"I don't want to out-scream you."
That was the response of a visibly irritated Bernie Sanders at this weekend's self-styled gathering of activists who claim the to speak for the Progressive movement, when Sanders was interrupted by protesters who demanded that racial injustice take center stage in the presidential campaigns of all candidates.
Sanders' treatment of the Black Lives Matters protesters like they are some run-of-the-mill average hecklers (video of full Sanders interview at NN) came after former Maryland governor Martin O'Mally was taken by surprise on the same stage as the protesters held ground and demanded that in the wake of what seems to be a wave of police shootings of Black individuals, and especially the death of Black women in police custody, the candidates shed their pretension that institutional racism is simply an ancillary of economic inequality.
When O'Mally could respond, he did so with "Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter," with seemingly little recognition that the point the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to make is that white lives already matter in the law enforcement structure of this country, and black lives don't seem to as much.
Yet, Sanders took to the stage just minutes after watching O'Mally being protested and unable to respond, and tore right into his stump, reported Time.
Following which, Sanders turned to the moderator on stage and asked "What are we doing here?"
Struggling to respond this debacle, Netroots Nation organizers - predominantly the Daily Kos crew (Netroots Nation used to be known as "Yearly Kos") - called the concerns of the Black Lives Matters movement an "urgent moment" and claimed "solidarity." They failed to acknowledge, however, that it was the conference's structure itself that was the most troubling for the protesters.
This quantifies the massive failure of the Liberal activist establishment on race. Again and again, the predominantly white Leftist establishment - and their current hero candidate Bernie Sanders - have focused on issues of income inequality as the central tenet of America's problem, delegating racial injustice to a sideline issue. Furthermore, they have pretended that if we only address economic inequality, racial injustice will go away on its own. As evidence, they point to the disproportionate number of ethnic minorities who are also economically disadvantaged.
But Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland were not walking around with their tax returns printed on their foreheads; they were black. A wannabe cop in Florida didn't get away with the murder of an annual income; Trayvon Martin died a black teenager who went to the 7-11 to buy skittles. A white supremacist didn't walk into a South Carolina church and slaughter 9 people in the house of God because they made too little money; he killed them because they were black.
Race - and institutional, structural racism - is at the center of social inequities in America. Our candidates need to understand that Trayvon Martin will never be able to attend college for that free tuition Bernie Sanders is talking about. Our candidates need to grieve the fact that Sandra Bland will never have a shot at breaking the glass ceiling at her dream job, and it won't be because of some evil trade pact. Our candidates need to realize that the threat to black lives is an existential one, and no amount of hammering the banks will resolve that threat.
It isn't as though these candidates did not have a living, breathing example of what they could be doing right in front of their eyes: Barack Obama. President Obama visited a federal prison last week, to listen to the concerns of inmates and to call for reforming the criminal justice system, targeting nonviolent drug offenses, for black and Hispanic Americans are far more likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced longer than their white counterparts.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch has managed to investigate failures and highlight successes in the criminal justice system with respect to race all the while taking down what is perhaps the world's most powerful private organization (FIFA).
You do not need to be able to sing Amazing Grace or be an orator of President Obama's caliber to at least seek to be a small part of the grieving process and the celebration of grace in Charleston.
You do not have to be President Obama to be able to see your own child in the shoes of Trayvon Martin and be horrified enough not to disrespect the people who are crying out for a country in campaign orgasm to turn its attention to their plight.
But that isn't what happened. Not the leaders of Netroots Nation, not Bernie's zealous supporters, and not Bernie Sanders has even acknowledged that race is anything but a side issue of economics in this country, let alone recognize the tremendous example and leadership President Obama and his administration has provided. Had the candidates - and more importantly - the progressive mantle-claimers paused for a moment to realize the lessons that President Obama has tried to teach us, this campaign and this convention may have turned out very differently.
They couldn't do that. Because President Obama is not regarded as a leader to be supported by this establishment; he's considered a traitor to the cause who, in his quest to accomplish things, compromised away major unicorns and rainbows. So you have a candidate whom the provocateurs of the Liberal establishment have universally claimed a hero come to a stage in a supposedly progressive convention, face black people who are quite literally fighting for their lives, and perceive them as nothing more than hecklers he'd like to do the favor of not "out-screaming."
Given Bernie's - and too many of his supporters' - contempt for the major reforms President Obama passed as inadequate at best and corporate sellout at worst, I found it amusing that the only question Sanders was able to answer somewhat well was to name a single piece of legislation he'd voted for that benefited the African American community: Obamacare. "That's pretty good", Sanders said, of the Affordable Care Act, pointing out that millions have gained coverage and the expansion of the Community Health Centers. The brag, of course, was an immodest departure from his longtime byline that the gains from Obamacare are merely "modest."
But that is also a lesson. Why, might one imagine, did that example suddenly pop into Bernie's head when asked to name a specific policy he supported that helped African Americans? Why the very modest, very compromised, "corporate sellout" Obamacare? Because that is the fierce urgency of now: for the most afflicted, for the most vulnerable, reform cannot wait to be perfected with the grandiose imagination of the privileged.
Sanders - and, to be fair, O'Mally - could have well answered the protesters with a commitment to continue the major work of police department scrutiny and criminal justice reform began by Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, by pledging to walk in the footsteps of the first sitting president to visit federal prisons and learn the concerns of inmates first hand, and perhaps most of all, by recognizing their own human fallibility and fault in not giving race a central place in their campaigns and pledging to do so from this point forward.
They might also have recognized the ugly strain of racism that has pursued this president from the day he became a serious candidate for president, and by celebrating the failure of that racist pursuit to hold this president back from being the most consequential progressive in our lifetimes because he came from a line of fighters and spirit folk that every black protester there is an inheritor of.
But there's a blindness that comes with the ideology of economics as primary and race, at best, ancillary. That blindness prevents its afflicted from seeing not only the tremendous pain and the deep wound of racism that goes way, way beyond income inequality and asset distribution, but also the examples of tremendous leadership (of the president), grace (of black communities across the country) and spirit (of the Black Lives Matter movement).
The liberal establishment needs to rip off those blinders. Let me say it bluntly: there is no progressive movement without African Americans. The Democratic wins on the map may be painted blue, but there is no Democratic party without black. A 'movement' that does not see structural racism in this country as a central issue to address can be called a lot of things, but it cannot be called progressive.
Economics are not unimportant, I think and our candidates must address economic inequality. But we cannot pretend that a "political revolution" to regulate banks will keep black people from being shot by the police. We cannot pretend that a $15 minimum wage, worthy as it is, will decrease the arrest and incarceration of nearly a third black males. We cannot pretend pushing for single-payer health care and free college tuition will keep white racists from calling the cops because there are black children at "their" pool or keep those cops from assaulting a black girl in broad daylight.
It's time the liberal establishment recognized its colossal failure on race and set that ship right.