Bernie, it’s time to get real about race

Bernie Sanders made history with a grassroots-fueled 2016 quest for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. His identification as a Democratic Socialist and an intense millennial following defined his meteoric rise in American politics, from being an obscurely radical voice in the U.S. Senate, to one of the nation’s most popular politicians. Although former secretary of state Hillary Clinton ultimately secured the Democratic presidential nomination, the political revolution of social and economic justice heralded by Sanders remains a compelling vision for many voters.

This energy has fueled Sanders’ second campaign for president in 2020. However, Sanders’ inability to directly confront the subject of race persists as the Achilles heel of his campaign and threatens to cost him the nomination once again—even if voters yearn for a more definitive vision than the recycled centrism of Biden, Harris, and other neoliberal candidates. 

I was one of the millennials who had become increasingly disillusioned with the corporate allegiances of both the Democratic and Republican parties and came to understand capitalism as being anything but a “free” economic system, but rather one that exploits, oppresses, and brutalizes individuals on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other intersecting experiences of identity. My frustration motivated me to join Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). DSA is a political organization, not affiliated with either established party, that seeks to end capitalism by building power with the working class and ensuring people collectively control our society and economy.

It was exciting and hopeful to see Sanders introduce socialist concepts into the mainstream in 2016 – particularly Medicare for All and his pledge to enact free public education at the university level.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of these ideas, Sanders has a troubling and disheartening approach when it comes to discussing race. Sanders demonstrated his ignorance of racial issues as he attempted to join the conversation on reparations for people of African descent in the United States. After many other Democratic presidential candidates had introduced plans or supported studying the possibility of reparations, Sanders weighed in by stating, “I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”

Effectively, Sanders was saying to Black voters that it was not appropriate to allocate federal funding for reparations, although his Medicare for All proposal bears an estimated cost of $32.6 trillion over its first decade of implementation. After intense public pressure, Sanders reversed his stance and indicated that, if elected president, he would sign a bill authorizing a congressional commission to study the question of reparations.

This is the way Sanders routinely addresses race. He makes confronting racism an afterthought to economic policy and overthrowing capitalism. This is an established tendency within typically white socialist circles: Once the class exploitation of a capitalist economy is eradicated, other forms of oppression (racial, gender, sexual) will subsequently dissolve.

This is simply not true.

We cannot meaningfully combat racism in the United States without simultaneously ending capitalist exploitation. And we can only hope to eradicate capitalism by focusing on how it uniquely disenfranchises socially constructed experiences of identity. Race is foremost among these oppressed experiences in a nation founded on the exploited livelihood of enslaved people. Consequently, the reality of race always intertwines with class implications. One cannot hope to forge a comprehensive plan for racial justice without analyzing the myriad ways in which racial identity and class systemically intersect.

Perspective is needed to digest how a revolutionary zealot was defeated by the monarch of establishment candidates in 2016 and to ensure such a preventable travesty does not unfold again. Hillary Clinton won over 70% of states with substantial African-American populations during the 2016 primary. This occurred in light of the Clinton administration inflicting some of the most devastating blows to the Black community witnessed in the past four decades – ramping up the War on Drugs, increasing mandatory minimum sentencing, and gutting welfare programs to low-income families. A horrendous policy record did not erase the colloquial reverence of President Clinton as “the first Black president,” contributing to nearly automatic support for his wife’s Oval Office bid.

A generational divide existed in this equation. Black voters under the age of 30 favored Sanders in 2016, while older voters preferred Clinton. This trend holds today and speaks to Sanders’ robust ability to harness millennial enthusiasm. However, it does not translate into a victorious path for capturing the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Currently, former vice president Joe Biden enjoys a 50% lead among African-American primary voters; twice as high as his support with white voters. It is impossible for any candidate to become the Democratic nominee without inspiring Black voters, particularly Black women, who form a vital and driving constituency of the party.

Sanders visited Freddie Gray’s Sandtown neighborhood in the wake of the Baltimore Uprising as he began his 2016 presidential campaign. He emphasized the bleak economic disparities of the community but failed to directly address the racial underpinnings of the stark poverty that plagues Sandtown-Winchester. A systemic cycle of dilapidated schools, residents mired in food deserts, a lack of affordable housing, rampant unemployment, and chronic instances of police brutality led to the circumstances surrounding Gray’s death. Sanders concluded his brief visit to Baltimore by meeting prominent pastors in the city and left as quickly as he arrived, never connecting the dots on racial dynamics that characterize the rampant economic neglect in our city – a majority Black metropolis.

Last week, Sanders penned a Washington Post op-ed addressing many of these concerns in an apparent attempt to explain his approach to pursuing racial equality. Sanders accurately diagnoses the numerous structural hurdles Black voters continue to face in the areas of healthcare, housing, employment, education, and encountering the criminal in-justice system. He quotes Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, a prolific author, Black feminist, socialist, and assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, in acknowledging, “There is no race without class in this country.” Sanders references corporate exploitation and highlights a litany of ways in which Black Americans disproportionately suffer as a result of the greed of the 1%.

Sanders genuinely understands the symptoms that continue to plague the fate of Black Americans in our nation and how capitalism inevitably creates such racial disparities. But he repeats familiar prescriptions for addressing this crisis: enacting universal healthcare and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. These policies do overwhelmingly benefit Black and Brown people in the United States. Yet, Sanders fails to expound in detail on how Democratic Socialism will concretely improve the lives of people of color, aside from calling out the usual suspects, “millionaires and billionaires,” corrupt campaign contributors, and special interests.

Sanders can no longer ignore the lived concerns of Black voters in favor of overarching platitudes about income inequality and the corporate elite. Voters in Baltimore, and throughout the nation, deserve more than an abstract focus on income inequality to address specific issues of importance to the Black community, namely unemployment, education, housing, poverty, criminal justice reform, and police brutality. Sanders has a realistic chance of defeating Donald Trump as the only populist and avowed socialist in the 2020 presidential race. But a meaningful commitment to racial justice will not be substantiated by marching with Martin Luther King Jr. nearly 50 years ago.

Bernie, the time for conventional rhetoric has passed. Your campaign will only resonate for us when you begin to walk the walk, consistently embodying your political ideals through tangible actions of solidarity, cultivating a deepened racial analysis that illustrates a commitment to checking your own privilege at the door.

Phillip Clark is a native Baltimorean, writer, legal professional, and a member of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. He currently serves on the Baltimore LGBTQ Commission and is completing a Bachelor’s Degree in Government & Public Policy at the University of Baltimore.