Despite a surge in support that culminated in a New Hampshire poll lead over Hillary Clinton—his first lead in any state poll—and a well-received and thorough racial justice platform, Bernie Sanders is faced with a malignance eating away at the core of his support base. No, it isn’t Black Lives Matter protesters, who jostled him off two podiums in past weeks. Rather, it’s the mostly white liberal voters who make up his dedicated base. Their replies—a mix of disgust and shock—to the actions of black protesters have exposed an old hole in the heart of Progressive politics.
The issue isn’t about Sanders’s politics in particular. The Sanders campaign has faced legitimate criticism for its rhetoric centering around economic justice on the grounds that it is an inadequate pathway for addressing specific racial justice concerns. But to Sanders’ credit, he has responded to those concerns with the beginnings of the very kind of race-specific written policy proposals that Netroots protesters demanded, such as specifically addressing the plight of black women and carving out actionable policy on police violence. As this kerfuffle has started to occupy whatever media spots are left exposed by the thin shadow of Donald Trump’s toupee, Sanders himself has done a decent job of responding and building momentum.
But his supporters? Quite a different story.
This “Bernie Bunch” has responded to all reservations towards their candidate by young black people with a deluge of condescension and racially tinged invective that seems absolutely chat-roomish in character. There are the white writers who lecture black protesters to trust their “best friend,” unaware of the racial politics behind generations of white people declaring themselves besties with unwitting black folk. There are the celebrity liberals with no political or activism experience somehow entitled enough to explain to protesters how protesting works. And there are the legions of Tea Party style copy-and-paste trolls that will flood my Twitter mentions after this. They all persist in direct contradiction to the fact that Sanders actually did respond to protests in exactly the way protesters wanted, and that his decision has pressured and will pressure other candidates to do the same.
Their message, distilled: Shut the hell up if you want to sit with us.
At first glance, much of this debate can be characterized—and critiqued—as a desire for civility. However, hidden in the language of civility is something deeper: silence. It is worth noting that the “Sanders is your best friend” line of defense existed long in advance of any protests as a response to general pre-existing black misgivings about the candidate. He’s your best bet, so shut the hell up and vote. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so shut the hell up and vote. We voted for Obama, so you owe us one. Shut the hell up and vote. Civility is only the aim of the Bernie Bunch to the extent that it ensures silence from would-be protesters.
Those protesters’ main misstep was providing a chance for these kinds of minor-level annoying arguments to galvanize against a trumped-up threat. Despite the fact that Black Lives Matter as a movement is a polylithic collective of groups, and despite the fact that there are black activists stumping just as hard for Sanders, the enemy for the Bernie Bunch has become the whole of black activism itself.
Let’s be real here: the issue many white Progressives have with attacks against Bernie Sanders is centered in the same bumbling allyship dynamic that colors plenty of personal interracial interactions. Many likely see themselves in Sanders. He marched with black America’s father figure, they marched with #BlackLivesMatter, now it’s black America’s turn to get behind their guy. The most vehement reactions are devoid of any consideration that black people with misgivings about Sanders may be fully autonomous thinkers capable of forming real, informed opinions, and acting in their own best interests. Sanders supporters have been given the opportunity to exercise that agency and are right to defend their candidate with vigor, but debate and silencing by definition cannot occur simultaneously.
“The Democratic party as it stands may not have existed without that strong history of same-party agitation from black activists.”
Even as Black Lives Matters activists find ways into the Clinton gated community and push Jeb Bush off stage, the message is the same. Why attack the person whom we proclaim is your friend instead of the other people? The rabidness of the Bernie Bunch’s response has led them to some far-flung conspiracies of paid agitation and credential-checking of black activists. However, questioning the motives in reverse is fair. Do Sanders supporters actually want a group of questioning, aware activists to be brought into their coalition constructively, or do they only want Black Lives Matter on their team as attack dogs?
The mistake of the Bernie Bunch is a central misunderstanding of politics that threatens the success of the party in 2016 and can explain some of the Progressive movement’s losses on the ground in the past ten years. The anti-protester and liberal language at large are heavy with the concept of unified destiny. That electing Sanders will inevitably be the rising tide to lift all ships for members. Perhaps this may turn out to be true, but this language obscures a political reality; that parties are not congregations of believers in the same god, but diverse coalitions of convenience. Black voters are usually seen as a commodity to win or lose, not as political actors in their own right with the ability to push back when the goals of the coalition no longer suits them. Quid pro quo.
The inadequacy of the white liberal response is exposed here. Liberals know that a unified black vote is vital to their candidates, and they have the traditional talking points and “candidate Black passes” ready, but often have no idea how to engage when met with skepticism or a developed agenda that some black people want met. The traditional response shows where the edges of allyship fray and retreat back to white privilege: why can’t you just accept that we mean well without pushing back?
This response is made ironic by both Sanders’s history as a Civil Rights Movement protester and the very formation of the current Progressive coalition. Sanders’s own “black pass”—that he marched with groups that marched with Dr. King—means that he was an active member in a movement that agitated politicians, often via friendly fire. King was a notorious gadfly to ostensible ally President Lyndon B. Johnson. King also supported the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group of black activists from Mississippi that famously crashed the 1964 Democratic National Convention and antagonized many friendly politicians in efforts to persuade them to oppose the influence of racist Dixiecrats and offer black activists a seat at the table. These actions contributed heavily to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and, along with the racially charged rise of Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, helped cement the liberal Democratic coalition that Sanders currently relies on. The Democratic party as it stands may not have existed without that strong history of same-party agitation from black activists.
The climate today is not unlike that surrounding the 1964 Convention. The south is re-segregating in many aspects and diluting the black vote. Black people are dying at the hands of police and being incarcerated at alarming and rising rates—so far 40 percent of all unarmed people killed by police in 2015 have been black and other inequalities have been found at virtually every turn in the criminal justice system. But a rich multitude of organizing voices has emerged to challenge all parties and people to create a more perfect union, not by being perfect or perfectly civil themselves but by being real and human. If Sanders supporters really want a shot in 2016, they’d do well to follow their candidate’s lead and actually listen to all of those voices instead of trying to silence them.
Vann R. Newkirk II is an independent journalist, designer, fiction-writer, and activist afrofuturist. He is also cofounder of Seven Scribes, a new online platform featuring millennials of color. Find him on Twitter at @fivefifths.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photos via Getty/AP]