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Bernie Sanders Can't Save Black People

Bernie Sanders, the senator from the very great state of Vermont, is campaigning to be the next president of the United States of America. As such, he is giving speeches throughout the land. This past weekend, his ongoing tour took him to Seattle, Wash., where he stumped in front of people at Westlake Park until he was interrupted by Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqeline Willaford, the two co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter. They were booed by those in attendance, but justified themselves by saying Sanders needed to release his plan on police reform and be held “publicly accountable for his lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and his blatantly silencing response to the ‪#‎SayHerName‬ ‪#‎IfIDieInPoliceCustody‬ action that took place at Netroots,” a conference at which he and fellow Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley were challenged and heckled by Black Lives Matter supporters in July. Even after winning a long moment of silence for Michael Brown, Johnson and Willaford refused to hand over the microphones back to Sanders, and the rally was cut short.

The protest was perhaps clumsy and perhaps in theory the sort of thing that could set your eyes to rolling if you’ve been on a college campus in the last 20 years—blatantly silencing?—but it forced Sanders to release a statement on police reform the very next day. Still, as news got out and swept across the nation, shit thereupon hit the fan, sparking a disjointed debate online and in real life about whether the good Mr. Sanders should’ve been interrupted, and how he should’ve been interrupted, and what This All Means.


Context, ho: Bernie Sanders has had a sweet couple of months on the trail, and surged early in polls that don’t matter, and is seen by many as an important figure. That’s because in a presidential race already packed to the beaucoup with unelectable jamokes and scrubs and villains, Sanders is thought by many—specifically lefter than left-leaning types—to be the least-bad candidate. His bonafides are legion. In a country that has been both shaped and plagued by white supremacy, he is a 73-year-old white dude who ostensibly Gets It at a time when racial inequality is the hottest and most important issue being discussed. Sanders marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. some 50 years ago, back when he was just a young, idealistic dude from Brooklyn, and ever since, he has just become more committed to righteous causes. He is a by-God socialist who’s dedicated his life to battling economic inequality and appears, unlike so many hem-hawing and flip-flopping candidates, to be uncompromising in his beliefs and dedication to closing this country’s monstrous, widening wealth gap. He is a throwback, as ornery as he is righteous, and his words and deeds over the years have positioned him, more than anyone else running for president, as a champion for the poor. Because our economic classes are so stratified by race, this—as the logic goes—positions him as a champion for minorities. Endearingly, he also doesn’t appear to ever brush his hair. Lil’ B, who is a prophet, endorsed him. Bernie Sanders is, perhaps objectively, dope as hell.

It’s important to note here that the protest wasn’t just directed at Sanders, but those in attendance who call themselves progressives. Still, it’s been posited that there are better candidates’ campaigns to challenge and heckle and hijack in the name of Black Lives Matter, which holds the position (among others) that law enforcement being armed with guns and granted nigh-immunity by local, state, and federal governments to kill black people every day, as if black people are subhuman, is racist, and a blight upon our nation, and should be stopped. Sanders, the argument goes, has black folks’ back. He is, as my colleague Hamilton Nolan wrote, our best friend.


Photo via Associated Press

Fuck that, I say. Sanders is many things, but he is not perfect, or close to perfect, or even anything other than a politician. In fact, Sanders and his plan to save blacks through redistributing wealth to narrow the wealth gap are deeply flawed, because the principle which serves as the scaffolding for his plan is deeply flawed. Sanders—like many other liberals of his race and age—believes that capitalism is inherently evil, and so that all evils can be ascribed to those of capitalism, and so in the idea that economic injustice is the root of all injustice. Racial injustice, in this reading, is treated as a side effect or function of economic injustice; concomitantly, racial inequality is treated as having the same causes and therefore the same solutions as economic inequality. If wealth is redistributed, the idea goes, then poor people of all races will have more money; then something else will happen; then racism will not matter or be healed altogether. I, and many in Black Lives Matter, and other people, too, believe that this line of theorizing has things backward.


I, and other people, too, tend to believe that racial injustice is different from economic injustice; that black Americans are poor because of racism, more than that racism is the result of black Americans being poor; and, further, that racism is the driving force behind the capricious and fluid idea of race. It is racism that has led to layers upon layers of policy that keep blacks as a social underclass being conceived and executed; racism that has led to policies like redlining, which still exist, in various forms, today; racism that has led to things like segregated neighborhoods and schools; racism that has led to millions upon millions of minorities today being corralled in ghettos; and racism that has led to the average white household having 16 times the wealth of the average black one in 2015. Black people aren’t systemically oppressed because they don’t have money; they don’t have money because they are systemically oppressed, because the American voting public is in favor of them being so.

This is also—at least according to one line of argument—why blacks are being lynched by the state, every single day, multiple times a day, in 2015. And if you credit this particular line of reasoning, it’s hard not to look at Sanders’ proposed policies and sneer, because as well-meant as they are, they don’t address the fact that even if he wins, there’s still going to be racism and everything that comes with it, with blacks and browns and poor whites maybe—maybe—having a little more money to throw around before they get arrested and/or tased and/or beaten and/or shot to death. This is to say that Sanders’s best-case scenario is certainly a better situation than exists now, but not a good situation, and not one that seriously addresses state violence as an expression of the public will.


Sanders’s philosophy talks around racism by explaining, or suggesting, that it is mainly a function of economic imperatives, which can be addressed by changing the laws that create those imperatives. This is part of why he is beloved, and why he has surged, and why he has captured the support of those who want to support the best or at least least-bad of all semi-serious presidential candidates: We would all like to think that the worst problems in our society are fixable if people of good will address them rationally. It’s also part of why blacks are aggrieved, even as record crowds flock to him. (On Sunday, 28,000 showed up in Portland; earlier this week, 27,500 more showed up in Los Angeles). Sanders may be the least-bad candidate for everyone who holds to some progressive concern, and the candidate who best represents a chance of getting racial injustice talked about in Democratic debate; but he still falls short. And whether or not he does, he shouldn’t be immune from critique. There is a long history of well-intentioned liberals failing to adequately or accurately address the nature and causes of racial inequality, and each one who intends to do so should be challenged, if only to challenge other candidates in turn.


Photo via Getty Images

Because let’s address another reality: Even though Sanders is the best candidate, he definitely won’t win the Democratic nomination, and will never, ever win a general election. This is no knock on him; no socialist would have a shot. Even if he were to win—and again, he won’t—he wouldn’t be able to pass any real or magical panacea that fixes or lessens racism, because our racial caste system is an ingrained and vital aspect of American life, and anyway, he’s coming at it from the wrong angle. Though infinitely less bad, he is as popular and as much of a fringe candidate as Donald Trump. In all likelihood, nothing Sanders is saying will matter this time next year, unless his policy causes Hillary Clinton to say something about battling white supremacy that she’ll be held accountable for down the road.


Which brings us back to Black Lives Matter. All candidates should be challenged on race; blacks are being killed right now, today, just as they were yesterday, and just as they will be tomorrow and the next day and the next and the next, ad infinitum; and Sanders’s speeches and the large, mostly-white crowds they attract represent an opportunity for those who are currently fighting to end the ongoing lynching of blacks by the state to address those who view this violence as an accident, rather than an end. Taking those as priors, how does it not matter that what Black Lives Matter has to say is much more relevant and more important than what Sanders has to say? Taking as a given that they could protest people who are far more enthusiastic about the ongoing oppression of American citizens, what is the purpose of protest that doesn’t piss someone off? And who better to push and to sharpen than thousands upon thousands of white, left-leaning Americans who, like Sanders, claim they’re here to help?


Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty

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