The Left’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” moment

The Left is having trouble figuring out Black Lives Matter.

On Saturday, Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford disrupted a rally to protect Social Security and Medicare featuring Bernie Sanders, taking the microphone and demanding a four and a half minute moment of silence for Michael Brown. Sanders eventually left the stage.

For his part, Sanders’s campaign has — likely in direct response to pressure from Black Lives matter — put forward a comprehensive plan to address physical, political, legal and economic racial injustice. He also reportedly opened his rally last night in Los Angeles by giving Black Lives Matter activists a chance to speak. It will be interesting to see if these moves are enough to avoid further disruptions at his events.

What will be more interesting, however, will be to see whether Sanders’s supporters are able to avoid the visceral reaction they had on Saturday to being called racists — a reaction that more or less confirmed the charge.

Since first being challenged at Netroots Nation, Sanders and his campaign have learned from their mistakes with respect to race and the Black Lives Matter movement. His supporters, on the other hand, have refused to acknowledge that there was a problem in the first place. After all, of all of the candidates in the Democratic primary, Sanders has the best record on civil rights and racial equality. And it isn’t particularly close.

And, to be clear, as far as the record itself is concerned, they do have a point. As Douglas Williams wrote yesterday:

This quote from one of the protestors is stupefying. “‘Bernie, you were confronted at NetRoots at by black women,’ (Marissa) Johnson said before adding, ‘you have yet to put out a criminal justice reform package like O’Malley did.’” Just in case you were wondering, that would be Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore who put in place much of the aggressive policing tactics that resulted in the death of Freddie Gray on April 12th. The candidate who has stood at the forefront of civil rights advocacy for over fifty years is now being told by Black Lives Matter activists (and liberal columnists) that he needs to be more like, you know, the guy who gave thousands of Black men across his city arrest records for the ridiculously minor legal transgressions. It is a perfect example of the triumph of form over substance in politics.

Sanders’s supporters have also (rightly) wondered why Sanders has now been the target of two widely publicized disruptions, while Hillary Clinton, at rallies paid for with funds raised from private prisons, has yet to be challenged. The only two arguments I’ve heard in response to this question are that a) her campaign events have tighter security, making direct action more difficult; and b) that Sanders is more likely to respond to protest in a positive, substantive manner.

Black Lives Matter, via Gerry Lauzon / Flickr

Black Lives Matter, via Gerry Lauzon / Flickr

Neither of these arguments make very much sense, as climate activists have had no problem disrupting Hillary Clinton’s public events, and if she isn’t willing to propose a comprehensive racial justice platform, it would be good to get her on record saying so. What’s more, if the primary allegation against Sanders is that he silences black voices by focusing too heavily on economic issues, wouldn’t Clinton’s heightened security — to the point at which protest is all but impossible — be an even greater act of silencing?

At bottom, I think this is one of the greatest sources of frustration among Bernie Sanders supporters. Not that Sanders has been targeted, but rather that Clinton — whose record on racial justice is far worse — hasn’t, allowing her to be the prime beneficiary of the protests. To that point, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said in a Facebook post yesterday that, “Every one of these candidates is going to be pushed. Every. Last. One.” So I guess it’s only a matter of time before Clinton gets her due.

In any case, back to Sanders.

There appears to be a bit of a “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” frustration among Sanders supporters, who wonder why black voters who, by any rational measure of utility, should be in their camp are instead haranguing Sanders at rallies and calling them racists. And it’s frustrating! No one likes being called a racist. At all. Especially when you have a long list of reasons why the policies advocated by you and your candidate are the best for the black community and so they need to be on your side or else they’re voting the wrong way and…

Wait, that last part was kinda racist, wasn’t it?

For the last forty years, Democrats have been tearing their hair out wondering why Kansans don’t vote for them. After all, they totally would if only they knew what’s best for them. Curse those evil Republicans for tricking those doddering stumblebums into voting against their own self-interest! If only people were as easily persuaded by facts and logic as they were by fear and a Southern accent.

Of course, that head-meets-desk insistence that Kansans vote our way is part of the reason why they don’t. People don’t like being studied as political oddities, and they really don’t like being told what to do. Kansans look to the coasts and see rich, elite, cosmopolitan liberals dismissing them as idiots for not recognizing the greatness of their agenda. No matter what’s on that agenda, I can’t blame them for not wanting to identify with the people who put it together. They hear us saying “But don’t you want a minimum wage increase?” with an implied “…you idiot” at the end. And I can’t say I blame them for both hearing it and, as a consequence, rejecting the explicit appeal, even if it’s in their interest.

Much in the same way, black voters are under no obligation to flock to Bernie Sanders, especially if it means identifying with a group of people who come off less as allies and more as saviors. Regardless as to whether Bernie Sanders is a patronizing white liberal racist, he is #1 with patronizing white liberal racists, even if he also — issue by issue — matches with what black voters say they want in a candidate. That association, more than his actions or his platform, is what’s turned off many black activists this week.

It isn’t at all contradictory to say on the one hand that Bernie Sanders is the candidate best suited to address the grievances of the Black Lives Matter movement and admit on the other hand that he and his campaign have been improved by Black Lives Matter protests, which highlighted real, legitimate issues with the way in which he was (not) talking about race on the campaign trail. We can only point fingers at Clinton and O’Malley’s worse transgressions if we first acknowledge that Sanders has room to improve, as well. To insist otherwise — that there was no problem to solve and that the protestors’ actions are illegitimate — is itself justification for the protests in the first place.

When you respond to a direct action calling for Bernie Sanders to more forcefully embrace racial justice by saying “It is stupid, don’t do it,” you tell the activists two things. First, that they are idiots. Second, that because they are idiots, they should listen to you and vote for the candidate of your choosing.

That is stupid. Don’t do it.


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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