by Jeremy Fassler
One of the main reasons I became a journalist was to push back against the disinformation I saw coming from Bernie Sanders supporters when he first entered the race for President in 2015. Whenever I would post even the mildest critique of him online, an army of white, twenty-something men would turn my comments section into a minefield. I realized early on that he was campaigning not as a uniter, but as a divider, and nothing he’s done has convinced me that he has the Democratic Party’s best interests at heart (a party which, for the record, he still refuses to join.)
I’ve criticized Sanders on a lot of things – refusing to endorse candidates who need it, sending his flunkies to implement nonsensical rule changes to the DNC, shady financial contributions – but I have never fully addressed his problems with race, which were clear from August 2015, when he walked out of his rally when it was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protestors with nary a word. Since then, his attitudes regarding African-Americans have not improved, and they culminated with his condescending remarks towards President Obama on April 4th, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Sanders has always had a mixed track record when it comes to race. Although his supporters love saying that “he marched with Martin Luther King,” and while he did attend the March on Washington in 1963, the photo they shared of him in Selma is fake, with much of his civil rights work focused around housing in Chicago. In Vermont, the state’s black population recalled that he didn’t properly acknowledge their concerns, recollections echoed by his African-American outreach team when he ran for President. Roy Tatem, their deputy director, said he never felt that Sanders or campaign manager Jeff Weaver took his suggestions about outreach seriously, and actor Danny Glover, who directed the campaign’s outreach towards the HBCUs, had his efforts cut short when he learned there wasn’t enough money to continue visiting them after the South Carolina primary.
Even African-Americans who endorsed Sanders admitted their frustration as the primary campaign dragged on. In an essay for The Guardian, Steven W. Thrasher, who voted for Sanders in the New York primary, wrote following a speech of his in May 2016:
“How, then, can Sanders still be failing to talk about racism, anti-blackness and anti-Latino sentiment at every turn…If you listen to what. Sanders is actually saying…he seems much more interested in open primaries, independent voters, and super-delegates than he is in voters of color or the disenfranchised…
“I have also noticed white leftists who feel the Bern starting to whisper that if Sanders doesn’t beat Clinton, it’s the fault of the unenlightened black and brown folks who didn’t vote in their own interest. Their condescension is misplaced; their ire should be with their candidate.”
All this relates back to how Sanders’ message of economic inequality was mostly about white economic inequality. It may be true that a rising tide lifts all boats, but it’s no excuse for his ignoring the concerns of a key constituency. Since his loss, he’s shown no signs that he’s gotten the message, continuing to push his talking points telling the Democrats to focus on “bread-and-butter issues” for “ordinary Americans,” as he said to Seth Meyers last fall.
The dog whistles had been heard loud and clear by those who knew how to listen for them, but it took until Wednesday for everyone to finally hear what people had been saying for years when Sanders showed up in Jackson, Mississippi (a state where Hillary won the primary by 66 points) for a town hall meeting with Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba and delivered these remarks, reported here by Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer:
So there are two parts to this statement: one of them offering backhanded praise to the President, and the other blaming him for the failures of the Democratic Party under his administration. Taking the latter part first, it’s true that under Obama, we lost a lot of races, and I will throw the Berners a bone and admit that Debbie Wasserman Schultz was a bad head of the party. But to blame him for the Democrats’ failures is to misunderstand how dramatically the political landscape shifted under his administration. He bears no responsibility for Chief Justice Roberts’ decision to embolden racist money men in Citizens United, nor for the Tea Party movement. He might as well have blamed Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant for the rise of the KKK.
However, it is the first part that blisters with racial condescension. To dismiss Obama as “charismatic” recalls New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes’ description of composer Stephen Sondheim as “slick, clever, and eclectic”; it sounds like a compliment, but does nothing to acknowledge the magnitude of one’s talents or impact on their respective field. Barack Obama wasn’t just a charismatic guy who could give a great speech, or, for lack of a better word, a token thrown to black people as if to say, “Okay, are you happy now?” He was one of the most skilled politicians we have ever seen, and we supported him because he made good on his policies, not because he was “charismatic.”
Let’s not forget that Sanders has belittled Obama before. Throughout the summer of 2011, he openly called for a primary challenge to the President in response to his proposals to cut social security and Medicare benefits as part of a grand bargain with Republicans. The deal was widely criticized by Democrats at the time, and rightly so, but it collapsed when Republicans walked away from the table. Sanders had jumped ten steps ahead of Obama’s critics, acting as though he had sold out the country before anything became official. This kind of “my way or the highway” thinking makes me wonder if Bernie has the same reverence for Ayn Rand that House Speaker Paul Ryan does.
Since delivering these remarks, Sanders has received blowback from critics of all colors, but it was CNN’s Bakari Sellers who delivered the most damning critique:
As America moves towards becoming a multi-cultural society, with a growing population of POC that could outnumber Caucasians within our lifetimes, we need representatives and candidates who engage with everyone, not ones who play to an exclusively white base. This strategy may have worked in the 1950s and 60s – hell, it worked in 2016 – but it must be relegated to the dustbin where it belongs. If Bernie Sanders cannot realize this, then he has no business either speaking for the Democratic Party or hijacking its banner to run his next campaign.