Following the midterm elections, Bernie Sanders said the following in an interview with The Daily Beast to explain the gap in white support of Black gubernatorial candidates in the Florida and Georgia elections: “You know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American. I think next time around, by the way, it will be a lot easier for them to do that.” A quick and strident Black Twitter backlash ensued calling out the contradiction in Sander’s comment. In an interview that NPR published with the headline “Bernie Sanders clarifies comments about racism hurting Black candidates” soon after, Sanders’ effort at clarification only worked to further obfuscate the issue. He says, “There’s no question that in Georgia and in Florida racism has reared its ugly head. And you have candidates who ran against Gillum and ran against Stacey Abrams who were racist and were doing everything they could to try to play whites against blacks. And that is an outrage, and we have got to continue doing everything that we can to fight all forms of racism.” In the full statement, there is nothing in it where he actually addresses the earlier comment that caused the backlash.
In a prepared statement that he posted online the following day, he begins by declaring, “Let me be absolutely clear: Donald Trump, Brian Kemp and Ron DeSantis ran racist campaigns. … They used racist rhetoric to divide people and advance agendas that would harm the majority of Americans. In Florida, Andrew Gillum, whom I was proud to stand with even during the primaries, faced week after week of racism from his opponent and allied forces.”
Clarifying that Trump and the Republicans are racist is like saying water is wet. What the Republicans did is not the issue. What he said is. His so-called clarification really amounts to a redirection. The point is that he provided an excuse for those whites that decided to not vote for a candidate because that candidate is a Black person. That is the definition of being racist. Furthermore, in deciding to not vote for a Black candidate, they, in turn, voted for white men who ran overtly racist campaigns. Whichever part of this Sanders wishes to rationalize doesn’t dismiss the concerns. Either approach ends in the same conclusion: Racism is as racism does. To not vote for a candidate because that person is Black is racist. To vote for a racist is racist.
And as if that was not bad enough, Sanders saying that they were uncomfortable considering a Black candidate for “the first time” totally negates the Obama presidency. Obama was on the ticket in every district in this nation … twice! He knows this. His willingness to be less than honest to curry favor with a reluctant white electorate is disturbing. And his failure to address the real issue is a problem.
Those white voters he is excusing were not duped by the Republicans. They were not forced or coerced or otherwise manipulated into voting for DeSantis and Kemp. They decided to vote for them because they agreed with their platforms and agendas as racist as Sanders admits they were. Let me be absolutely clear: Voting for a racist is racist. It is akin to giving the gun to the man who says he wants to kill Black people. He might want to kill Black people, but he can’t until he is provided the means. To vote for a candidate who despises Black people is to empower him and place him in the position to enact agendas and policies that you know will do harm to Black people. That’s racism. That’s how it works.
For Sanders to follow that comment with this remark, “I think next time around, by the way, it will be a lot easier for them to do that,” is to dismiss the issue all together. His effort at ending his comments on a positive note pointing to the future is only further insulting. Worse yet is that it sounds eerily familiar to the kind of liberal paternalism that Dr. King criticized in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where he wrote about the white moderate seeking to set the timetable for Black progress. With this statement, Sanders is telling Black people, don’t worry, calm down, “next time” will be better. His gradualism approach and seeming belief in the inevitability of progress over time has no relevance given the rampant uptick in random white hostilities from the very population that Sanders is defending. No matter how many times we are reminded of Sanders’ activism during the Civil Rights Movement, he continues to show us that he has yet to learn the lessons of the movement.
This is more than a mere gaffe on the part of a well-meaning old white guy. Sander’s comment is a true reflection of his “Class First” agenda which has been a hallmark of the White Left he now champions. For Sanders and many that follow him, race is secondary to class in every respect. In that analysis, white people are being duped and exploited by the 1% just like the rest of the population. And according to them, the solution is to develop and implement economic reform that is color-blind. What they religiously fail to recognize is that there can be no effective reform that doesn’t factor in race and the very particular ways in which Black and Brown people are super-exploited under capitalism. For them to recognize that would require admitting that white people are advantaged and privileged in this system regardless of their class status.
Sanders’ plausible deniability of the racism of white voters who couldn’t bear voting for a Black candidate is but the latest expression of this color-blind class-first political agenda that avoids and denies the centrality of race/racism in American life. In stump speech after stump speech Sanders is quick to claim “white working class” roots. Yet, he is unwilling to accept that the very term “white working class” is an acknowledgement that race is integral in the US economy. The only reason that there is even something called “the white working class” is because of the racism of the white worker. Get rid of their racism and there would only be the “working class” without any need for a racial qualifier. Bernie Sanders cannot promote an economic agenda that denies race and at the same time claim affinity with something he calls the white working class unless he is only interested in obfuscating the issue and blowing dog whistles of his own.
This is not necessarily a criticism but a word of advice to the honorable Senator from the whitest state in the union: The issue facing the Democratic Party following these midterms is not waiting for whites to become comfortable with voting for Black candidates. The real issue is when will the party realize that it can’t win any big ticket or presidential races without the votes of Black, Latinx and other people of color. The 2016 presidential election and the midterms confirm this. The more the party leaders and operatives continue to isolate and marginalize us in their effort to woo certain white voters back to the fold, they will risk losing the one voting bloc they can no longer afford to take for granted. To defend or otherwise excuse the racism of white voters is to insult every Black Democratic candidate that put in the work and assumed the associated risks to run for political office. And every such insult to a Black candidate is an insult to the Black community. And as Sanders continues to learn, we ain’t having that. Yes, Senator, we must do everything to fight all forms of racism, including the white progressive kind.
The future of the Democratic Party is a progressive platform, and there can be no progressive platform that doesn’t center the concerns of people of color in the United States. The sooner Sanders and the Democrats come to terms with this, the better for all of us. Otherwise, he and his “Class First” followers will watch his 2020 presidential aspirations end in the same kind of bitter disappointment as last time.
Ewuare X. Osayande (@EwuareXOsayande) is a poet, essayist and political activist. The author of several books including Whose America?: New and Selected Poems, his forthcoming book is entitled Blessed are Black Lives.