Bernie's Blind Spot: Debate Answer on Race Perfectly Demonstrates Perils of Conflating Race with Class

Bernie Sanders CNN Debate.jpg

At last night's Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, the candidates were asked about their racial blind spots. Hillary Clinton gave the clearest answer possible: black and white Americans have different experiences. "I can’t pretend to have the experience that you have had and others have had", she said.

Bernie Sanders, for his part, went for that one issue he rehearses for every debate, class. Conflating race with economics, Sanders came up with this doozie:

to answer your question, I would say, and I think it’s similar to what the secretary said, when you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.
— Bernie Sanders

I was floored. This is absolutely stunning. There are no white people in "ghettos?" Only black people are poor? Sanders' answer about his racial blind spot, it would seem, was itself generated from that blind spot, and that blind spot is the size of Texas.

While he tried to walk it back a little at today's Democratic townhall hosted by Fox News, this is Bernie's key blindness: he believes that class is supreme, and therefore, as a corollary, everything must be related to economic issues. Therefore to him, the black experience is defined by ghettos and poverty, and white experience is defined by the lack thereof.

That view is, of course, glaringly false. I could say a lot here, but I believe a comment from "Keithinohio" illuminates the inaccuracy stunningly well.

Really Bernie? “Being white one has no experience about Ghetto life”? Cmon dude......there is a large Black middle class in this country or did you not get the memo? Bernie have you been to Appalachia in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky? Or rural Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi? There are millions of poor working class whites as well not to mention their are more white Americans on Welfare than any other racial group.
— "Keith in Ohio"

 The idea that there are few, if any, differences between the experiences of white and black Americans than those related to economic status is painfully offensive. It not only denies race as the basis of the most pernicious forms of bigotry and ignores the full range of black experience in America when it comes to financial well being, it also enables a racist system of blaming poverty itself on black and brown people.

It tells black people that their experiences would change if only they made a little more money. The idea here is that deep-seated social and institutional racism are essentially myths, and that economic improvements would alter the experience of a black Harvard professor being arrested for attempting to enter his own home or a of a black woman dragged out of her car on her way to a new attractive job and later dying in police custody. That idea is not just wrong, it's a version of telling black people to just "get a job."

It also tells whites that it is right to blame black people for poverty-stricken neighborhoods and white poverty itself, since "ghettos" are supposedly a black thing now. What's more, this wasn't the only part of the debate Sanders eluded to this concept. At one point, Sanders made a reference to a prosperous Detroit in 1960, seemingly unaware that it was a time when Detroit was a white city and before the Civil Rights movement, riots, and white flight.

I say seemingly, because it is impossible to know if this scathing racial indifference on the part of Sen. Sanders is willful or simply ignorant. But I would posit that at this point, that is a distinction without a difference. Bernie Sanders' devastating failure as a candidate to look beyond his narrow focus of economics as panacea and to social justice as a distinct, more essential and broader issue than economic equality makes him ill suited to be President of the United States.

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