#BlackLivesMatter and Bernie Sanders

By Phillip Logan


Photo credit: thestranger.com

There is no doubt that the ongoing conflict between the Sanders campaign and #BlackLivesMatter is not settling well in the Democratic primary. As Lawrence Ware pointed out in his essay “Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter,” perception is everything in politics. As he points out explicitly, while economic justice certainly will bring aid to African Americans it appears as a rising tide, that “lifts all boats.” This is no doubt true to the extent that economic justice for blacks at its most basic level is a question of whites having a head start over blacks because of racism. Nevertheless, in a post-Civil Rights United States, economic justice is a vital necessity in order to allow free black women and men to develop and express themselves in a society that allows white U.S. citizens and other non-whites to thrive in a way African Americans – and Native Americans as well – do not. In this manner, #BlackLivesMatter has inadvertently unearthed black politics’ own limitations – a “Bernie Sanders problem,” if you will.

Dream Deferred: The New Racism

Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White highlights that in many southern states, or low-level state bureaucratic offices, many African Americans were barred from New Deal benefits they had a federal right to access. This also had an explicit effect in the domain of union rights. African Americans were barred access to unions on the grounds of race, many non-unionized professions in the food and domestic industries are rooted in the legacy of Jim Crow-era Southern Democrats and their hostility towards unionizing predominately black professions. In his aforementioned essay, Ware highlights this fact. I would like to offer a response to help our organization and many other progressives understand the gravity of our situation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once asked “what difference does it make to sit down at the table if one does not have the money to purchase a cup of coffee or a sandwich?” Policies of affirmative action, and the rise of many non-profits, have arisen to help African Americans close this economic gap created by past racial injustices. This has led Adolph Reed to sardonically refer to the race politics of the black political class as a state-sponsored ‘minority talent search program’. What Reed highlights is that the identity politics of race is also a class politics in black politics. However, the rise of neoconservative politics in the 1970s and 1980s has amplified calls for recognition on the basis of black dignity, given the rise of “reverse racism,” which is a “new racism” that emphasizes cultural superiority as opposed to the old “biological racism” of the pre-Jim Crow era. 

Neoliberalism and the American City

There is no doubt that #BlackLivesMatter plays an important role in highlighting the ongoing legacy of anti-black violence by police. With the rise of law-and-order politics in the post-Nixon years and the continuing legacy of white supremacy, police violence continues to be a fixture of the American experience. However, the legacy of white supremacy in its own right tends to obscure some non-racial elements of the post-Nixon law-and-order politics. Even though U.S. policing has roots in slavery, particularly in the Southern United States, police also act to protect private property in a capitalist society.

Policing in the United States has undergone a fundamental change that is tied to an increased focus on the American cityscape. Whether the cause is international finance capital, real estate developers, or the rise of a domestic anti-terrorism strategy, urban communities still experience the scourge of police violence on a daily basis. In Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Governance of Social Insecurity, Loic Wacquant emphasizes the increasing ties between old welfare structures and penality. For many African Americans, particularly black men, missed child support payments become the revocation of driver’s licenses, which become traffic citations, then jail sentences, and finally long bouts of low-income employment. However, addressing white supremacy as a behavioral problem will not cure structural inequalities like police violence. As long as neoliberal governance exists, so, too, will police brutality be a feature of capitalist society.

The Struggle for Recognition and Bernie Sanders

A long-standing tension among many members of the left is how to reconcile the Left’s longstanding concerns with questions of distributive justice with the ever-prevailing ‘struggles for recognition’ that predominately defines the contemporary post-Socialist Left. For starters, the struggle for recognition characterizes debates over ‘recognition’, more popularly known as identity, and questions of distributive justice – whether the distribution of public/private goods in a society is done in an manner considered fair to all parties interested – are highly contested issues at the center of the tension between Sanders and Black Lives Matter.

For many leftists, these questions are ideologically juxtaposed given that for many groups, recognition is not a question of distributive justice, but whether one’s ‘body’, ‘concerns’, or ‘worldview’ are seen equal to others. This often leads to a frustrating tipping of the scales between struggles that may share anti-capitalist sentiments, but do not share capitalism as their primary unit of analysis. In contrast, the struggle for recognition can take on totalistic forms given that many groups are prone to feel their form of oppression carry more moral weight than others. 

Joseph Schwartz has suggested in past writings that the American Left carries an almost ‘protestant witness culture’ that impedes its ability to act in a way that balances political expediency with moral indignation. This sort of moral grandstanding certainly stirs the souls of activists in their causes, but it can lead to fragile alliances that break down when moments of political compromise is necessary for overarching goals. The sort of ‘moral combat’ playing out between Black Lives Matter and the Sanders campaign highlights that this problem will not disappear, putting both parties in a fatal situation if they operate in isolation from each other during the election.

What can we do?

While it is not my view that whites should directly challenge African Americans, or any minority or oppressed person for that matter, white progressives should see this as an opportunity to hear what black activists think and have to say about the legacy of black politics, the current direction of black leadership, and the now-ending presidency of Barack Obama. One may not only find new friendships, but also build new bridges for future action.

Many black people in the United States, young and old alike can find value in Bernie Sanders’ platform, however, it is not unreasonable that Black apprehension will be aimed towards Sanders. Given the Obama administration’s relative vigilance on issues of immigration, the broader women’s rights movement, and LGBTQ rights, African Americans feel they are being deliberately sidelined as they are continue to endure racism. Moreover, the continued domination of black politics by elites, criminal justice, and gentrification have created a state of emergency for many Black people who feel they are without answers. Lawrence points out in Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter that “what have you done for me lately?” is a reasonable position that African American activists will bring to the table of U.S. discourse.

In a world where the struggle for Black dignity in its gendered, racial, and economic forms is on unfavorable grounds, it is expected for African Americans to be hostile and angered by a perceived exercise of white privilege in the reasonable defense of Sanders as a stalwart progressive. However, it is also important to recognize the efforts of non-black and white leftists to take the issue of race more seriously in their organizing work. Thus, leftists must learn to trust and be open to dialog and political differences while being able to understand that none can lead without following others.


Phillip Logan, a member of Philadelphia DSA, is a Ph.D. student and Future Faculty Fellow in Political Science at Temple University studying political philosophy and African American political development.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.