Why Bernie Sanders is No Great White Hope for Black America

“What’s wrong with Those People?”

It’s good to know a little history when trying to make sense of current events.

“What’s wrong with those people,” the young liberal white town woman – a big environmentalist – said to me a month or so ago. “Don’t they know that Bernie is their best hope?”

My “those people,” she meant Black people, who she had recently read were not showing a lot of support (in polls) for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

This was well before the recent incident in Seattle, where a Sanders speech was interrupted by some purported Black Lives Matter “activists. “ It was also prior to a similar disruption of Sanders by Black “activists” at the NetrRoots conference in Phoenix.

While I do not pretend to know all the facts behind the skirmishes in Seattle and Reno, I do not share many white liberals’ and progressives’ sense that it is outrageous or mysterious for Black Americans to be uninspired by the Sanders’ campaign. Sanders may – as he made a point of telling the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) a few weeks ago – have participated as a young man in the early and mid-1960s Civil Rights Movement. Good for him. So did millions of other people, including no small number of idealistic young white adults (including my parents in Chicago in 1966).

Three Strikes and More

But since his youth in multiracial Brooklyn and his work for civil rights in the mid-1960s, Sanders moved to the liberal and very white state of Vermont and became a U.S. Congressman (1991-2000) and U.S. Senator (2001-present).   With the exception of his opposition to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Sanders has been a stealthily staunch supporter of the U.S. military state and empire over the last quarter century – a military state and empire that murders and maims mainly non-white others (though white Serbians qualified as targets for a U.S. bombing that Bernie approved in 1999) and steals billions of dollars each year from meeting the needs of the United States’ own very disproportionately Black, Latino, and Native American poor.

As a member of the US House of Representatives, Sanders voted for Bill Clinton’s deeply racist 1994 “three strikes” crime bill. The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands of more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. It was known for its sadistic “three strikes” provision, which consigned “violent offenders” to lifetime imprisonment for a third criminal conviction, including for minor parole violations and drug addiction. Backed by congressional Republicans, the bill helped dramatically expand the nation’s globally unmatched and wildly race-disparate mass incarceration system – this while crime was falling.

As a Senator, Sanders has voted for a measure that has advanced urban school privatization, deepened educational race disparities, and deepened the hold of deadening standardized testing pedagogy over minority student: the No Child Left Behind Act. He is a supporter of the state and federal Common Core States Initiative, another key part of the neoliberal-racist schools agenda.

I do not know if the activists who interrupted Sanders in Seattle and/or Phoenix had this policy history in mind but his uninspiring legislative record on race should matter to anyone who thinks that Bernie is Black Americans’ “best hope.”

Feeding Candidate-Centered Election Madness

At the same time, and this is a key point, there’s a big difference between assisting a great grassroots struggle for social justice like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and running for the White House under the banner of the corporate and imperial Democratic Party. The first form of activism is a worthy commitment. The second is not. It encourages people to link their hopes for progressive change and social justice to a reactionary political party with a long and deserved history as the graveyard of social movements. It channels popular anger and excitement into a dead, money-soaked political and elections system and its staggered, quadrennial, highly personalized and mass-marketed corporate media-ted candidate-centered electoral spectacles – as if that’s the real and only politics that matters.

It is so such thing. The development of grassroots social movements strong enough that they can’t be ignored by concentrated wealth, privilege, and power is far more significant. As Howard Zinn explained seven years ago, criticizing the “election madness” that had “egulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” in the year of Brand Obama’s ascendancy, “Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced [to act in accord with popular needs] by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

Presidential Candidate Sanders’ Anti-Racist Agenda

Since Sanders ago traded in social movement politics for major party candidate-electoral politics on the masters’ biennial and quadrennial schedule long ago (he’s been fake-independent de facto Democrat since at least 1990), however, let’s take a look at the racial content of his White House quest. As a presidential candidate boasting his Civil Rights past and launching a campaign in the wake of a significant Black struggle against an epidemic of racist white police shootings of Black Americans, Sanders has been remarkably slow to put racial justice anywhere near the center of his campaign. He has upped his rhetoric against racial inequality and institutional racism in recent weeks, under pressure from Black activists, it is true, but he done so in a way that badly underestimates both the depth and degree of racial oppression in the contemporary US and the necessity of undertaking specifically anti-racist struggle against specifically racist institutions and ideologies. He has badly exaggerated the extent to which contemporary US racial inequality and oppression can be addressed and overcome with color-blind economic populism and “jobs, jobs, jobs” for all. He has not turned against Washington’s racist and imperialist Pentagon System, which eats up 54 percent of the United States’ federal discretionary spending and accounts for nearly half of all military spending on the planet. He hasn’t called for that system’s dismantling and the use of the funds released to launch a domestic Marshall Plan to overcome the massive and crushing poverty that plagues Black America thanks to two and half centuries of slavery, a century plus of Jim Crow, a century of urban ghettoization, decades of liberal social policies that actually deepened racial inequality (see below), and four decades of racist mass incarceration. He has not apologized for his terrible “Three Strikes” vote (even Clinton himself now calls the draconian and racist 1994 crime bill a “mistake”) or renounced his attachment for the miserable, Dickensian NCLB. He has noted denounced or even noticed the intimate and toxic relationship between the United States’ racist global empire and the militarization of the local U.S. police departments that regularly harass and even gun-down unarmed Black Americans while gathering up vast swaths of those Americans people to function as the critical, multiply disenfranchised raw material for the nation’s globally unmatched and racially hyper-disparate mass incarceration and felony-marking system.

When Affirmative Action Was White

In the Seattle speech that was pre-empted by the BLM interrupters, Sanders was going to hail the 80th anniversary of the New Deal’s Social Security Act (SSA). He would no doubt have heaped well-deserved praise on the measure, which has provided progressively funded and desperately needed old-age pensions for millions upon millions of working and middle class Americans for seven plus decades. Along with the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act (which legalized union organizing in the U.S), the SSA was a benchmark New Deal program that functioned to expand and preserve a U.S. middle class in the post-WWII “golden age,” when overall economic inequality fell significantly (and quite anomalously, as Thomas Piketty reminded us last year) in the US as across the advanced capitalist world.

At the same time, however, Sanders and his speech writers might want to reflect on the role of the SSA and other New Deal programs as well as the widely heralded GI Bill played in deepening racial inequalities in “golden age” America. As political scientist Ira Katznelson showed in his important 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America, the leading New Deal programs were administered in racially discriminatory ways. They were deliberately worded to exclude minority groups. Subsidies came to a large number of ordinary Americans, it is true, but the SSA was written in such a way as to deny benefits to millions of disproportionately Black and Latino maids, farmers, and migrant workers. The GI Bill fell under the purview of the states, preventing Black veterans from enjoying the federal government’s underwriting of returning soldiers’ schooling and housing. Far from levelling the playing field racially, Katznelson showed, the key New Deal and post-WWII policies deepened the gap between white and Black Americans.

Conscious that post-WWII America was scarred by massive racial inequality and facing significant Black protest and racial unrest in the 1960s (when young Bernie Sanders worked with the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago), U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and other top U.S, liberals made some efforts to reduce the nation’s racial disparities. But the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s (the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968), the short-lived Great Society programs of the same period, the momentary progress in school desegregation form the 1950s through the 1970s, and modern affirmative action – all of these were unable to undo the damage imposed by centuries of racial oppression and by more recent liberal (New Deal and WWII veterans benefits) federal policies that magnified U.S. racial inequality.

It didn’t help, of course, that Johnson and the rest of the U.S. imperial establishment decided to wage a massively criminal and expensive war on Southeast Asia – a mass-murderous and racist military campaign that swept up vast resources that would have been required for any serious effort to attack the deep poverty that still plagued Black America at the height of the nation’s middle-class expanding postwar “golden age.” Dr. King came to understand and oppose this underlying conflict between “guns” and “butter,” observing that the imperial system had crushed “hope for the [U.S.] poor – both black and white.” The anti-poverty program was “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad” on a militarism that drew “men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube,” King said. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” King added, “is approaching spiritual death.”

Many of his fellow democratic-socialist Civil Rights and anti-poverty leaders of the time, including Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin, failed egregiously to join King in combining anti-racism and anti-poverty with anti-imperialism to forthrightly oppose the U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (as the young Chomsky described “the Vietnam War”).

Beyond Social-Democratic Economism

This New Deal and post-WWII US history matters for understanding the racial limits of the Sanders campaign. On the campaign trail, Sanders has argued that what is most needed for racial justice and Black advancement in this country is progressively color-blind policy that defends “the middle class” (in current U.S. politics you are now more likely to hear the phrase “working class” from the lips of a Republican candidate than a Democratic one) and reduces overall economic equality and poverty while producing millions of good jobs, jobs, and jobs. Consider it a form of social-democratic trickle over economics: “what’s good for white America beneath the “billionaire class” is good for Blacks too.”

Sanders is right when he says that racial inequality in the U.S. cannot be meaningfully addressed without also taking on the question of economic inequality across the entire society. History, however, suggests strongly that the racial problem is far more complex. Racial inequality actually deepened while overall opportunity, jobs, government benefits for working people and the poor rose expanded like never before and while poverty and inequality fell like no time before during a “golden age” – at the height of the long New Deal era’s “[corporate-] liberal [and Keynesian] consensus” – that was far more golden for white Americans than for Black Americans. At the same time, it is also true, today as in previous eras, that the United States’ shockingly high and persistent racial disparities cannot be meaningfully addressed and overcome without specific struggles against the very specific racial oppression experienced by Black Americans – oppression that has always been written into the national DNA of American capitalism and class rule. Social-democratic economism will simply not do the trick.

Also no less true today than before, resources to address and overcome that special oppression are going to have to come out of the giant imperial military system that makes the US still “the leading purveyor of violence on the planet” (Dr. King, April 4, 1967). It’s a system Sanders refuses to forthrightly oppose, very much like his milquetoast social-democratic soul brothers Harrington and Rustin in the middle 1960s.

Whatever one thinks of the incidents in Phoenix and Seattle, there should be little doubt that Black Americans have plenty of reasons not to embrace Bernie Sanders as their shining knight in armor and “best hope.”

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