two biggest: While they espouse racial equality and may talk about being anti-racist, their actions speak much louder than their words. As one of many examples, I point to Shawn King’s article on the appalling lack of diversity among staffers in Congress.

“They are all so phony,” the staffer told me. “Every time I hear any of the Democratic senators, including my own boss, talk about diversity, I cringe, because it’s all one big lie. That they’ve been allowed to enjoy this reputation as a party that values diversity, while doing next to nothing of substance to align their actions with their words, is expert-level deception.”
“the only Democrat in the entire United States Senate who has a single African-American senior staff member just started her job in the Senate last week. Sen. Kamala Harris, the new Democratic Senator of California, hired Clint Odom, a black man, as her Legislative Director — making him the only African-American senior staff member for a Democrat in the entire U.S. Senate. Republicans have three, Democrats have one, and he just started last week.”

Even on this count, Booker falls short. Democrats have done much to advance racial equality in this country, but we must do more. And we need to reflect those values more visibly on all levels.

The other issue, of course, is the corporate influence at the core of the Democratic establishment. It’s hard to find elected Democrats who don’t have big money on their side. We saw this on Wednesday evening, when Senator Booker joined 12 other Democrats to vote down a measure to import cheaper Canadian prescription drugs. The turn on Booker has been swift from the Bernie wing. Many of the reactions I’m seeing are along the lines of: “kick the bums out, each and every one!”

Yet while those activists are quick to denounce corporate Dems, they are virtually silent in the push the diversify Congressional leadership and their staff. They are virtually silent on issues of reparations. They seem to think that Sanders’ issue with diversity and inclusion was messaging. And they seem to have no explanations for why Bernie lost the primary other than that the establishment was against him. Except for the pesky fact that he didn’t appeal to minority voters, aka the future of the Democratic Party? Is that not also a problem?

If advocates for racial equality in the Democratic Party were as quick to say “kick the bums out” to any elected representative who fails to act with principle for racial justice reforms, the Democratic Party would scarcely exist. Would any Senators be left?

So I would say this to those anti-corporate Dems: fix yourself first. Stay critical but start with yourself. Our mission is only as strong as each side is strong. Don’t scream to kick out each and every corporate Dem without seeing your own hypocrisy with racial justice. Want a party who fights for everyone? We need both racial and economic justice. Racial justice advocates are educated, often by their own experience living in a rigged system. Realize that calling for a complete disowning of each and every corporate Dem also alienates the very few racial justice advocates that our Congress has. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for ridding the party of our corporate center. It means that we need to practice what we preach, at all levels. It means that we need to create space for our leaders to be people of color. If that makes you uncomfortable, deal with this.

Monday is Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Take the day to educate. Then resume with your important organizing (and tweeting and Facebooking).