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Bernie’s Plan for Racial Justice

The micro-scandals alleging that Bernie Sanders doesn’t take racism seriously won't end any time soon. We should call them what they are: cynical attacks on a politician whose commitment to racial justice is intertwined with fighting economic inequality.

Bernie Sanders in 2016. Todd Church / Flickr

Fearing that Bernie Sanders is likely to announce another campaign for the presidency, centrist media outlets are beginning to pore over the senator’s public statements, scouring them for any utterance that might be blown up into a gaffe.

That’s standard fare in political coverage. But in this case, they know exactly what they’re looking for, because they know what worked best last time. The jackpot is to catch Sanders saying something offhand that, isolated from context, could appear to downplay racism.

Last month, a reporter at the Daily Beast interviewed Sanders about the midterm elections. The reporter euphemistically called the Trump administration’s politics “race-oriented,” to which Sanders replied, “Why don’t we use the right word — not use the phrase ‘race-oriented.’ Why don’t we say ‘racist,’ how’s that?”

Sanders then said the following, referring to Andrew Gillum’s campaign in Florida:

I think he ran a great campaign. And he had to take on some of the most blatant and ugly racism that we have seen in many, many years, and yet he came within a whisker of winning. And I think, you know, there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist, who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their life about, you know, whether or not they wanted to vote for an African American. I think next time around, by the way, it will be a lot easier for them to do that.

The Daily Beast excised the bulk of these comments from its article, including Sanders’s correction of the reporter, and emphasized the “not necessarily racist” bit. The headlines from other outlets immediately began to pile up: “Bernie Sanders Says Not All Voters Who Feel ‘Uncomfortable’ With Black Candidates Are Racist.” “Bernie Sanders said people who refuse to vote for black candidates aren’t racist and people are furious.”

By day two, an average news consumer who’d caught wind of the micro-scandal could be forgiven for thinking that Sanders had called a press conference specifically to defend the honor of white voters who are implicitly motivated by racial prejudice.

The press knows which button to push. The strategy of portraying racial justice as Sanders’s achilles heel was tested in 2016 and proved successful, in terms of both generating clicks and sowing division among potential supporters of a candidate that the centrist media establishment didn’t particularly like. Of course, for all the headlines about Sanders’s alleged tone-deafness and obduracy on race, his policy positions pertaining to racial injustice have been largely ignored.

A Platform to Believe In

Let’s go back to the beginning of this story. In the summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter activists staged protests at appearances by all three Democratic Party primary candidates. The actions didn’t really make headlines outside of progressive circles until, on August 8, two activists protested Bernie Sanders’s appearance at a Defend Social Security rally in Seattle. The protesters stated, or at least implied, that Sanders’s platform was insufficiently attentive to issues of specific importance to black people. Sanders looked on silently and, being denied a return to the podium, eventually left the stage.

News of this particular protest broke into the mainstream. Perhaps it was because Sanders was perceived as a growing threat to the candidacy of the party favorite Hillary Clinton, and partisan press outlets were hungry for ammo — who knows. In any case, this was the beginning of the mainstream media narrative that Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders were at odds with one another, which eventually blossomed into a narrative about Sanders being racially oblivious.

What got less media attention was that on August 10, two days after the Seattle protest, Bernie Sanders released a comprehensive “Racial Justice Plan.” It was clearly in the works for a while, though he no doubt rushed to release it in the wake of the protest. (He also hired a young Black Lives Matter activist as his press secretary that same week.) You can read the platform here. It’s a highly detailed document that treats racial injustice as a serious and multifaceted problem and proposes dozens of ambitious and concrete interventions.

It’s worth reviewing the Racial Justice Plan, because it’s been Sanders’s official policy platform on racial equality since 2015, and if he runs in 2020 his platform will be similar. The document breaks racial injustice into five categories: physical violence, political violence, legal violence, economic violence, and environmental violence.

Physical violence refers both to the violence disproportionately perpetrated against black people by the police and that carried out by racist extremists. To combat these, Sanders’s platform calls for demilitarizing the police, increasing civilian oversight of police departments, body cameras, a national database of police shootings, and increased federal funding to crack down on racist hate groups.

Political violence refers to voter suppression in the form of strict ID laws, racist gerrymandering, restricting same-day registration, and purging voter rolls. The platform calls for an end to these practices as well as full enfranchisement of those with felony convictions, automatic voter registration, and making Election Day a federal holiday so that people with inflexible work arrangements can participate in the political process.

Legal violence refers to all of the many laws and practices that lead to mass incarceration of people of color: the War on Drugs, racially biased mandatory minimum sentences, racial profiling and discrimination in charging and sentencing, and implicitly financially motivated arrest quotas like those that were revealed to be in use in Ferguson, Missouri. The platform calls for an end to these practices as well as banning private prisons, investing in post-incarceration reintegration programs, and ending civil asset forfeiture.

Economic violence refers to the myriad processes by which communities of color are economically deprived and exploited. It’s here that Sanders’s platform draws connections between the rest of his platform of working-class empowerment and the fight to end racial injustice. People of color would disproportionately benefit from the proposals Sanders has laid out for all working Americans: a $15 minimum wage, a jobs program, tuition-free higher education, public works infrastructure projects, Medicare for All, universal child care, fully funded public education, ending employer discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, and halting neoliberal trade details that benefit employers at the expense of workers in the US and around the world.

Lastly, environmental violence refers to the destruction of our environmental commons and the pollution of our air and water, which impact poor communities of color the most, as demonstrated by the Flint water crisis and the diagnosis rates in Louisiana’s predominately black “Cancer Belt.” The platform also addresses the dumping of toxic chemicals on Native American lands and the exposure to environmental hazards on job sites, which impacts Latino workers at a higher rate than the rest of the populace. The platform calls for regulation and prosecution of corporate polluters, and a rigorous commitment to ending environmental degradation and climate change.

This was, without a doubt, the strongest racial justice platform put forward by any presidential candidate in American history. Hillary Clinton didn’t release anything comparable until October 2015, and even then it was restricted to criminal justice issues. It was a shell of Sanders’s platform: Clinton’s was eight hundred words long, less than a quarter the length of Sanders’s, and half of it was a cherry-picked review of her record.

But the centrist press had already discovered a mechanism for sowing doubt about Sanders’s progressive credentials and dividing his potential base, and they were sticking to it.

The Twin Evils Approach

Throughout 2016, major news outlets made a point of calling Sanders backward and intransigent on racial issues, peppering news stories with this casual observation as though it were a generally acknowledged truth.

Bernie Sanders’s self-evident unwokeness became a favorite Democratic Party establishment cudgel. Clinton herself even used it when she delivered her now-famous line implying that Sanders’s economic egalitarianism was a dead-end for racial justice, even a distraction from it.

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?” she asked.

“No!” her audience shouted. In a miraculous sleight of hand, Clinton had managed to shroud her sneaky defense of the institutions that destroyed black wealth ten years ago in an aura of righteous anti-racism.

The idea that Sanders was hopelessly obtuse on racial issues wasn’t rooted in any openly stated objection to his policy proposals. In fact, establishment press outlets tended to overlook those proposals in order to make their point.

For example, in a February 2016 Washington Post article titled “Bernie Sanders still won’t update his message on race issues,” a reporter (herself a frequent Clinton booster) admonished Sanders for blaming economic elites for perpetuating racial injustice, observing that Sanders was “singularly focused on one solution to many problems.” In reality Sanders’s Racial Justice Platform, which was released six months prior to the article’s publication, provided no fewer than forty-six concrete policy solutions to a set of interlocking problems that he broke into five overarching categories.

Complaints often focused on the impression that Sanders pivoted too quickly to talk about economic justice when discussing racial oppression. Indeed, throughout his campaign, Sanders rarely spoke about racial inequality without speaking about economic inequality. Sometimes he did transition clumsily or too abruptly into an explanation of the economic underpinnings of racial inequality. In response to the resulting criticisms, and with the guidance of supporters with deep ties to Black Lives Matter, he’s gotten significantly better at keeping racial injustice front and center.

Still, there’s a good explanation for his eagerness to pair the two. As we can see from his platform, Sanders sees racial and economic oppression as deeply interconnected. He rejects the neoliberal hypocrisy of extolling diversity in the highest echelons of society while simultaneously protecting the interests of elites who profit from the economic exploitation of working-class people of color. Instead, he takes the “twin evils of discrimination and economic deprivation” approach that was advocated by the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, which he attended. (He was an activist in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the chairman of his college’s chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.)

Sanders cites Martin Luther King Jr and the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs as his two biggest heroes. King was both the twentieth century’s strongest leader in the fight against racism and a fierce proponent of economic justice — a world in which “men will not take necessities to give luxuries to the few” and “where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.” Debs reached the same conclusion from the other direction, beginning with the struggle for economic freedom and finding it to be inextricable from the fight against racial oppression, warning white workers that if “you don’t get equality for the Negro, you haven’t got it yourself.”

However he might continue to fine-tune his rhetorical strategy, Sanders will always talk about pervasive economic inequality when he talks about racial inequality. Good. That’s how you know he’s serious about making structural change, not just pandering.

A Hypnotic Incantation

Repeating “Bernie is bad on race” ad nauseam may well have deflated some working-class people of color’s enthusiasm for Sanders — which is a shame, because he was the only candidate in 2016 who was openly and explicitly calling for an end to police violence against people of color, an end to political disenfranchisement of people of color, an end to mass incarceration of people of color, an end to economic exploitation of people of color, and an end to the environmental degradation that disproportionately harms people of color.

But in the bigger picture, the strategy hasn’t worked as well as the Democratic Party establishment and its press allies had hoped. In the 2016 primaries, Sanders actually won a majority of young black voters, and since then his popularity has only grown. In a survey last year, the demographic group that was most supportive of Sanders was African Americans, 73 percent of whom viewed him favorably. Next was Hispanics, with 68 percent, then Asian Americans, with 62 percent. Only 52 percent of whites had a positive view of Sanders — which, of course is still a majority. In fact, Sanders is the most popular politician in the country. A survey conducted in September found that 53 percent of all Americans viewed Sanders favorably, including 64 percent of people of color. No wonder the moderate establishment is panicking.

The “Bernie is bad on race” mantra also had another important effect in 2016. It gave affluent white liberals cover for their materially motivated opposition to the democratic socialist. Let’s say a well-heeled white liberal actually didn’t want their taxes raised to pay for the many reforms and programs Sanders proposed in his platform, which would improve the lives of hundreds of millions of working-class people of all races, but they didn’t want to admit that. The idea that Sanders was “bad on race,” irrespective of his actual platform, gave them an easy out.

A Bernie 2020 campaign would bring us more of the same. We can already see it beginning, as centrist news outlets bend over backward to paint him as out of touch on racial issues, combing his unscripted statements for any offhand remark that might generate controversy and cement the erroneous impression that Sanders has nothing to offer people of color. We need to be a little more perceptive this time around.

If Bernie Sanders runs for president, he will do so on an even more comprehensive version of the racial justice platform he put forward in 2015. For example, he will certainly add ending cash bail to the list of criminal justice reform policies he supports — he even introduced legislation to do so at the federal level, calling for an end to “modern day debtors’ prisons.” He may also opt to integrate his immigration platform into his Racial Justice Plan, or add a section addressing military and imperial violence, which he could flesh out with his growing list of ambitious foreign policy proposals.

All of this means that he’s likely to once again be the Democratic primary candidate with the most ambitious and concrete ideas about how to materially improve the lives of millions of people of color. Who else could it be — former prosecutor Kamala Harris? School privatizer Cory Booker? Joe “The folks at the top aren’t the bad guys” Biden?

Those of us who are committed to ending the “twin evils of discrimination and economic deprivation” have a job to do over the next two years. We have to keep the wool from being pulled over people’s eyes.

While substantive criticism of any politician is vital, we must also be discerning. We can’t let ourselves be too dazzled by the bouquet of handpicked micro-scandals that the centrist press is already preparing to leave on our doorstep. It’s our responsibility to prevent the hypnotic incantation that Sanders is hopelessly racially problematic from achieving its intended effect: neutralizing the threat he poses to the majority-white capitalist class.