Bernie Sanders’ Top Five Race Problems: the Whiteness of Nominal Socialism

Racism as Just an Economic Problem

The nominally socialist Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie “sheep dog” Sanders, from 95% white Vermont, has, it turns out, has some race problems – at least five by my count. The first one, very much on his display in his speech to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s old organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) last July 25th, is his economistic tendency to downplay the significance of race and the importance of specifically anti-racist struggle.

Reflecting the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen in response to racist police killings, Sanders addressed the SCLC to demonstrate his commitment to racial justice. He came armed with a surplus of terrible statistics on US racial disparities and institutional racism. Sanders seemed eager to wrap himself in the legacy of Dr. King. “Bernie” (as his liberal; and progressive fans like to call him) trumpeted his own youthful work in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He quoted King on the disgraceful existence of mass poverty in a land of prosperity and on the obscenity that (as King noted in Memphis, Tennessee just days before his assassination or execution) “most of the poor people in our country are working every day…and…making wages so low they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.”

After praising King for understanding that (in Sanders’ words) “it is useless to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of [economic] inequality” Sanders moved into long, fact-filled reflections on wealth and income inequality and corporate plutocracy in contemporary New Gilded Age America. He reiterated his standard campaign denunciations of the Republican Party, the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers, and the Supreme Court’s oligarchic Citizens United decision. He called for major federal jobs programs and infrastructure investments, combined with progressive taxation and single-payer health insurance, to fight poverty, create good jobs, and downwardly redistribute wealth and power in the U.S.

He showed himself knowledgeable on racial disparities in the U.S. at the SCLC. Still, he was far too ready to portray racism as merely an economic problem that can be solved with social-democratic economic solutions producing enough to go around for everyone. Sanders is right that serious anti-racism needs to be coupled with opposition to the class and economic inequalities that – he might have added but did not – (a) have done so much to create racial divisions and (b) thrive on racial fragmentation in the majority working class. But it is equally true that (c) it is useless to try to organize meaningfully and effectively against economic paulstreetinequality in the U.S. without struggling to overcome fierce racial divisions that have long crippled and undone American popular and working class movements and that (d) overcoming those divisions means a forthright acknowledgement of the special, vicious super-exploitation, torture. and oppression experienced by Black America from the nation’s colonial origins through more than two and a half centuries of Black chattel slavery followed by Jim Crow servitude and segregation, urban ghettoization, and racist mass incarceration. Reparations and more are due for that especially terrible history, which is the main reason for the remarkable distinctive poverty, insecurity, and criminalization experienced by Black Americans today.

The racially specific differences are stark indeed Black Lives Matter has emerged in the context of a savage racial disparity so steep that (to mention some numbers Sanders did not include in his SCLC talk) the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households and a four-decades-long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking so extreme that more than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black while one in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record. Criminal marking is a many-sided barrier to employment, education, housing, borrowing, and more – an obstacle to full and democratic participation in American society so extreme for that so steep that the Black law Professor Michelle Alexander has with no small justice labelled it the “New Jim Crow.” At the same time, however, employers’ discrimination against Blacks is so harsh that U.S. bosses have been shown (in an important study by the sociologist Devah Pager) to be more likely to hire white job applicants with felony records than Black applicants without such records. It’s all much worse than what might one expect if racial inequality was just one part of “the larger question” of economic inequality.

Unequal Minus Separate

That’s Bernie’s first race problem. His second one, also very evident in his SCLC lecture, is a failure to mention the persistent deep de facto residential and educational segregation – the continuing American race apartheid – that contributes richly to racial inequality in the US today. Take the St, Louis area, home to the racist police killing (of Mike Brown) – and the militarized police-state response to protests of that killing – that set off the BLM movement. It is just the seventh most segregated metropolitan region in the US. It has a residential “segregation indice” of 72.3, meaning that nearly three-fourths of the region’s Blacks would have to move to be geographically distributed exactly like whites.

Such extreme residential segregation has little to do with Black choices.  It is a product of class and racial bias in the functioning of real estate markets and home lending and the persistent reluctance of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s steep racial inequalities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.” By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places. US de facto apartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That basic underlying concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”

Racial inequality is still very much about racial and race-class apartheid in the U.S. today – something to think about the next time you see a nearly all-white audience of liberals applauding Bernie in a predominantly white community in Iowa or New Hampshire.

The Color of Empire

Bernie’s third race problem has to do with his longstanding support for the American military Empire and (especially when the U.S. President is a Democrat) its wars, from Bill Clinton’s bombing of Serbia through and beyond Barack Obama’s bombing of Libya – and for Israel’s ongoing war of terror against its Palestinian subjects and neighbors. Just like some of Dr. King’s fellow democratic-socialist Civil Rights and anti-poverty leaders (Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, and A. Phillip Randolph) in the mid-1960s, Bernie is hung up on the U.S. war machine. He barrels ahead, calling for expensive (and desperately needed) domestic social and environmental programs without making any serious reference to how the United States’ gargantuan war budget devours more than half of the nation’s federal discretionary spending. He upholds the social-democratic Scandinavian welfare states as a role model for the U.S. without noting the critical fact that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden dedicate comparatively tiny portions of their budgets to military spending. He seems unwilling to acknowledge that the U.S. cannot have the progressive changes he advocates as long as it remains a military superpower with tentacles of deadly, vastly expensive force in nearly every corner of the planet.

What’s it got to with race? Plenty. The primary targets of the American military Empire and its client state Israel are nonwhite, predominantly Muslim people in the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia. At the same time, nobody inside the U.S. is more in need of the progressive domestic social policy that is fiscally, politically, and culturally pre-empted by the perverted military priorities of the U.S warfare-over-welfare state than the nation’s very disproportionately Black, Latino, and Native American lower classes.

“Bring in All Kinds of People”

Bernie’s fourth race problem has to do with immigration. In a recent online interview, Sanders was asked about his views on that topic by former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein. “You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view,” Klein said. “I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders interrupted sharply to say, “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal….That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer. You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state,” Sanders continued, “and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that… What right-wing people in this country would love is an open border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour. That would be great for them… You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those [American] kids?” As the bitter arch-sectarians at the World Socialist Website rightly note:

“Sanders’ argument that open borders would “make everybody in America poorer” takes for granted the enforced division between American and immigrant workers and the super-exploitation of the latter. It also implicitly accepts as permanent the continued monopolization of wealth in the US by a tiny financial aristocracy. The expropriation of this parasitic social layer would, in and of itself, provide substantial resources to raise the wages and living standards of all workers in the US, native-born and immigrant alike…By promoting economic nationalism and protectionism, Sanders implicitly argues in favor of American workers lining up behind ‘their’ bosses and government against workers of other countries. So much for his supposed hostility to the American ‘billionaire class!…While Democratic politicians, along with their agents in the trade union bureaucracy, have long utilized the supposed threat of foreign labor to whip up nationalist sentiment within the working class, Sanders takes this position to its logical conclusion, openly promoting the sanctity of the American nation state.”

“The implications of this position are profoundly reactionary. Sanders’ insinuation that open borders would lead to the dissolution of the United States is an argument whose logic leads to fascistic conclusions. Sanders is not a fascist, but his suggestion that immigrants pose a threat to the American nation state recalls the type of arguments and slogans utilized in Germany during the Nazi period. These included the notion of ‘überfremdung’—the inundation of the Fatherland by foreign, non-Aryan elements.”

“The democratic right of workers to live and work wherever they choose is a basic principle of socialism. It is bound up with opposition to nationalism, which is the essential ideology of the bourgeoisie, and promotion of internationalism, i.e., the recognition of the fundamental identity of interests of all workers, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and the struggle to unite workers across national borders against their common exploiters, the capitalists of all countries.”

Beneath the nationalism of Sanders’ opposition to increased immigration (which he immediately identified with “open borders” though Klein meant no such thing) lay an undeniable racial sub-text. When Sanders said that “open borders” would “bring in all kinds of people,” is there any serious doubt that he is referring mainly to people of color from Latin America, Asia, and Africa?

Digging Scandinavia But Not Latin America

These, I think are Bernie’s biggest four race problems. Let me go out on a limb to mention a fifth one. I am referring to Sanders’ recurrent and ritual reference to the “social democratic” Scandinavian states of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark as examples of other nations from which the United States has something to learn when it comes to egalitarian social policy and politics. There are two difficulties here. Forget for a moment that each of these very predominantly white (like Vermont) countries is scarred by white racist and xenophobic attitudes towards nonwhite immigrants. That problem aside, why does Sanders have nothing to say about the recent significant positive social democratic, poverty-reducing, and egalitarian accomplishments of governments that have taken an historic Left turn in Latin America – Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Argentina – or about the remarkable poverty-reducing accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution? Among the many explanations for Sanders’ silence on the noteworthy achievement of Latin American populism and socialism (achieved over and against U.S. opposition and intervention), we cannot discount race – a stubborn white reluctance to acknowledge that Uncle Sam might have anything to learn from his supposedly inferior, non-white neighbors in South America.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).