#BernieSoBlack: Sanders Cheerleaders Make Weak Case on Bernie and Race

Facing scathing criticism and a weekend of adulation gone wrong when Bernie Sanders was caught flat footed by Black Lives Matter protesters in Phoenix, his defenders across the Internet's Left flank - armchair activists who think they own the Democratic party - needed something of a comeback. Many found deliverance when Alternet published this article with bright eyes and bushy tails: 20 Examples of Bernie Sanders' Powerful Record on Civil and Human Rights Since the 1950s.

Problem is, Zaid Jilani of Alternet - and by the looks of this article's popularity among the Netroots-type crowd, they - manage to ignore the specific demands of the Black Lives Matter movement through all 20 of the examples. The demand, and the fierce urgency of addressing the issue of domestic, internal racism that is costing the lives of black Americans today at the hands of institutionalized and personal - and American - racism is left out entirely. There is absolutely no recognition that the existential threat to black lives exist on a plane beyond civil and political rights.

But, let's go through them one by one. We start all the way back when Bernie was running for president - of his high school class.

1. Raising Money For Korean Orphans: ... one of Sanders’ first campaigns was to run for class president at James Madison High School in New York City. His platform was based around raising scholarship funds for Korean war orphans. Although he lost, the person who did win the campaign decided to endorse Sanders’ campaign, and scholarships were created.

Good job, teenager Bernie. But I am not quite sure this counts as a "civil rights" record, let alone addressing the needs of a community that is being gunned down by law enforcement (and those who fancy themselves law enforcement).

What's next? Radical-before-it-was-cool Bernie was in the SNCC.

2. Being Arrested For Desegregation: As a student at the University of Chicago, Sanders was active in both the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1962, he was arrested for protesting segregation in public schools in Chicago; the police came to call him an outside agitator, as he went around putting up flyers around the city detailing police brutality.

1962... so that was about 53 years ago, but this is nothing to snicker at. And he got arrested. 53 years ago. So, you know, y'all who  weren't even born then sit down and shut up. Bernie got arrested for you. Seriously, what more do you people want?

Then comes the obligatory.... well, you'll see.

3. Marching In March On Washington: Sanders joined the mega-rally called by the leaders of the civil rights movement, a formative event of his youth.

I would respond, but I can't do any better than this:


But, you see, it's not just that #BernieSoBlack. Also, #BernieSoGay!

4. Calling For Full Gay Equality: 40 years ago, Sanders started his political life by running with a radical third party in Vermont called the Liberty Union Party. As a part of the platform, he called for abolishing all laws related to discrimination against homosexuality.

Wow, cool, man. Except wait, this isn't entirely the whole story on that. Bernie didn't exactly call for abolishing all laws related to discrimination against homosexuality, he called for abolishing all laws related to sex whatsoever. The letter, also helpfully published by Jilani, used this language:

Let us abolish all laws which attempt to impose a particular brand of morality or “right” on people. Let’s abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior (adultery, homosexuality, etc.)

The reader will note that 'homosexuality' is used as merely an example in the young Sanders' call for abolishing laws related to sexual behavior - which doesn't exactly qualify as calling for marriage equality, and as a gay man, it doesn't exactly warm my heart that he felt the need to group adultery with homosexuality.

So it turns out, #BernieNotSoGay.

But he went to Nicaragua, man!

5. Standing Up For Victims Of U.S. Imperialism In Latin America: While mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders formally protested the Reagan government’s policy of sending arms to Central America to repress left-wing movements. In 1985, he traveled to Nicaragua to condemn the war on people there.

It was laudable of Sanders to denounce Reagan's illicit wars in Latin America, no doubt. But that has nothing to do with institutional violence perpetrated within our country on minorities and especially black people. Further, Sanders' opposition to Reagan's illegal operations was motivated by anti-war activism, not race relations. In the very eloquent quote from Sanders from his 1985 visit to Nicaragua that Jilani quotes, there is not a word about race.

I see. But he voted against Clinton's welfare reform!

Point 6 is about Bernie's vote and statement against welfare reform. Phenomenal, but this particular mention not only fails to answer the critic that Sanders is only concerned about race insofar as it can be tied to an economic agenda item, it cements that perception. To use this as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement that is crying out for institutional racism to be seen in its existing role far beyond economic kneecapping is both tone deaf and callous.

Point numbers 7 and 8? Same thing. These extol Sanders' opposition to the death penalty and the prison complex in America and his opposition to ending pell grants for federal inmates. And once again, in the quoted speech, Sanders ties crime to poverty, making it an economic issue. In his speech against a crime bill in 1991, Sanders acknowledges the disproportionate punishment of black people in jails and yet predictably pretends that it would all go away if only everyone were given opportunity and a decent standard of living.

If you want to get tough on crime, let’s deal with the causes of crime. Let’s demand that every man, woman, and child in this country have a decent opportunity and a decent standard of living. Let’s not keep putting more people into jail and disproportionately punishing blacks.

Right, because if we just had better economics, black women on their way to their dream jobs would stop dying in police custody, black men would stop being arrested at higher rates and punished more severely for the exact same offenses as their white counterparts, and Fox News would stop yapping about why hoodies make black boys look like terrorists.

This is not to say economic roots of crime should not be addressed. But the tone deaf part is that we are not merely trying to address the causes of crime; we are trying to address the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system - from before they are accused of any crime to prosecution, defense, conviction and punishment.

Then, we return to international issues again, and international economics at that.

9. Took IMF To Task For Oppressing Developing World Workers: In a 1998 committee hearing, Sanders took Clinton administration official Robert Rubin to task for not enforcing a provision to protect the rights of workers in Indonesia. “Tell the world now that no more IMF money goes to that country, goes to [dictator] Suharto!” he thundered to Rubin, who later went on to be the chief architect of policies that led us to the Great Recession.

Yes. We get it. Bernie Sanders is super concerned about poverty, regardless of the color of the people in poverty. But once again, this has nothing to do with the domestic urgent life-and-death issues the Black Lives Matter movement is pressing.

By the way, Sanders was in Congress during deregulation. Whatever good did all his thunder do to stop the actual legislation? Oh, right. Nothing. Not to mention Bernie's cheerleader manages to blame Robert Rubin for the Great Recession that actually happened after the Bush administration that pushed liar loans and eliminated banking oversight, but hey. It's fun to yell at.. I mean "thunder at" someone.

But Bernie got good ratings from organizations and stuff.

10. Achieved High Ratings From Leading Civil Rights Organizations: In 2002, he achieved a 93 percent rating from the ACLU and a 97% rating by the NAACP in 2006.

Except that Congress isn't busy bringing up bills to deal with the criminal injustice that the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to draw attention to, and if Congress ain't voting on it, the NAACP can't rate it. Shouldn't Bernie use all that campaign energy to champion and actually push through some legislation.

Oh and Mr. Jilani, the ACLU is not a civil rights organization, it is a civil liberties organization. Learn the difference, please. The ACLU supported Citizens United, and regularly defends KKK members out of principle. That isn't to say the rights of the most disgusting groups do not deserve defending in a democracy, but that ain't civil rights.

But what about the PATRIOT Act?

11. Voted Against the PATRIOT Act: Sanders voted against [the original PATRIOT Act], and has voted against renewing it every single time. The law has been used to violate the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans, but few know how extensively it has been used in the drug war; from 2009 to 2010, the law was invoked for 3,034 narcotics cases and only 37 terrorism cases.

See? Finally. Sanders voted against something out of his concern for how minorities could be targeted. So now we have this: harassment at the airport now equals being gunned down by police. Nice. Oh Sanders' statement in 2011 declaring his vote against the renewal mentions nothing specific about Arab or Muslim Americans or its use in narcotics cases.

“I voted against extending the Patriot Act today for the same reason I voted against enacting it in 2001: it gives the government far too much power to spy on innocent United States citizens and provides for very little oversight or disclosure. While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans.”
— - Bernie Sanders statement on renewal of PATRIOT Act, May 2011

You see anything there about narcotics or Arab Americans and Muslim Americans being targeted for profiling? Yeah, me neither.

But he's got the anti-war groove!

12. Opposed Both Iraq Wars on Moral Grounds: [...] While many simply talked about the war in terms of the impact it would have on the United States, Sanders went further, saying that the “death and destruction caused” would “not be forgotten by the poor people of the Third World.

I am not sure if Mr. Jilani realizes this, but "third world" is cold war term for countries not associated with NATO or the Soviet Union, and since the cold war was in fact a war of economics, it is an economic term, not a racial one. Further, this and the few next points try to establish a false equivalency between wars and domestic racism.

Thirteenth, Bernie went to Costa Rica to try to stop CAFTA. Well, he didn't stop CAFTA, and it for now the third or fourth time in Jilani's column, demonstrates plainly that today's Bernie has no interest in race unless it can be tried to an overriding economic issue.

But oh, wait till you hear the 14th example of Sanders' "powerful civil rights record."

14. Endorsed Jesse Jackson, Spoke Up For Palestinians: In 1988, Jesse Jackson was the first competitive black candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. He came under fierce attack for his advocacy of Palestinian statehood. Sanders came to his aid...

See? Bernie has a black friend. And he maintains his strong advocacy against what he sees as racism not in his backyard. Bravo!

But he's condemned police violence!

15. Strongly Condemned Police Violence Over the Past Year: One criticism of Sanders is that he avoids talking about police violence in favor of talking about the economy. While the economy forms the bulk of his pitch, he has repeatedly condemned police violence during the duration of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"While the economy forms the bulk of his pitch..." Umm, that. Is. Exactly. The. Problem. That is exactly what he was confronted with by the Black Lives Matter protesters at Netroots Nation. We are past the time in our nation when side statements of condemnation of police violence is enough. What the Black Lives Matter movement is demanding is equal centrality of race issue, awakened from its relegation to the sidelines.

But but, he vowed to take executive action on immigration!

16. Embraced Immigrants When Hillary Clinton Refused To Talk To Them: In 2014, young immigration activists repeatedly tried to talk to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to ask her about executive action. While Clinton did not talk to them, Bernie Sanders was not only willing to talk, but agreed with their call for executive action.

Which would be more convincing if Sanders had done so before he'd decided to explore the presidency, and also if he hadn't voted against a 2007 immigration reform bill when it could actually have become law. His excuse was the guest worker program, which he said exploits foreign workers for corporate gain. He was so concerned about the plight of those workers though, that he voted for immigration reform containing similar guest worker provisions in 2013.

This has two possible good explanations: first, Bernie never cared about exploitation of guest workers and it was just a convenient excuse to oppose immigration reform in 2007, which he wanted to do out of xenophobic reasons. But in 2013, looking ahead to running for president, he didn't want the political liability.

The other explanation is that Sanders really does care about the exploitation of guest workers as he sees it, but in 2013, decided to sacrifice them at the alter of political expediency.

Which of these two possible reasons is worse? Your call.

17. Defended Voting Rights Against Voter Suppression Efforts: Sanders earned the endorsement of radical rapper Killer Mike

Uhh. Who? But you see, the important thing is, Bernie has ANOTHER black friend. And he likes this voting rights thing. If you are a young black man stopping at a 7-11 on your way to the voting booth and you're wearing a hoodie, though, that's another matter.

Point number 18, Bernie supports ENDA. Phew. That is an especially courageous position given that, you know, damn nearly every Democrat supports it. And I am sure that LGBT citizens being discriminated for employment has something to do with black people getting shot, but even as a non-black gay man, I am at a loss as to what that exactly is.

Nineteenth, he opposes the drug war. This is perhaps the only legitimate point addressing criminal injustice against African Americans in the entirety of the article. But his voting record on this is incredibly thin, and most recently consistent of trying to protect the trade of marijuana. Sanders was noncomittal on legalization as late as May of last year when he said that he doesn't consider legalization to be a major issue.

One couldn't end such a weak defense of Sanders' record on race and violence against a particular race in this country without throwing some salt on the wound of pompous economic supremacy, of course.

20. Put Out Detailed Plan to End Economic Crisis in Minority Communities: Many argue that Sanders views the issue of racial justice in too myopic a fashion by focusing on the economy. But polling of both Latinos and African Americans shows that jobs and the economy is either their top concern or tied for their top concern. Gallup polling shows that 13 percent of Hispanics say immigration is their top concern; 47 percent say the economy is. Meanwhile, among black Americans, 13 percent say “race relations” is their top concern, tied with “unemployment/jobs,” an additional 10 percentage points go to the “economy in general.” Combined, economic concerns make up 23 percentage points while race relations compose 13 percent.

Ah. You see. Of course Bernie is talking about the economy. Black people really don't care about race anyway! Two problems: Gallup didn't even poll Hispanics on race, only immigration, and about a year before Jilani's article, the gap for Hispanics had narrowed to 40-25 on economy vs. immigration as the top concern. I mean, Jilani linked this poll himself; seemed a shame not to actually read it. And what Jilani fails to mention about the numbers on African Americans is that the poll that already rated race as the top concern was taken before the shooting in Charleston.

Not to mention respondents to these polls are usually not given the option to name concerns that are of equal levels, they have to rank.

But hey, we all know what you need to do to pacify people who are demanding attention to a literally existential crisis. You patronizingly throw some polling at them and it's all good. Especially if the people seeking that attention are, you know, black.

Nobody is demanding Bernie stop talking about the economy. What people are demanding - what Black Lives Matter is demanding, is focus on an equal footing, and end of the pretension that addressing economic disparity for minorities will end or even affect structural racism and institutional violence.

Nobody thinks equal pay for women is the answer to the mortifying amount of sexual assault. Why do people believe that economic parity is the answer to institutionalized racist violence?

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