On Bernie Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter

Several #BlackLivesMatter activists made sure their concerns were heard in Seattle by taking over a Bernie Sander’s campaign event. I’ve heard a number of white progressives spurn this tactic, pleading instead for support for the only truly progressive (at least on economics) candidate in the 2016 presidential race.

The problem is that until now Bernie has been inexcusably silent on issues of race, which in our current context makes him seem incredibly out of touch. I love Bernie’s economic agenda, for the most part, but he was running the risk of committing the reductionist progressive sin: boiling every issue down to one. Yes, economic inequality disproportionately affects people of color in this country, and yes, it is as close to a panacea as it gets. Nearly every other inequality is undergirded by it. But they’re not reducible to it. There are of course countless instances of wealthy people who have been victimized by racial injustice. 

It shouldn’t escape attention either that claiming racial injustice is reducible to economic injustice is, in a sense, saying racial injustice isn’t really an issue itself. It wouldn’t be denying that racial injustice happens, but it would be a colonizing of the issue, thereby dismissing it in a way, for the sake of another more ‘real’ or foundational concern.

Yet the issue here it isn’t merely the fact that racial injustice isn’t structurally reducible to economic inequality. It’s also the fact that any plan to deal with racial injustice that does so in such an indirect way alone, especially in light of the recent police violence and white supremacist terrorism, is simply not enough. Even if it were the case that economic justice would solve racial injustice entirely, if myopic attention to economics resulted in the oversight of more direct, immediate complementary actions it would still be an incredibly problematic tactic. It’s easy, as a white person, not to sense “the fierce urgency of now.” Not to mention, deafening silence on the issue passes, perhaps rightly, for lack of concern.

It seems to me that such a willingness to reduce racial injustice to economic injustice entirely is a ‘white’ project at its core: those who experience the threat of racial injustice most distantly find it a far less pressing concern.

I’m glad to see Bernie step up and respond, hearing the call of the people. I hoped he wasn’t a reductionist progressive, and this makes it seem like that’s the case. It’s not a sign of weakness that he did so, but of strength. He needed to evolve publicly on the issue, even if he already had privately, and that’s what he’s done.


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