Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders

If you have just one white liberal friend on Facebook, you’ve already seen the image that says while Hillary Rodham was campaigning for Barry Goldwater, Bernie Sanders was a significant activist in the Civil Rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. For these same white liberals, it is inconceivable that Bernie Sanders should be shouted down by protesters under the aegis of “Black Lives Matter.” Men and women want to disrupt his speeches for the purpose of spreading a message about the continued systemic racism in the American political system. “Don’t they know that Bernie Sanders marched with Dr. King?” your white liberal Facebook friend asks. “Don’t they know that this isn’t a conversation, but just plain rudeness? Who do those jerks think they’re helping?”

One hundred years ago, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B.. Du Bois were the opposing faces of the civil rights movement in America. Their opinions are typically boiled down in history textbooks as “Booker T. Washington was in favor of making African-Americans economic necessities in the United States by educating them and moving them into middle-class jobs; then, they could collect the promise of the franchise expressed in the Fifteenth Amendment” and “W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the first forces of the NAACP, argued unequivocally against the unjust treatment of African-Americans and demanded equal rights immediately.” The conventional wisdom on Washington today is that he was an Uncle Tom, willing to play dead for the comfort of white people; Du Bois’s intellectual, proud resistance to white tyranny is the much more respected position now.

Fifty years ago (and a little more, because as of this writing, Malcolm X has been dead a shade longer than fifty precise years), Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were the opposing faces of the civil rights movement in America. Martin, a Christian, advocated non-violent but persistent demonstrations which would evince the cruelty of injustice while leaving the lines of communication open to white people who would only be convinced of the justice of the civil rights movement after it had reached goals like “voting reform.” Malcolm, a Muslim, advocated violence in extreme cases as a response to violence done against African-Americans; unlike Martin Luther King, Malcolm did not view his cause as “civil rights” but as “human rights,” arguing that the treatment of black people in America was analogous to the treatment of black Africans at the hands of white imperialists. Both were murdered. Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. has a federal holiday in his honor, is recognized as one of the great men of the 20th Century, and is the focus of a million school projects. Malcolm X has become, as we understand him as a historical person rather than a contemporary spur, less a symbol of black hatred and more a symbol of militant, intelligent, and focused frustration. His assassination is the greatest tragedy of an American individual in the 20th Century. Malcolm X is acceding to the position of a W.E.B. Du Bois. In another fifty years, will Martin Luther King be Booker T. Washington?

Bernie Sanders has hardly blasted the Black Lives Matter movement despite their seeming opposition to him; he has said that he was “disappointed” that he was unable to make his speech in Seattle. He left the rostrum after two women took control of the microphone and acted to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; he did not return to speak afterwards.

Sanders’ message is not a message about race; his message has to do with social class, and how a “billionaire class” has hijacked the nation away from its people for the benefit of the wealthiest. Among educated white liberals, especially the younger folks, this is tonic. It reflects the deep dissatisfaction of the middle-class people who are scared of being pushed out, or of the lower-middle-class people who want to make sure they don’t see themselves become poor. He doubtless has put his finger on a major theme of the American drama since Watergate: now that we don’t trust politicians anymore, we can move on to not trusting Big Business. (And for good reason!) “The horsemen took your lands,” he cries. “They drove your people into the hills, to scratch a living off rocks. Take back the lands they stole from you! Burn every village!”

I like Bernie Sanders. I don’t think he’s actually Saruman. But the thrust is not so different, even if the intent is not to sell the United States wholesale to Dick Cheney. It is possible to be right without being infallible.

Bernie Sanders has unveiled a series of talking points to discuss how to address and defang racism. (They are new. More on them later.) They have not yet taken much of a place in the larger discourse he has brought forth about economic justice. The educated liberal elite are not concerned: after equitable economic prosperity has been brought forth, then the race problem will be “dealt with,” or perhaps it will disappear, decomposing fruitfully in the great compost pile of Socialism. But the Democratic Party is not merely educated white liberals: it’s also the major party in this country which owes its continued existence to minority voters. When Martin O’Malley gets up in front of a crowd and says, “All lives matter,” you can take the temperature of his IQ and no one is surprised that the man is a pretentious joke. When Bernie Sanders fills his platform with arguments about economic injustice without seriously touching on other kinds of injustice, that must feel like an affront; here’s the guy who actively wants to talk about change, but Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are not very frequently his topics.

Marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. fifty years ago is good. But it’s been fifty years, and as the Black Lives Matter movement keeps its pulse on the killings of black Americans by white Americans who never do seem to be found guilty – when the word “apartheid” is in hearts and minds – economic injustice cannot be the sole primary focus.

To say that we’ll take care of economic injustice first and then deal with racial injustice is problematic on a thousand levels. Of course the white elite want to deal with economic injustice first! Of course they think it’ll solve “everything,” because that everything is related to them. These are vast issues, and the people who have the means and wherewithal and, worst of all, the desire to face them can’t treat them like they’re rides at Six Flags: “Oh, we’ll go on Kingda Ka first, and then we’ll see if we have time to go on Nitro.” I hope they’re saying that, because at least that’s not vindictive so much as it is misguided. I hope they’re not saying, “We, the white educated elite, have taken stock of your problems against the problems of others, and we’ve decided you can wait your turn.”

In either case, the outcry against the Black Lives Matter movement for interrupting Sanders is a discussion about respectability politics. The thinking goes: “If the Black Lives Matter folks would enter their displeasure with Sanders – and O’Malley and Clinton – in a more genteel way, then that would be okay.” As long as the black folks do what the white people were taught in AP Government, as long as everyone takes turn talking, then so much the better. But if they can’t play nice, if they can’t be polite, then who needs ‘em? Just dismiss them as yahoos and lament the downfall of civil discourse about civil rights. Make some comparison to how you think Martin Luther King would have done it differently. Use it as an excuse to discredit their entire movement. Maybe become a Republican, for all we care. Keep pontificating about the historical context of economics and personal finance and decide it’s honest not to apply that to race.

White people of good intent are trying to wash out hundreds of years of blood, and we need the direction of the black people whose ancestors and contemporaries whose blood has been spilled. At this moment in history, how squeamish white people are is utterly unimportant. No one cares how much they faint, or how many times they choke back their vomit while scrubbing. When white people have the chance to atone, to do penance, how comfortable they are while doing it is utterly irrelevant. John Brown’s (and there’s a white guy whose fervor we could take some lessons from) favorite Bible verse was Hebrews 9:22: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood, and without shedding of blood is no remission.” If Bernie Sanders gets interrupted by people with a message of paramount importance, and that’s the worst thing you can see happening to white people because of the Black Lives Matter, get on your knees and thank God for his clemency. At this point, how polite you are when you say that black people don’t get a fair shot at making it in America is the most carmine of red herrings. Like the whisky priest found out, “at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.”

I’m on the record as believing that God’s will has already taken shape and thus it’s pointless and self-serving to ask for things, but I pray that he will keep Deray McKesson safe. One of the least provocative, insightful things he’s said recently is below.


How can that be unreasonable to ask for? We’ve all heard politicians say anything to get a vote from a series of schmucks, and Deray and his cohort want change; if they vote for someone, or throw the weight of their names and organizations behind someone, they’re not going to vote on credit. Given the history of this country, why should they?

I guess what disappoints me about the Bernie Sanders kerfuffle is not that people interrupt him when he’s about to talk, but that Bernie Sanders is not reaching out more publicly and more faithfully to the Black Lives Matter movement: why is he talking past them when the campaign and the movement seem almost tailor-made to help each other out?

In the very recent past, Bernie Sanders has added a “Racial Justice” tab to his website, which speaks to many of the same issues that the Black Lives Matter campaign has. It ends with a Sanders flourish, of course: after discussing Black Lives Matter, “physical violence” exemplified by militarized police and “political violence” exemplified by voter ID laws and other restrictive practices and “legal violence” exemplified by for-profit prisons, it shifts into “economic violence.” Economic violence is his wheelhouse, and it’s the last plank in this platform of racial justice. It’s a solid platform, saying the right things. But he made his platform for racial justice after Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton made theirs. It seems like the man putting himself on the left wing of the Democratic party is behind on this all-important issue. If he wants to be a serious candidate for president, maybe the only person worth voting for in the upcoming election, then he needs to use the next year to foster relationships with the Black Lives Matters movement; he must echo their voice, because no one in the field right now could do as good a job.

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