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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26 Responses to “A whole lot of talk about action”

  1. Indigo says:

    A comment on why bothering to look are your link would indicate that you have a topic you want us to know about. It’s obviously not important to you or you would have included a comment.

  2. Moderator3 says:

    Linking to other blogs is discouraged, unless you have Jon’s permission. I’m leaving them here. If Jon doesn’t shoot me, we’ll consider it his permission.

  3. Politikator says:

    I expect O’Malley but especially Sanders to recover from this misstep and clear blind spot but sometimes there will be chaos in place of false bipartisanship and quick-fix, scripted talking points to the most surreal Life and Death scenarios faced by these protestors and their allies. We’re no different than Right-Wing reactionaries and conservative racists when these white “progressive” figures turn their back and walk away from a real conversation that needs to be had!

  4. Politikator says:

    Jon did an excellent job writing and we are all on the same team here, I so especially agree considering who the hell we’re up against. But man, come on, this outright dismissal and disregard for the very real economic versus racial justice divide that exists in the Democratic Party and other spaces of American liberal politics is real and nobody should be immune from the criticism and hard questions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This #AllLivesMatter/#WhiteLivesMatter is a BS putdown and arrogant defiance to the disparaging inequalities that so many people of color have faced historically and in the present; not just all the brutal police killings of late but in every sphere of American life. The bottom line is not the protestors of this movement, the Black Caucus, or any sort of black leadership being told to engage militantly to these nascent “respectability politics” in order to be heard from the overwhelmingly white, male media and public establishments. This is why they’re angry, feel silenced and marginalized: this is a matter of life and death for them and they deserve concrete and substantive responses to these issues from their current and presumably soon-to-be candidates for political leadership. Please read the far better responses to this incident at Crooks & Liars and The Rude Pundit to see it from their perspective; we need to keep this conversation going and stop disregarding the needs of the powerless being protected from the powerful.

  5. Politikator says:

    I understand and for the most part, agree relatively with your assessment on Europe’s single-issue political party and electoral system (though they’re voter turnout and welfare state systems put ours to absolute shame), but in all fairness to these protrstors, I think this outright dismissal of the very real economic and racial justice divides in our self-described Progressive political spaces is the very reason why the #BlackLivesMatter movement and their allies is so visibly frustrated and why these confrontations will continue into the future. We need to keep this conversation going people and come up some better solutions!

  6. cleos_mom says:

    Nevertheless, the bromide “that’s just their culture” will be of little use if this becomes a problem later in the election cycle.

  7. 2karmanot says:

    I was refraining from commenting on this post, which BTW is excellent Jon. It brings forth major strategy tactics that have always plagued progression movements. Let the troll swarm begin: Oso’s and Cullors arrogant stupidity, lack of homework and loud mouth outrage do absolutely no credit for ‘Black Lives Matter’, because specifically Black Lives do Matter and the cause demands top tier, quality representation, and mature understanding of the minefield of justice causes. A perfect case in point is O’Malley’s statement that ‘All Lives Matter,’ a mime increasingly popular sounding that has a nauseating stench of whitesplain to it and reeks of pious sincerity. To come forth from such banality when yet another Black American has been murdered by killer cops is just appallingly out of touch. Oso and Cullors would do well to realize that there is no real support or real empathy among the DNC for these issues, except possibly among such groups as the Black Caucus and even they drum out the usual outrage and do absolutely nothing of any significant justice policy. Sanders for all his faults is the ONLY voice of real progressive values running for President. Educate him, make your voice known, in mutual dialogue, not diva TANTRUMS.

    Sadly this reminds me of the countless times John presented Trans articles to air the issues and present support from the GLB community only to be bitten by a thousand gnats insistent that sis people couldn’t possibly understand the trans experience. Black Lives Matter needs better, more politically astute leadership. Instead of denigrating Sanders start with the NAACP, the Black caucus, and the over-porked faux ‘progressive’ members of Congress.

  8. burningbush says:

    I posted essentially the same questions (those in your first paragraph) on another very popular progressive blog, and the result was (1) nobody addressed my questions and (2) I was crapped on extensively for being a racist. I’m glad that hasn’t happened to you here.

  9. Indigo says:

    Thank you.

  10. 2karmanot says:

    brilliant

  11. Hue-Man says:

    Thanks. It reinforces my view that mainstream media seems only to have bandwidth for cat videos. With such poor coverage of every other issue, how is a candidate supposed to reach out to any group when he/she may not even know they exist until he’s blind-sided?

    Perhaps it’s unfair to extend the American LGBT campaign to other groups. Lawmakers were courted long before they had presidential ambitions (Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years). Help was undoubtedly provided on campaigns and in fund-raising. Politicians were educated in next steps for the LGBT movement. Lines of communication were developed and maintained. Most importantly, rarely did they “kill their allies” – even when some (many?) Democrats deserved it.

  12. Indigo says:

    In the words of Will Rogers, Jr., one of my mother’s cousins, “I don’t belong to an organized political party, I’m a Democrat!”

  13. Indigo says:

    I hardly feel anything about the set of issues outlined in Jon’s essay here. This is where I part company with special-interest groups that foreground their issues ahead of the candidate’s presentation. I don’t have much patience with the Euro-centric idea that multiple parties, each with its specific issues, is the key to the democratic process. I understand that issues are important, I also understand that compromise is important in order to garner the votes needed to win.

    France and Italy are especially prominent in the issue-based party system. Thus do we see their many highly individualized political parties, all colorful, each in their own way, all quaintly reminiscent of those olden days when landed gentlemen voted and ladies stayed quietly home in heavily carpeted Victorian purdah. Those days are on hiatus and even though the Billionaire Cabal would bring it all back and have us all settle down humbly to live inconspicuously, they need not be brought back through the servants’ entrance with quarrels over whose particularism is to be prominently displayed.

    Winning’s the game! Particularism is the red herring of disgruntled distraction. Obeisance to sideline issues will sink the Party into a Saragosa Sea of Irrelevance where the old-time Wheat Party still languishes in the rural Dakotas.

  14. fnord12 says:

    The criticism even before this incident is that Sanders wasn’t reaching out to them. Every random activist group can’t be expected to get an audience with a presidential candidate. The candidates should signal what they think is important by reaching out to groups they want to connect with.

    Sanders (who i support enthusiastically!) is running on a shoestring budget and so far he’s mostly been focused on the early primary states (very white) and other areas where he can raise the huge crowds that he can guarantee to pull supporters and small donors from. The limitation of that is that he hadn’t (yet) reached out to other groups, and so he wasn’t ready for this situation, and he kind of flubbed it. He’s adjusting well, i think.

    The bigger problem now is that a lot of his supporters are feeling butthurt and are making asses of themselves on Twitter and message boards (i don’t mean you, Hue-Man, just speaking generally). We have to understand that while Sanders has a great record and great policies, not everyone knows about it, and both Sanders and his supporters have to do a better job of communicating that.

  15. Skye Winspur says:

    Oh, Vermonters are batsh*t sometimes. I think it comes from the culture of the New England town meeting, where (if you have the leisure time) you can pretend to be God’s gift to democracy and an infallible righteous source of wisdom to your neighbors — who are ALWAYS in danger of backsliding (that’s Calvinism, pure and simple, from the pro-Hamas guy, in that testy exchange.) There’s no way Bernie would’ve lasted a year in Vermont politics if he wasn’t gruff and willing to shout some people down.

  16. Rational says:

    This reminds me of ho some very young voters got played by the rethuglicans to focus on Al Gore having owned some oil stocks and protesting everywhere they could ( including closing down the D’s campaign office in Olympia) while ignoring the twit.
    Expect more of this game playing to sucker in the politically naive who will damage the good in the name of promoting the perfect.

  17. Hue-Man says:

    Excuse my ignorance: did anyone from these groups approach the candidate on a previous occasion to lay out their perspectives, problems, solutions, etc. in order to garner his support? If so, what was his response? If not, why not?

    If this was indeed “gotcha” activism, it goes a long way to explain why candidates resort to their hermetically-sealed bubble and campaign by press release and pre-recorded videos.

  18. Bill_Perdue says:

    The question raised concerned charges of racism regarding BS and certainly his views on Palestine are part of the problem, but the larger question is not about individuals but about the linked roles of the twin parties of racism and their perpetuation of the institutions of racism.

  19. goulo says:

    If you’re bothered by him going off on a tangent, then accuse him of going off on a tangent, and you’ll probably have a fair point.

    Accusing him of being racist for criticizing Israel’s policies about Palestine is simply bogus. And hypocritical, when you stoop to saying a German=Nazi insinuation like “Herr Bill” as a slam.

  20. Doug105 says:

    Bring it up in a unrelated manner like this story is a given for him, as is accusing others of racism if you make any statement critical of islam’s impact on the world, even if it was a story on terrorism.

  21. goulo says:

    Criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic.

    PS: “Herr Bill”? Seriously? When you’re trying to accuse someone else of being racist?

  22. Doug105 says:

    Just can’t leave off for a second with the anti-Semitism, can you herr Bill?

  23. Bill_Perdue says:

    Democrats have a poor record in these matters and so do Republicans. Both support the rabid racism that characterizes the zionist colony in Palestine. Sanders is no exception.

    In terms of domestic policy hundreds of killer cops murder people of color every year and it does Democrats no good at to say ‘All lives matter’. That’s not a real answer when people of color suffer from egregious and institutionalized racism from their murder rate to getting affordable housing and healthcare to being on the bottom of the economic ladder, and in rough times like these, first fired and last hired.

    None of these problems are addressed by either party. In fact they make things worse. Republicans oppose and real change in the minimum wage and scores of millions can’t afford to live on what they make. Democrats, with their contemptuous anti-worker proposal for $10.10 an hour are not measurably better. Both proposals will condemn people to poverty.

    “Treasury Secretary Geithner sat on the homeowners’ relief money for two years, because his boss wanted it that way. The Obama administration’s indifference to the plight of foreclosed homeowners, and total subservience to the banks, is once again on public display. According to a report by the Special Inspector General of the TARP program, the administration has spent only a tiny fraction of the money it was allocated to help those most negatively impacted by the housing collapse. In two years, only a little over 30,000 households have been helped, at a cost of $217 million. That’s only 3 percent of the $7.6 billion TARP is authorized to spend through its Hardest Hit Fund.”

    There’s virtually no chance that either party is willing to change the system of institutionalized racism. That will only be done when socialist and other workers party for a government and then a state.

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