When it matters most- exclusion in ideas of political unity

Many liberal White folks are still angry that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is demanding mainstream attention through various protest methods, the most polarizing of which was when two #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupted Bernie Sanders’ speech in Seattle. They’re angry because they feel like Bernie Sanders is already doing his best. They’re angry because they feel like #BlackLivesMatter is undermining a delicate grassroots political campaign, one that is battling behemoth corporate interests that masquerade as competing presidential candidates. Bernie is talking about many pressing concerns – things like class, healthcare, poverty, prisons, and the environment. These are issues that affect everyone. These folks wonder why #BlackLivesMatter activists can’t see that Bernie is on their side.

On the whole, Bernie Sanders has stepped up. He’s added “Racial Justice” to his platform and he hired Symone Sanders as his press secretary, a woman active in the #BlackLivesMatter and criminal justice reform movements. This isn’t to say that Bernie can just sit back and wait for Black supporters and votes to come rolling in – but it does mean that he’s listening. And he’s one of the few candidates making concrete efforts toward racial justice.

But this isn’t about Bernie Sanders.

This is about Bernie’s White supporters. And no, “#NotAllBernieSupporters” are disparaging the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but a whole bunch of them are. I’m talking about the ones who feel outrage when #BlackLivesMatter activists interrupt their rallies.  I’m talking about the mostly liberal and well-intentioned Bernie enthusiasts who make up the bulk of his supporters – those who feel that if everyone would just ‘stand together’ and stop bringing up race, Bernie might actually win the primary. And, above all, I’m talking about people like me. Immediately following the Seattle rally interruption, I experienced anger, confusion, disappointment, and exasperation right along with the vast majority of my fellow White Bernie Sanders supporters. My knee-jerk reaction was to simultaneously write off the #BlackLivesMatter movement and dismiss the activists as rogue outliers. “Don’t they know they’re hurting their own cause?” “Why go after Bernie – he marched with Dr. King!” “Interrupting speeches is rude.” Yes, I actually got annoyed and dismissed an entire civil rights campaign because I thought the activists were being rude.

Many White liberal people, especially those who come from middle to upper class families, feel that the most important topics are environmental, political, or economic.  White people commonly believe that these are the root issues by which all others become important or relevant – that these are the core and universal issues facing our populace, and only by addressing these first will we be able to tackle issues of racial injustice. Because if we don’t have a habitable planet, we can’t fix racial inequality, right? Or if we continue to see increasing levels of corruption and austerity, our economy will go down the shitter and none of us will be happy. Or if unemployment rates increase, more people will fall into poverty.  

The troubling aspect of these lines of thinking is that each assumes that it’s okay for a smaller portion of our society to suffer as long as the rest of us are happy and comfortable. Yes, the environment matters! No doubt if we continue to use fossil fuels at current rates, our children and grandchildren will face dire consequences. And absolutely, topics such as Citizens United and the corporatization of our government need to be addressed, as do harmful institutional practices that contribute to increased rates of poverty and incarceration. Yet, at the heart of each of these concerns runs a common thread. Racial inequality is an exacerbating factor in every political platform championed by progressive White Americans:

  • The environment: families of color are more likely to live in areas where there are higher levels of ground and air pollution
  • The economy: unemployment and poverty rates are higher for people of color;
  • Mass incarceration (and the war on drugs): people of color are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than White people
  • Reproductive justice: women of color are disproportionately targeted and surveilled by Child Protective Services and have a more difficult time accessing reproductive services
  • Corruption in government: gerrymandering and voter ID laws are disenfranchising voters of color at alarming rates – also, this.

While there is no universal message that will meet every need of our diverse population, racial inequality intersects with all of these ‘conventional’ platforms. And not only do these platforms intersect with race; racial injustice is in fact a root cause of many political issues dear to the White liberal heart. The centuries long American tradition of perpetuating and maintaining racial inequality drives policy and business decisions and reinforces long-standing racially oppressive social norms.

Reader, you and I might have quite a bit in common, or we may have nothing in common, but just as an example, consider my (White middle class) family’s hierarchy of needs:

  1. We need high speed internet and two vehicles.
  2. We need to buy milk.
  3. We need to work on recycling more.
  4. We need to mow our lawn so our neighbors don’t get pissed off at us.
  5. We need to take our dogs to the vet and the groomer.
  6. We need to not get angry when our asshole neighbors play loud music at 12:30 am on Tuesday…
  7. We need to stop buying so much shit on Amazon (this should be closer to the top but I’m in denial).

My family lives in a safe, comfortable neighborhood. My children can walk to school without the looming threats present in high crime areas. My young sons can grow into teenagers without fearing the police or being subjected to excessive levels of state surveillance. My husband can speed on the interstate without being profiled by the highway patrol. I can use cannabis without worrying that Child Protective Services will remove my children. We have health insurance and have never had difficulty getting or keeping a job.

So, it would make sense that if I live day to day in a world where most people are just like me, I would likely prioritize the environment and universal healthcare as my main political priorities.

But if I lived in a different world, one where my children and husband had a one in three – one in three – chance of being incarcerated; where unemployment rates among people like me were much higher (and underreported) than the national unemployment rate; where I had fewer educational opportunities and was more likely to live in poverty and less able to escape it, well… my hierarchy of needs would be much, much different than what it is now.

And if while attending a rally to hear a politician talk about an issue that perhaps had little relevance to my day to day life, I witnessed two women – who looked like me and had the courage and audacity to interrupt a celebrated politician – speak about issues that directly impacted my daily existence (issues that are glossed over or diminished by the mainstream media and most politicians), I imagine I wouldn’t be too upset that I didn’t get to hear about social security.

I say ‘imagine’ and ‘if’ a lot because I don’t actually know firsthand. What I do know is Black friends and scholars are talking about their experience and it’s imperative that we listen and attempt to imagine how our comfortable lives could be much less comfortable. We have to imagine what it must be like to fear the very institution sworn to protect us, and we have to imagine having to instill that same fear in our children. For millions of Americans, it didn’t matter that Bill Clinton was a ‘progressive’ president or that Barack Obama is a ‘progressive’ president. Americans of color were, and continue to be, unemployed and incarcerated and killed and impoverished at higher rates than White people. So I have to imagine that many Black Americans don’t believe things will be any different under yet another ‘progressive’ president, even one as progressive as Bernie Sanders.

What can we do? We can listen! We can support people who experience these injustices firsthand and those who are surviving our system rather than thriving in it. We can participate in protests and/or we can counter dominant dialogue in the many different venues where it is produced (at work, in social media, at church, among our family and friends). We can understand how race intersects with every issue being discussed by our politicians and we can use our voices and our positions to highlight how people of color are disproportionately affected. We can use our privilege to speak with (NOT for) marginalized Americans.

We cannot, in good conscience, remain silent about the injustices perpetrated by our own system against our own citizens in order to win a primary – or even a presidential election. Bernie Sanders understands this and it’s past time that his White supporters understand it as well.

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