In Defense of Bernie Sanders’ Whiteness

Bernie Sanders has been a darling of the liberal-left for decades, but with his presidential campaign in motion, he is getting his first taste of media scorn. Other than the expected derision of his economic policies from the Right, he has received contempt from some on the Left for his racial politics (or lack thereof). Writing at Vox, Dara Lind pinpointed the lack of rhetorical focus on issues effecting black Americans from the Bernie’s camp. She writes:

This isn’t an accidental oversight. These simply aren’t issues Sanders is passionate about in the way he’s passionate about economic injustice. When my colleague Andrew Prokop profiled Sanders last year, he pointed out astutely that Sanders’s career has been “laser-focused on checking the power of the wealthy above all else.” Sanders believes in racial equality, sure, but he believes it will only come as the result of economic equality. To him, focusing on racial issues first is merely treating the symptom, not the disease.”

Dara (and like-minded liberals like Joan Walsh in Salon) spent the rest of their ink wringing their hands about the exclusionary and myopic nature of his campaign, and its almost exclusive appeal to white voters. They argue that his campaign will need to address the issues important to the black community if he is hoping to make inroads with populations outside of the middle-class, college educated base he currently pulls support from.

While Dara and Joan both claim to support his economic message, this rush to condemn his campaign for not making those ethnic communities’ issues the center of his platform seems peculiar and problematic. The President, by definition, “represents” the nation as a whole. Thus, you see the kabuki dance politicians of all stripes make to appear like a man of the people to all people. The will to be seen as a member of every community is a laughable farce we willfully endorse in American politics. On Monday, a politician champions his blue-collar roots to a group of miners. Tuesday roles around, and they talk up their business-minded father who opened up a factory. It’s midweek, and Christian conservative values are on addressed at a faith consortium, followed the next day by a rousing defense of a woman’s right to choose to a feminist gathering. You cannot belong to every community, but you must appear to be.

This naïve form of identity politics is no more than a charade, and one that benefits the most cunning con artists.

Bill Clinton was championed as the “First Black President” and a guardian of their causes. His wife appears to be building support in the African-American community using the same rhetoric and tactics as her husband. Sadly, the track record of Clinton policies has not ameliorated black Americans in any tangible manner. Writing in Slate, Melissa Harris-Lacewell states:

There is no evidence to suggest that African-Americans were in a better economic position than whites at any time in American history, including during Clinton’s presidency. In fact, striking gaps in income, employment, and wealth continue to distinguish black economic reality in the United States. Clinton’s administration did keep inflation low and reduce unemployment. This was a rising tide that lifted many boats, including some black ones. But it strikes me as bizarre that nearly a third of blacks perceived a reversal in the deeply historically entrenched economic position of the races.”

The Clinton’s may talk about issues facing African-Americans, but the actually policies they implement do little to improve their economic and social standing in the US. What they do exceptionally well is say the right things on race (except when they don’t, as demonstrated in the 2008 Democratic primary). The Clinton’s are rewarded for being good politicians, who appear to address the demands of each cluster in their broad coalition long enough to get each group’s necessary vote.

Hillary Clinton’s adoring fans in the punditry are making the case that her recent move to the Left demonstrates her true ideological commitments and policy direction. Progressives like Josh Vorhees argues that Clinton’s current rhetoric may be a ruse, but at least it is bringing leftwing politics to the Democratic campaign. I can’t help but feel we are all being duped yet again by another slick politician who claims to “know your pain.”

Bernie Sanders does not understand the racial and structural dynamics that have resulted in the recent Baltimore riots. Neither does Hillary Clinton for that matter. Nor do the white, middle-class punditry that have taken on the causes of black community. I roll my eyes every time I read a piece by a white Buzzfeed blogger, writing from gentrified urban center, nauseatingly attempting to “educate” Americans about race.

The black urban poor need their own spokesmen, not liberals from the suburbs speaking in generalities on their behalf. Bernie Sanders represents a specific ideological perspective, and yes, a social and ethnic community. Americans need to stop believing that political representatives can truly represent people of radically different economic classes and cultural experiences. To believe in this lie is to suppose a one-size-fits-all approach to politics and the state is manageable or beneficial.

(Image: Carl Mydans – “Miners at American Radiator Mine” 1936)

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