The Unbearable Whiteness of Bernie
Y tu, Bernie?
Lost in the wake of one of the best days of the #resistance was the late-breaking Friday evening news that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would again be running for president in 2020. The news was greeted by an overwhelming swell of animosity toward the failed presidential candidate, with those emotions directly related to the way in which the senator conducted himself on the 2016 campaign trail. After fourteen months of his campaign attacking civil rights icons, long-standing progressive organizations, elected Democrats, and the eventual party nominee, Bernie Sanders wasted whatever goodwill he was allotted when he chose to run under the Democratic Party banner. Despite claiming himself to be squarely in the resistance with the release of his latest book, many have noted that Bernie Sanders has done next to nothing to combat the Trump administration over the past two years.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest anti-Bernie reaction came from none other than Black Twitter, whose prominent activists were overwhelmingly united in not only refusing to support Sanders but to intentionally derail his campaign before it even gets off the ground. The strong, visceral hated of Bernie Sanders among prominent members of the Black community should be a clear sign that Sanders has zero chance of winning the party nomination. With at least two strong candidates of color already in the Democratic race and Elizabeth Warren stumping from her populist platform, the window for Bernie Sanders to earn votes from the Democratic Party is infinitely small. Whereas he was the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton in 2016, he now must potentially navigate more than a dozen candidates, the overwhelming majority of whom aren’t openly despised by the Black Twitter community.
The reason for this hatred stems from Bernie’s inability to connect with people of color. Even worse than not connecting has been the way in which Sanders has attempted to pander to win votes. The Black community knows that Bernie Sanders is no friend to their community and, worse, they know that he only pretends to be when he’s running for president. Having abandoned diverse Brooklyn for lily-White rural Vermont, Sanders has always gravitated to less diverse communities that were more homogeneous in both race and political ideology. Starting his days with the Liberty Union Party and then serving as an independent mayor of Burlington, Sanders never put himself in a position where he would need to win a significant percentage of the nonwhite vote to become elected. By becoming a congressman in 1990 due in large part to an NRA endorsement, Sanders would go on to represent Vermont, traditionally the country’s Whitest state, in both the House and the Senate over the next 28 years thus negating any need to expand his electorate in any foreseeable way.
Knowing who butters his bread, Sanders therefore never made an effort to connect with people of color in his home state. Despite having a reputation as one of the most liberal states in the country, Vermont’s Black residents were incarcerated at the highest rate in the nation from 1993 to 2007. Even with this disproportionate incarceration rate negatively impacting the Black community, Sanders remained invisible to Black leaders, who pressed him to address the situation. Worse, Sanders himself engaged in an overt act of environmental racism when he supported House Resolution 629 in 1998, which would ship radioactive waste from Vermont and Maine to the small, overwhelmingly Latino community of Sierra Blanca, Texas. When Sanders was asked to visit the proposed site by Texas activists, who drove all the way to Vermont to confront him, he simply told them, “Absolutely not. I’m going to be running for re-election in the state of Vermont.” Fortunately for the town of Sierra Blanca, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Committee voted 3-0 against the proposed site, due to environmental concerns. Yet even to this day, Sanders’ wife, Jane, still receives a salary as an alternative commissioner for the commission that oversaw the dump site.
For 25 years, Bernie Sanders not only ignored people of color in his home state but he also sought to make life exponentially worse for people of color in other states in order to protect his own rural, White community. So when it became time for him to mount a presidential campaign and highlight his civil rights work, Sanders was in no position to defend his nonexistent record. In July of 2015, a mere two months after having announced his candidacy, Sanders refused to meet with Black Lives Matter activists and then got publicly called out by the group at the Netroots Nation political forum in Arizona for not hearing their concerns. Realizing an inability to connect with the voters who served as the base of the Democratic Party, Sanders chose to reach out and identify surrogates who would hopefully promote him to their constituents. In the end, Sanders found Nina Turner, a failed Ohio Secretary of State candidate to join his team as well as celebrity surrogates Rosario Dawson and Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike. Sanders also earned the endorsements of Dr. Cornel West, who now infamously claimed that both “Brother Bernie and Brother Trump are authentic human beings” as well as Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP. With this team in place, Sanders believed he now had street cred among the country’s Black community to mount a successful challenge to Hillary Clinton.
As the primary got underway, Sanders lost a close race in Iowa and won the New Hampshire primary, giving him momentum. That momentum was temporarily halted by a loss in Nevada, and Sanders then faced South Carolina, the first state with a significant Black population. Leading up to the primary, Sanders had tried to hype up his civil rights record, which was quickly challenged by civil rights icon John Lewis, who correctly stated that he’d never seen Sanders at any civil rights events. Like Lewis, South Carolina voters also saw through Bernie Sanders and he lost the primary by a resounding 47%. That result in particular stung the Sanders campaign after he had visited the state 8 times, invested $1 million per month there and hired over 200 field staff. Perhaps most disheartening, Sanders lost the Black vote by an astronomical 72%. Experts attributed this stunning rebuke to a Hillary Clinton campaign that simply connected better with voters, including running strongly on Barack Obama’s platform in order to ensure his legacy. To be blunt, the Black community of South Carolina simply wasn’t that into Bernie Sanders.
And it wasn’t just South Carolina. Sanders got trounced on Super Tuesday, so much so that he would go on to claim that the southern primaries “distort reality.” Many observers saw this as coded language that somehow the southern states were not representative because a large percentage of Democratic voters were people of color. But Super Tuesday was the beginning of the end for the Sanders campaign. As FiveThirtyEight noted, Hillary Clinton was winning states that closely resembled the Democratic Party. In short, she was winning more diverse states, regardless of geographic location whereas Bernie Sanders’ support was seemingly limited to whiter states that more often than not took part in the caucus process.
Despite hanging on through California, Sanders was never truly competitive in a race that he ended up losing by over 900 delegates. Despite his loss, Sanders refused to concede for 5 weeks after the California primary, causing Hillary Clinton to lose significant time to campaign and causing an open rift at the start of the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016.
These actions did not go unnoticed by the Black community. Steeped in Sanders’ refusal to admit defeat was an air of White privilege. Sanders lost, fair and square, yet his and his supporters’ insistence that the primary was somehow “rigged” against him did not sit well with a community who came to see Hillary Clinton as their rightful champion. In the end, 94% of Black women and 80% of Black men were not fooled by Donald Trump and proudly and openly cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton in November. At a time when the media openly broadcast stolen emails and overly emphasized Hillary Clinton’s private email server, Black men and women calmly and collectively voted for a White woman raised in a Chicago suburb whom they saw as the logical successor to the first Black president and a worthy first female president. While people of color voted like their life depended on it, 1 in 10 Bernie Sanders supporters chose to vote for Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton.
Rather than rallying around people of color and their new very raw and very real fears, Bernie Sanders instead chose to return to his bread and butter: the White working-class. A single day after the election, he was complimenting the president-elect’s ability to reach out to the middle class. Within two months of Trump’s inauguration, Sanders was down in West Virginia, attempting to connect with the White working-class via a publicly televised town hall on healthcare while simultaneously defending Trump voters. Sanders would go on to inject himself into the 2018 midterm elections and he reacted to the losses by both Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum by saying that voters didn’t vote for them because of their race, but that didn’t mean they were racist. A month later, the Sanders Institute, a gathering of nationwide progressive leaders in Vermont to promote Bernie’s vision, came under fire for excluding the state’s most politically active people of color. To make matters worse, Sanders recently criticized those that have already declared for the Democratic primary (read: Kamala Harris) for engaging in what Sanders saw as identity and diversity issues rather than class. For someone who has consistently dismissed identify politics, Bernie Sanders once again showed how he is unwilling to even acknowledge the significant challenges people of color face in modern America.
But that is who Bernie Sanders is and always has been. From his earliest days, he’s been convinced that the solutions to all the world’s problems would be provided through economic equality. Its a worldview that Sanders acquired via the Liberty Union Party in Vermont, which was created via libertarian ideals. Sanders is on tape, praising Fidel Castro in the mid-1980s, claiming that Castro brought positive reforms to the working-class people of Cuba. Never mind the brutal dictatorship, the censorship of journalists, and the human rights violations. The workers got a few extra bucks in their pockets. For Bernie Sanders, that means that the country is in a good position and the continued mistreatment of a large segment of the population is a minor setback to inevitable progress. It is this tone-deafness to oppression that shows how Sanders simply cannot fathom a world that has both a strong middle class and a large segment of the population being denied basic civil rights.
And it is because of this mindset that Bernie Sanders continues to this day to dismiss the concerns of people of color. He believes they’ll be successful with an affordable degree and a well-paying job. What Bernie Sanders fails to realize is how even with a good job, people of color still have to deal with systemic racism on a day-to-day basis. Sandra Bland was a college graduate who was moving to a new state for a new job. She ended up dead in a prison cell. Bernie Sanders does not understand what happened to Sandra Bland because he chooses not to comprehend how race and gender serve as significant barriers in the lives of people of color. Sanders sees the world through a working class lens, and that lens is lily-white because that is the color that Sanders sees reflected in the mirror each and every day.
Since 2015, people of color have come to know Bernie Sanders. They now know who he is and what he stands for. And what Bernie Sanders stands for is the White working-class. His words, and more importantly his actions, have shown us over 40 years as an elected official that he sees class issues as infinitely more important than race issues. It’s why he said nothing when a Vermont lawmaker resigned in September after facing racist messages and threats on her life. Sanders simply could not understand why someone financially successful wouldn’t be in perfect bliss. For people of color, this is a far too common occurrence and for Bernie Sanders, this is something that he chooses to ignore because it directly contradicts with his worldview. Willful ignorance is no excuse for refusing to help some of society’s most vulnerable populations. Bernie Sanders has had four decades in public service and time and time again has openly refused to acknowledge racism and racist systems that exist in our country. People of color see this and no amount of pandering can change Bernie Sanders’ utter apathy toward this population.
And that is why Black Twitter will once again not buy Bernie Sanders’ candidacy.
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