Bernie Sanders’ big test: Can he learn from his Netroots Nation conflict with Black Lives Matter activists?

The 73-year-old socialist got where he is by sticking to his guns. But his righteousness stunts his political reach

Published July 20, 2015 5:11PM (EDT)

  (AP/Lynne Sladky/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Lynne Sladky/Carolyn Kaster)

Sen. Bernie Sanders is who he is: a 73-year-old socialist inured to being told he’s wrong, politically, who’s developed an ironclad hold on the conviction that he’s right. So it’s not surprising that he’s resisting learning lessons from his early campaign stumbles at winning support from African Americans and Latinos.

If you’re a Sanders fan, part of what you like about him is that he sticks to his guns. In fact, Sanders fans are a lot like him: used to being on the political margins, they’ve learned to take refuge in the knowledge of their righteousness, which eases the sting of being perpetually in the political minority.

Unfortunately, the mutually reinforcing self-righteousness of Sanders and his supporters is a liability for his promising presidential campaign. Sanders has a genuine problem with the Democratic Party’s African American and Latino base, and no amount of insisting that class supersedes race will change that. I wrote about it last month, and got a ton of pushback from Sanders backers. Then came the conflict at Netroots Nation on Saturday, where Sanders was heckled by Black Lives Matter protesters.

It could have been worse: the irascible Sanders endured it without erupting, or walking out. But he showed his frustration with a generation of activists who want him to address the specific role of structural racism in the oppression of African Americans – in everything from family wealth to death at the hands of police. “Black lives, of course, matter,” an exasperated Sanders said Saturday. “But I've spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights. If you don't want me to be here, that's okay."

That didn’t help.

Sanders is understandably irritated that 50 years of work on civil rights – going back to attending the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fighting segregation with CORE in Chicago, endorsing Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential run in 1988 – don’t seem to count, especially with people who were born a generation after those events. Asked Saturday what he’d done for African Americans more recently, he cited voting for Obamacare. [Update: he also talked about making sure the program included funding for community health centers in low-income neighborhoods, which I hadn't seen when I wrote this piece. That makes it a less tone-deaf response, though it still didn't satisfy the protesters.]

It’s true that President Obama himself has pointed to the importance of the Affordable Care Act to African Americans, since lower incomes mean they’re disproportionately helped by the program. But Obama has also been criticized for such arguments, by an African American party base that’s fed up with “race-neutral” policies that never adequately address the problems of black poverty and disadvantage.  A white politician surely can’t get away with that answer; even community health centers benefit every race and aren't specifically geared to the needs of black communities.

Say her name,” the protesters chanted. They were talking about Sandra Bland, an educated Chicago woman with no criminal record who’d worked on police abuse issues, and somehow wound up dead in a Texas jail cell in what police called suicide. Her family and friends dispute that story, and question her arrest in the first place. The cops say she talked back to them and kicked an officer; video footage of her initial stop shows she was thrown to the ground, but doesn’t show what preceded it.

"Black people are dying in this country because we have a criminal justice system which is out of control, a system in which over 50 percent of young African-American kids are unemployed," Sanders responded, according to local news reports. "It is estimated that a black baby born today has a one in four chance of ending up in the criminal justice system."

But he still wouldn’t say Sandra Bland’s name.

If you like Bernie Sanders, this is what you like about him. He doesn’t pander. On the other hand, it really isn’t pandering to learn and say the name of Sandra Bland. On MSNBC’s “Up with Steve” on Sunday, I suggested Sanders needed better staff support, to help him anticipate questions and conflicts like this, but that’s a cop out.

In fact, Sanders brags about his lack of staffing. “Ask me who my campaign finance director is,” he said to a reporter last week. “We don’t have one. Ask me who my pollster is. We don’t have one.” He even boasted of writing his campaign’s direct mail himself.

Sanders’ Netroots Nation confrontation took over Twitter on Saturday night. But for the most part, instead of acknowledging that the conflict illustrated a real problem, his online supporters attacked Sanders’ critics by insisting they didn’t understand the real issues driving black poverty and disadvantage, which are merely economic, they contend.

This is getting old. After my last Sanders article, Jacobin ran a piece showing that black voters overwhelmingly support Sanders’ political priorities. But this line of reasoning runs the risk of suggesting black voters don’t really know what’s good for them – because if they did, they’d be backing Sanders.

I should note that Martin O’Malley, too, was heckled at Netroots Nation, and that he initially came off worse than Sanders, when he told the crowd, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” That seemingly self-evident sentiment has been used by some on the right to erase the specific claim that black lives matter. O’Malley showed a lack of familiarity with this increasingly important, and bitter debate.

But unlike Sanders, he later apologized – and he stuck around to meet with Black Lives Matter protest organizers. Sanders skipped a similar meeting.

This issue isn’t going away. And Sanders isn’t being served by his increasingly strident online supporters, mostly white and male (some call them “bro-cialists” or “bro-gressives”), trolling his critics online.  The tired online battling led to the amusing Twitter hastag #BernieSoBlack. Its organizer told Vox’s Dara Lind: "It seems like any time black people bring this up on Twitter, there's just all these people who, I don't know if they're just sitting around searching his name on Twitter or something, they just come and get in your mentions and start harassing you, saying the same things over and over to you."

To be fair, Sanders Tweeted about Black Lives Matter, and Sandra Bland, late Sunday afternoon.

Yes, Sanders drew a crowd of 11,000 in Phoenix the night after his Netroots Nation clash. That’s great. But he can’t turn that support into a surge at the polls if he doesn’t win more of the party’s black and Latino base. Instead of listening to the message, Sanders’ supporters are trying to drown out the messengers. It’s not likely to work.

By Joan Walsh