By Lawrence Ware
After being accosted in Seattle by #BlackLivesMatter protesters, Bernie Sanders released a thoughtful, thorough statement about issues facing black people in America. It’s exactly what he needed to do.
Good for him. But this isn’t directed toward Bernie Sanders. This is to the supporters of Sanders. The ‘Sandernistas’ as Jeffrey St. Clair calls them.
These are the people that think Sanders can do no wrong. They are uncritical of his electoral strategy. They rebuff #BlackLivesMatter protesters with the ‘you need to do your research’ retort. These individuals have been known to say things like ‘Sanders is your biggest ally in American Politics.’
Seriously, you need to chill. Let me tell you why.
Sanders has become the face of white progressives. While possessing a strong civil rights record, he still has a tendency to use language reminiscent of a by-gone era in progressive politics—an era full of organizing to fight economic inequality but silent on (and sometimes complicit in) white supremacy. This is not to say that he is a white supremacist. I am merely pointing out that he has in the past talked about racism as if it is only an economic issue.
When you say things like “#BlackLivesMatter protesters need to do their research,” you assume they have not. You also assume that they would agree with you about how to address racism in our country. It’s a way of thinking that is grounded in the notion that you have all the answers, and if a person of color disagrees with you, then they need to adjust to how you see things.
If a large number of the “theys” just happen to be people of color and the majorities of the “yous” happen to be white folks far removed from the realities of race in America, then it begins to look much like white supremacy—and if not white supremacy, then certainly condescension.
You’re Hurting Your Own Candidate
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: if you want Sanders to gain the Democratic Party’s nomination, you need people of color. While it would be a hasty generalization to say all black folks agree with how the candidate has been targeted by #BlackLivesMatter protestors, it is nevertheless harmful when his supporters are flippant and dismissive.
I know many in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. They know how to read. They are aware of Sanders’ stances. Many also note that he has yet to release an official plan to address police brutality and prison oversight. (Bernie Sanders published his position on race and imprisonment on August 9. – DL Blog Editors)
Rhetoric is fine, but we’ve gotten that from Obama. We need policy.
The Dream Defenders used a similar strategy with great success. They agitated President Obama until he addressed their concerns. There is precedent for this kind of public protest. You hurt Sanders’ ability to build coalitions by taking things personally and reacting with harmful words. It’s also short sighted.
The Protests Could be Helpful to His Campaign
Listen, it is only August. You should be thankful that Sanders is now aware of his blind spot on race. If this were happening in winter, he would be in far greater trouble. He has the ability to address this issue, build coalitions, hire more staffers of color, and come out stronger because of it.
This could be seen as a bump in the road to the nomination instead of the end of the world. The key is to think about this politically. Imagine if, after all this uproar, Sanders was endorsed by one of the #BlackLivesMatter founders. That could be game changing.
Keep your head up Sandernistas. It could be worse. You could be the consistent target of police violence. Then you’d really have something to be upset about.
Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He is also an assistant pastor at Prospect Church in Oklahoma City. He has appeared on HuffPostLive, CNN, and NPR and written for the The Democratic Left, African American Pulpit, The Crisis, and other publications. He is also a contributing editor for RS, DSA’s Religion and Socialism blog.
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