Making Black Lives Matter to Liberals

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

By Douglas Williams

Only white men care about economic issues.

Politicians like Bernie Sanders who discuss things like economic democracy, the right to form labor unions, and the redistribution of wealth have a callous indifference towards the plight of oppressed communities who simply do not care about such things. 

If this sounds absurd that’s because it is. Women and people of color care a lot about wealth inequality and so-called “class issues,” the cornerstone of Sanders’ presidential campaign. So much so that the polling is unambiguous — those so-called “Bernie Sanders” issues are prioritized by women and people of color again and again. Given that black people and other people of color are the most likely to consider themselves working class rather than middle class, this makes sense. And since the working class is disproportionately female and nonwhite — and since workers tend to be pretty smart about what is and is not in their material interest — this should not be a surprise.

So why is The New York Times and other liberal media outlets trying so hard to convince us otherwise?

In a RH Reality Check piece entitled, “Why It Matters If Bernie Sanders Doesnt Talk About Race or Gender,” Emily Crockett quotes marketing consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio:

“It’s the idea that speaking about racial inequality and gender inequality is an important thing to do, but you don’t have to do it first, and you don’t have to do it all the time…..If you don’t lead with it, then you don’t take it seriously.”

Osorio’s claim is alarming to those who care about these issues. Yet Sanders has had a 100 rating from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America every year since he first entered Congress in 1991. Over the same time period, he has never been rated below a 90 by the NAACP.

A quick look at the bills that Bernie Sanders has sponsored in Congress, as well as the voting record he has amassed over the last twenty-five years, shows Sanders placing material gains for vulnerable communities such as women and people of color at the top of his agenda. In this Congress alone, Sanders has introduced bills to make public higher education free, reduce the cost of prescriptions purchased under Medicaid, create federal youth employment programs, and expand Social Security. If there is a gold standard of advocacy in Congress for racial justice and gender equality, Sanders would seem to fit the bill.

Despite all of that, none of these considerations appear in the RH Reality Check article. What does appear, however, is a long line of liberal activists condemning Sanders for his “white male liberalness” and his “purely class-based appeals,” the latter point being one that is echoed in a piece on this same topic for Vox. In that piece, Dara Lind matter-of-factly states that the perceived omission of racial issues in his campaign rollout was “not an accidental oversight” and that

“Sanders believes in racial equality, sure, but he believes it will only come as the result of economic equality.”

This is seen as a problem for Lind despite the fact that black people are the most likely to identify as “working class,” probably because they are not under any delusions about the targets of rhetoric about “the middle class”.

Joan Walsh’s nearly identical piece in Salon is even more egregious. Her latest head-scratcher castigates Sanders for being racially insensitive and wondering “whether [Sanders’] approach to race has kept up with the times.”

You might be forgiven for being surprised at Walsh’s new party line given that she has written from the other side of this equation previously, defending the white working class against purportedly knee-jerk accusations of “racism.” In any case, Walsh has taken a break from her role as interlocutor for reactionary white sentiment to criticize Sanders for not explicitly mentioning the Black Lives Matter series of nationwide protests in his campaign rollout. It is a ridiculous charge and one that lies in direct opposition to the important issues facing Black people in America today.

This is because the issues that compel voters of color are those economic concerns that Sanders has made the cornerstone of his campaign. As Seth Ackerman points out in his breakdown of recent polling results, black voters are nearly four times more likely to list economic concerns as being of most importance to them than than they are to list the issues surrounding race relations and the justice system that have animated the Black Lives Matter protests. Matt Bruenig at Demos reaches a similar conclusion for black and latino voters. Given this evidence, perhaps the real divide is between what working people of color actually want and what wealthy white liberals say they should want? Because while it seems fine to Walsh that black people think of themselves uniformly along racial lines, it seems to really vex her and other liberals that black people might think of themselves as being part of a class.

While these appeals target Bernie Sanders and his nascent run for the presidency, this is not really about him. It is, rather, about the ways in which liberals try to separate oppressed communities from a redistributionist politics that would disproportionately be to their material gain. These authors seek to replace a materialist politics with one of rhetoric and affectation that would do little to threaten the structures that sustain racism, sexism, and class exploitation.

After all, which is more threatening to capitalism? Hillary Clinton wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt or a massive capital gains tax-hike? It all smacks of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was labeled “America’s First Black President“ for being able to play a saxophone and having Toni Morrison speak at his first inaugural. Clinton doubtless played this up quite a bit himself as it was an effective way of masking his demolition of the social welfare state through the odiously-named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, as well as the fact that he built his first campaign for president around dog-whistle politics and executing a mentally disabled black man.

For all the overheated concern about the need for Sanders to make Black Lives Matter, it seems that the voices of those black lives matters very little to those who are desperately attempting to claim the mantle of “ally.” The issues that matter to them the most have been suddenly labeled as “white issues,” even though the socioeconomic destruction of America’s working class — accelerated under President Obama — has hit black Americans harder than any other group, particularly black women.

The black working class is the most supportive of the right to form a labor union — is that a “white issue”? Black people favor socialism over capitalism, according to a 2011 Pew poll, by a margin of 19 percentage points — is socialism only for white people? The liberal commentariat might want to brush up on a history book if they believe that to be true.

You cannot eat “a conversation about race” or “a more inclusive story.” Your landlord will not accept the corporate liberal rhetoric offered by Clinton supporters as rent. Black people need jobs, justice, and economic equality. We should always be wary of those who seek to partition the working class of any color from the economic democracy that will give them more of the gains from their work than ever before.

Yet today too many are ready to give Hillary Clinton credit for talking and hand-waving towards oppressed communities and the working class of color. But if we are serious about seeing black lives matter, than we need more than rhetoric — we need a politics that will obliterate the forces of reaction, revanchism, and repression. That requires a lot more than a hashtag and a cool slogan. It requires a lot of hard work and solidarity. Nothing terrifies status-quo-maintaining liberals more than a Left in the United States that engages in coalition-building and unites to change who owns what and finally shift the balance of power in favor of workers.

The working class of color do not need more preening allies; we need more comrades.

Douglas Williams is a doctoral student in political science at Wayne State University in Detroit. He blogs at The South Lawn.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The South Lawn.


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