A whole lot of talk about action

This weekend, we learned that Bernie Sanders — the civil rights activist with a 100 percent rating from the NAACP — is in fact a racist.

We know this now because, while speaking at Netroots Nation, he and Martin O’Malley were interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter protestors, and neither handled the interruption well. While O’Malley raised eyebrows by responding with the loaded “all lives matter,” Sanders took even more heat when he raised his voice to continue with his stump speech, eventually leaving the stage ahead of schedule.

Never mind the fact that Bernie Sanders has never handled interruptions very well — he’s a gruff, matter of fact, in-your-face old guy who’s never been one to worry about the optics of telling people shouting him down to, literally, shut up. For many progressives, Sanders’s refusal to adequately address the protestors on their terms at Netroots Nation amounted to a silencing and erasing of their voices and identities. It encapsulated the intrinsic whiteness of Sanders and his followers, who fail to understand systemic racism and offer no plan to address it.

To be clear, this criticism isn’t off-base. Sanders didn’t handle the disruption well, and he has since responded to that grievance by changing how he talks about #BlackLivesMatter on stage, in interactions with crowds and on social media. In other words, he’s admitted that they were right.

However, the criticisms of Sanders that go beyond his specific actions at Netroots are a little harder to accept at face value. As Matt Bruenig outlined point by point shortly following the incident, the protestors’ claims concerning Sanders’s record and platform showed that they clearly hadn’t done their homework before shouting him down.

In an interview following the protest, Tia Oso, one of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter, claimed that Sanders doesn’t care about mass incarceration. Sanders clearly cares about mass incarceration. She claimed he isn’t worried about “defunding the public sector” or job creation. He’s a socialist! How much more committed to the public sector and job creation can he be? She asked what he’s doing to restore the Voting Rights Act. Congressional Democrats — along with Sanders — are pushing a bill to do exactly that. Sanders has even done them a few better, calling for non-partisan redistricting and expanded ballot access.

The one complaint Oso had that Sanders couldn’t account for was that he isn’t personally “funding black student organizing right now.” As in, Bernie Sanders’s past work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement no longer matters because he is not donating to the correct organizations today. If that’s a sin, put us all in hell.

As Bruenig put it, in the terms of Mark Halperin’s comically absurd letter grading system for political candidates:

halperin bruenig sanders

So while I understand the criticism that Sanders did not do a good job of listening to the voices of people in the progressive movement who — even in our nominally open circles — are often marginalized and ignored, I still have a hard time getting my head all the way around the critique being offered. Tia Oso and Patrisse Cullors and all of the other organizers and activists fighting for the inclusion of people of color in the progressive movement say that talk is cheap; they want action. I agree, which is why I’m frustrated by the fact that they are more concerned with what Sanders didn’t say than with what he has actually done and is doing.

In other words, I’m right there with Oso and Cullors when they say that the progressive movement and Democratic Party can and must do better to include the voices and priorities of people of color, but I think Sanders’s poor response to their protest turned him into a better target than he actually was. And, of course, the person who stood the most to gain from Sanders dropping the rhetorical ball on race was Hillary Clinton, who (wisely in hindsight) declined Netroots’s invitation to speak, and whose actions on race don’t come close to living up to her talk.

More importantly, though, the broader criticism of Sanders and many of his supporters that has come out of the incident is that they are too laser-focused on economic justice at the expense of social justice. In the days following Netroots, fault lines have emerged in the progressive movement pitting predominantly white and male economic progressives (from various class backgrounds) against demographically diverse cultural progressives, encouraging members in both camps to take the fundamentally unsupportable position — a position I don’t think any of them really believe — that you can have one without the other, or that one is more important than the other.

It doesn’t work like that and we all know it. Economic and racial injustices run together, feeding into each other. Care deeply about economic inequality? All of its negative consequences affect people of color more heavily than they affect white people. Care deeply about systemic racism? You don’t reorganize anything in our social hierarchy without expanding access to fair and affordable housing, education and healthcare; along with implementing a more progressive tax code and un-privatizing all of the things that used to be part of the public sector. Like prisons, which are part of our criminal justice system, which can’t be adequately reformed without talking about institutional and subconscious racial bias, which produce cultural biases, which produce disparate educational and economic outcomes, and so on.

Long story short, nothing that we want to have happen happens without a whole lot of things we want to have happen happening.

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

Black Lives Matter, via Creative Commons

To be clear, before this week, all of the parties involved seemed to understand this. There is massive overlap between movements pushing for economic and racial justice; no one would seriously suggest that there’s a wall of separation between #FightFor15 and #BlackLivesMatter, especially considering that many of the same people are going to their respective protests. Some of us are better versed in economic justice; some of us are more comfortable talking about social justice. Just because everyone doesn’t make every appeal at every turn doesn’t make specific appeals dismissive.

And yet, over the last few days, that has often been the claim: that appeals to economic justice, when made independently from appeals to social justice, “silence” those who would rather they have made a different appeal. Even simply pointing out that Tia Oso’s specific assertions about Bernie Sanders’s positions and record were unfounded was dismissed by a (white, male) friend of mine as “amplifying voices that are silencing women of color and mocking their activist politics,” constituting “patriarchal, misogynistic anti-blackness.” In this framework, argument from identity trumps argument from evidence, and disagreement constitutes exclusion. That’s not a good position in which to find ourselves as a movement.

So, sure, Bernie Sanders deserves to take his lumps for being Bernie Sanders at a moment when people needed and demanded a different kind of public figure. He was exposed for misunderstanding the moment he was in, and this exposure of his misunderstanding — brought on by the protest led by Oso and Cullors — has encouraged many white progressives, myself included, to reconsider how we think and talk about race. That seems to have been the principal goal in disrupting Sanders, and to that extent it’s safe to say the movement succeeded.

Let’s just not forget that we’re all on the same team.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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