Photo: Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images
Bernie Sanders lost the 2016 Democratic primary because black women – the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting bloc – voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton during the early Southern primaries, giving her a delegate lead he could never overcome. Despite his support for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, he has always struggled when talking about race, and over the last week, he has been speaking about the topic in ways that might damage his chances if he runs again in 2020.
The first instance came in a Daily Beast interview the day after the election, in response to a question about the close races run by Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams: Gillum saw his early lead for governor of Florida evaporate to openly racist Republican Ron DeSantis, while Abrams battled intense voter suppression from her opponent, Brian Kemp, which might cause a recall election for governor of Georgia next month. Both elections are currently under examination and both candidates could still win, but Sanders had a different explanation for why they didn’t come through:
“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 lives about 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.”
What other way can one respond to such a statement except with a loud groan?
Sanders made a similar statement in 2016 when, right before that election, he tweeted that he did not consider most of Trump’s base to be racist, trying to pivot back to the economy hurting them, as he always does. You could grant him the benefit of the doubt with both statements, assuming that some people who voted for Trump aren’t conscious racists who put Confederate flags on their lawn. But if you do that, you’re ignoring the fact that by aiding and abetting racist candidates, these voters are still practicing racism, whether they are conscious of it or not.
Sanders apologized for his Daily Beast remarks in a written statement where he made it clear that Kemp and De Santis, as well as Trump, ran racist campaigns. He concluded with a call to arms:
“It is our job…to offer an alternative to the hate-filled agenda of Trump and Republican operatives…a vision that all people, regardless of their race or country of origin, are part of a shared destiny as one people…Part of that effort is to be honest about what our divisive opponents are trying to accomplish and how it is tearing at the very fabric of our democracy and our common humanity. We’ve got to continue doing everything that we can to fight all forms of racism.”
This statement reads well, but a deeper examination betrays a lack of insight into why people responded negatively to The Daily Beast interview. African-American writer and activist Kaitlin Byrd’s analysis of his words reveals nothing in them asking readers to organize against the racism of Kemp, DeSantis’, and Trump’s supporters. True, not all of them are racist enough to take to the streets with tiki torches, but no deal to come over to our side will be sweet enough for them if that deal also honors the interests of people of color. “If the essence of progress is solidarity,” she writes:
“Then this…group of white voters are the most visible traitors. To support them, coddle them, excuse them is to deny solidarity and citizenship to those most in need of it. You can either have these white voters or you can have a multicultural coalition, but you cannot have both…No one ‘accidentally’ votes for a months-long racist campaign. Call it what it is.”
It was disappointing to see that after nearly four years as one of the major figures in American politics, Sanders still could not properly wrap his head around the role that racism has played in defining our discourse. What’s more, he seemed to learn nothing from this incident as a subsequent interview with Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone proved. When Taibbi asked him about what Democrats should do when they officially assume House leadership next January, Sanders responded:
“Trump is a 100-percent political opportunist…Today, if he is a racist and sexist, tomorrow he may be be a great civil rights champion – if he thinks it gets him five more votes…I would not be shocked that if the Democrats passed popular, good legislation, that Trump would look arond him and say, ‘Hey, why not?…’ And he may come on board.”
Even though Sanders only meant this as a hypothetical, the assumption that Trump’s racism is just a shtick he can shrug off whenever he thinks it’s advantageous to do so belies a gross misunderstanding of a man whose racism spans decades. From the discrimination lawsuits leveled at his company in the 1970s, his crusade against the Central Park Five, to his dismissal of African and Latino nations as “shithole countries,” racism has been part of his brand for his entire life. To many of his voters – and his detractors – it is his brand’s defining aspect, and it’s why the “deplorables” have worshipped him as their savior since he rode down the escalator to announce his campaign in 2015.
Sanders’ advocates praise him for moving the Democratic Party to the left, making issues like single-payer healthcare and a $15.00 minimum wage common campaign promises, and it seems like he will he utilize this capital to run for president again in 2020. However, he will face a much larger primary field than 2016, one which will likely have more female and people of color candidates who represent the party’s base more than he does. And while he has supported women of color like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in their races for Congress, those endorsements will not be enough for him to avoid answering for questionable views like these. Donald Trump’s reign of terror has exposed the festering racial wounds that have haunted this country since the end of the Civil War, and if Sanders wants to continue speaking for the left, he will have to reckon with these legacies if he is to be taken seriously.
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Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.