The truth about Bernie Sanders & race: Why his biggest weakness could become his greatest strength

Though he's enjoyed unexpected success, Sanders has been criticized for not engaging in issues of race

Published July 7, 2015 5:58PM (EDT)

  (AP/David Becker)
(AP/David Becker)

Bernie Sanders has enjoyed unexpected success thus far leading up to the presidential primaries. But that success is hampered by a problem -- in particular by his campaign’s glaring tone deafness on, or total omission of, matters of race. Writing recently in Vox, Dara Lind pointed out Sanders’ near total blindness to black and Latino issues at his campaign’s opening, with almost nothing expressly addressing matters of racial justice to be found in speeches and campaign literature. Sanders is a white politician from the whitest state in the union, and his intense focus on economic populism sounds incomplete in the post-Ferguson moment. Sanders only recently infused his stump speech with matters of racial justice, and despite his rapid and surprising success, a recent NBC/WSJ poll found him to be what the New York Times called a “virtual unknown among black voters.” Sanders will certainly have to do more to gain the much-needed black vote once the campaign leaves the very white Iowa and New Hampshire.

Sanders’ weakness on race, though, is presented as in relation to frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s supposed superiority on racial issues. The narrative, however accurate, that Sanders is weak on speaking to racial matters requires that we assume Clinton to be attentive to issues affecting minority voters in a way that Sanders is not. A few speeches and poll numbers from June are scant evidence to build this burgeoning narrative to define the two dominant Democratic candidates.

A good place to start, rather than the last month and a half of primary campaigning, might be 1988, a pivotal point in the Democratic Party, which would lose the presidential contest that year and embark on two divergent paths.

A month before the Vermont primary in 1988, Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders took to the podium to deliver his signature impassioned earnestness to introduce presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson to the stage in the state’s biggest city. Sanders championed Jackson’s multi-racial, multi-issue Rainbow Coalition and deployed his white privilege to convince the whitest state in the union that Jesse Jackson should be president. Bernie delivered, adding the 95 percent white Vermont to the ten other primary contests that Jackson would take from eventual nominee Michael Dukakis.

Jackson returned the favor and endorsed Sanders in his congressional race, where, unhappy with the Democrats, Sanders had ran as an independent. Though Sanders lost, he likely kept the Democrat Paul Poirier from winning, splitting more than 56 percent of the liberal vote in Vermont and giving the Republican in the race the victory with only a plurality of electors. Sanders was willing, like Jackson, to upset the party applecart. He would win his seat two years later and co-found the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a multi-racial alliance that would rally against Clinton’s conservative measures like welfare reform.

The Clintons, meanwhile, were insurgent moderates in the Democratic Party and soon to become the center of a party strategy to cement the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” -- which, perfected by Ronald Reagan, spoke to white working-class racism and resentment in the decades after the civil rights movement in race-neutral language. White Southerners (and whites generally) who still believed in racist narratives of black Americans being dangerous and lazy could be spoken to with rhetoric on “welfare reform” and “law and order.”

President Clinton’s welfare reform was offered in the increasingly bipartisan tradition of demonizing Reagan’s phantom “welfare queen,” the invented urban (read: black) mother who, presented as ubiquitous and representative of an entire culture, took gross advantage of public assistance in lieu of working. Never mind that the de-industrializing, globalizing economy was making finding a good job harder and harder in American cities, or that structural racism still kept black America in a virtually propertyless state of poverty; Reagan spoke in such a way to portray black precarity and poverty in terms of their own failure.

The electorally ambitious Clinton/DLC wing of the party learned this lesson well. Carefully race-neutral rhetoric could still convey racist narratives and appeal to white resentment: Blacks were lazy and taking your hard-earned tax dollars through overly generous federal assistance: Welfare checks, food stamps and public housing. That’s what was being said, minus any overt mention of race.

The “law and order” rhetoric accomplished the same thing. The drug economy, which had begun to supplant the above-ground economy that was disintegrating in the inner-cities, was offered up as a bogeyman, and Reagan could speak to white fear of black (mostly male) citizens in terms of harsher drug laws and sentences.

In her seminal book "The New Jim Crow," Michelle Alexander writes that “[President Bill] Clinton escalated the drug war far beyond what conservatives had imagined possible a decade earlier.” He scored a victory for Reaganite politics by “ending welfare as we know it” with the 1996 welfare reform law. “In so doing,” writes Alexander, “Clinton--more than any other president--created the current racial undercaste.” The Southern Strategy had become bipartisan orthodoxy.

To be outside of that bipartisan establishment doctrine was to reject a Washington-wide consensus that black Americans could be used -- or exploited, rather -- to achieve political success. The DLC continued the long tradition of profiting from black powerlessness. It was white privilege begetting more white privilege, the way it has always been maintained.

But in 1988 Sanders showed that white privilege could be used to erode white privilege. He actually even his own in his endorsement of Jackson, defying the conventional wisdom of the DLC and the Washington establishment:

“The state of Vermont happens to be the whitest state in the United States of America. The great political geniuses, and the political scientists and the media; they have decided that our candidate cannot become the president of the United States because they believe that white people are not going to support him.”

Sanders acknowledged that a black populist candidate still had to have a white translator, an ally to take the message to white voters and convince them, to vouch for the black candidate. As a rising star who’d eventually represent all of Vermont in Washington, Sanders knew that he could serve as that sort of ally, and he aimed for Vermont as whole to in turn be the white endorser of a black candidate for the rest of America.

The sort of alliance beginning to form on that stage in Burlington would continue once Sanders reached Washington in the next election. Sanders’ Progressive Caucus would share members with the Congressional Black Caucus and align in opposition to Clinton’s neo-Reaganite proposals.

A week before his Burlington event, Jackson would in Kenosha, Wisconsin, offer an early iteration of a federal-level political ideology that aligned the black struggle with that of poor and working-class Americans of all races. “In Montgomery we cried out for an end to racial violence. That was 30 years ago,” said Jackson to autoworkers at Kenosha’s endangered Chrysler assembly plant. “In Selma, it was a different battle cry. End political violence. Today in Kenosha we are taking this a step further (and saying) end corporate violence.”

Sanders attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and organized sit-ins to protest segregation in the 1960s, but his political direction later became one aimed at general economic justice. He was taking Jackson’s “step further” to attack “corporate violence.” With black Americans still astoundingly behind whites in terms of wealth and income, economic populism disproportionately would lift the lives of black Americans versus whites.

In his biggest rally yet, a 10,000-attendee speech in Madison, Wisc., last week, Sanders inserted language to make this case more explicitly:

“Let me touch on an issue that is widely ignored, almost nobody talks about it: While real unemployment is close to 11 percent, youth unemployment has reached tragic proportions...If they are white, youth unemployment is 33 percent. If they are hispanic, youth unemployment is 36 percent. If they are African American, youth unemployment is 51 percent. In my view, it makes sense to create jobs and educational opportunities for these young people rather than more and more incarceration and more and more jails.”

Sanders then addressed the drug war-era mass incarceration and police violence in order to belatedly update his message for this age of post-Ferguson unrest:

“Our job is to create a new criminal justice system, our job is police department reform, our job is to make sure that young African Americans can walk down the street without being abused or worse.”

However, it remains true that Sanders doesn’t appear comfortable speaking to these sorts of issues directly. Economic justice is Sanders’ focus. He’s an old-school socialist for whom economics is the prime mover, the ultimate basis of all modes of power and resultant powerlessness.

But economic justice is what each advance by black America always lacked. Black America was ever so reluctantly and incrementally granted citizenship over the course of a century, but what never came was an accompanying, material, economic leg-up they were so due. Slaves were freed only to become penniless beggars for work. The 40 acres and a mule, the inadequate recompense due in 1865, never materialized, and no real property reform was ever offered to the subjugated. The civil rights advances of the mid-20th century too lacked much in the way of accompanying material help, a problem that Dr. King recognized almost immediately after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were enacted. King was killed before he could lead a populist movement against poverty afflicting all races, and pitifully little has been done since. Thus whites still possess on average 12 times the wealth of black Americans.

While we’re nowhere near a post-racial state of affairs, there is a growing understanding of some degree of commonality in terms of economics, which joins Sanders, like in 1988, with influential black voices. Jay Z has made a turn toward economic justice in recent years, as has hip-hop artist Killer Mike, the recent Sanders-endorser who explained his take on race and economics in Sanders-esque terms on Tavis Smiley’s show last week:

“I’m not tough on the white man, I’m tough on people in positions of power…If you look like them, that doesn’t matter. They don’t care. We are all a part of the worker class. We are all suffering under this oppression. We’ve taken the bait of racism, which is another form of classism masked with color, to infight and not see the real enemy.”

From the street level to the Ivory Tower, Sanders’ message of economic populism might be catching hold in Black America, despite his very weakness on black issues. Once again, the conventional wisdom that Sanders cannot win might be breaking down even more. A growing chorus of voices in presidential campaign coverage is adopting a notion that Bernie Sanders’ avoidance of explicit racial rhetoric is a political deficiency vis-a-vis front-runner Hillary Clinton. The theory requires that we understand Hillary Clinton as having a superior record and rhetoric on race, against which the race issue is Sanders’ achilles heel. But which Hillary? The one who is still the only First Lady to have an office in the West Wing during Bill’s institutionalization of the Southern Strategy? Or the 2015 Clinton, whose entire history in politics we have to forget to have the charge against Sanders work?

By Matthew Pulver

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