How Populists Like Bernie Sanders Should Talk About Racism

How Populists Like Bernie Sanders Should Talk About Racism

How Populists Like Bernie Sanders Should Talk About Racism

To mobilize a multiracial coalition, progressives need to demonstrate how racism hurts us all.


Bernie Sanders’s remarkable popularity going into the Iowa caucus shows that economic populism is ascendant on the left. And yet the notable whiteness of his followers forces an uncomfortable question about this emerging progressive coalition. It’s been 50 years since a Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of the white vote in a general election, and many liberals are understandably excited over the prospect of bringing white Reagan Democrats back into the fold. But what about the Obama Democrats, the multiracial coalition that forms the party’s present and the country’s future? Whether we can combine these constituencies is a fundamental question for the left. Can progressives finally come together around a unifying message that resonates with whites on class, people of color on race, and the 99 percent on both?

We emphatically believe it’s possible, but first, the left will have to challenge its own orthodoxy that defines racism as something that wholly benefits whites and solely victimizes people of color. The truth is, in the post-war era, racism helped create the white middle class. Since the Reagan era, racism has helped destroy it.

The inequality Bernie Sanders rails against today is what America gets when we prefer to drain the public swimming pool of economic opportunity rather than let people of color swim, too. By explaining how politicians have used racial dog whistles to transmute white anxiety into support for conservative economic policies that have harmed us all, a populist like Sanders could speak authentically to the whole progressive coalition.

That’s not happening now. Sanders’s principal approach to race is typical of most well-meaning progressives: offer up a string of statistics illustrating racial disparities. Clearly responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, Sanders’s website supplements these statistics by describing five forms of systemic racial violence—physical, legal, political, environmental, and economic—using the language of “political marginalization and institutional racism.” Nonetheless, his proposals to address economic racism are exclusively race-blind. Sanders demurs from recompense specifically for black people, whether in a grand program of reparations or even in the more limited forms of targeted housing and workplace integration remedies. Instead, he repeatedly argues that blacks and other people of color will disproportionately benefit from the universal solutions to poverty he proposes—free higher education, elevated wages, and good jobs—because non-whites are disproportionately poor. Shouldn’t we expect more from a visionary populist?

Sanders is far from alone in offering communities of color colorblind anti-poverty solutions. Hillary Clinton typically provides the same paeans to universal programs. This has been the standard liberal move for decades. Under pressure to do something about racial injustice, but fearful of antagonizing whites who resent race-conscious programs, liberals have emphasized class-based programs while sidelining efforts to confront racism directly. To this, white progressives frequently add a certain amount of impatience and annoyance. Why don’t people of color rally around economic populism, they ask themselves in bewilderment, when they have the most to gain from anti-poverty programs?

The reaction to Sanders from people of color helps answer that question. These audiences understandably remain skeptical because Sanders repeatedly stresses that his main focus is economic inequality. When he then says he worries about racial disparities, these concerns come across as afterthoughts. More fundamentally, people of color remain skeptical because by constantly proposing colorblind solutions, Sanders communicates that he does not fully understand the effects of racism.

In a recent piece criticizing Sanders for not supporting reparations, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates pillories Sanders for the “class first” orientation so common among white liberals. Sanders addresses “black people not so much as a class specifically injured by white supremacy,” Coates writes, “but rather, as a group which magically suffers from disproportionate poverty.” Thus Coates challenges Sanders: “Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?”

We agree with Coates’s critique, but we part company with his solution. The indictment that “Bernie doesn’t get it” usually leads to the demand that he focus more deeply on racism in addition to class. In Coates’s words, “Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy.”

Ironically, Coates, for all of his insight, makes the very mistake for which he slams Sanders: the separation of class and race. Yes, Sanders emphasizes economics, while Coates stresses white supremacy—but both urge an approach that divides the two. Coates might respond that his argument presumes deep connections between race and class for black people, as surely it does. But there’s something missing; Coates says little about this intersection for white people, beyond implying that whites benefit from black oppression.

Insisting that Sanders embrace reparations and speak out forcefully against white supremacy might be sound advice—if the only goal were to reach voters of color. But what about the white voters who also live and suffer in a racist society? With different emphases, Sanders and Coates see racism in essentially the same way: as bad things that happen to people of color, with little bearing on how others are harmed by a society wedded to the belief in human hierarchy, and with no connection to how racism enables plutocracy in the United States today.

Far from speaking only to people of color, the promise of the Sanders campaign is that his unabashed class message can win back white voters. Here he is in a bind. Many white people deeply sense that, from police killings to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim tirades, our politics remain poisoned by racism. And yet, conversations about racial harms to communities of color make many white voters anxious. Even among the progressive millennial generation, many of whom enthusiastically identify as Bernie supporters, colorblind etiquette dictates that good people should not bring up race, even to address racism. Three out of four young whites now believe that “society would be better off if it were truly colorblind and never considered race or ethnicity.” For these folks, a race-conscious agenda seems morally wrong and even borderline racist.

This is no accident. Conservatives have been working hard to convince white people that addressing racism is itself anti-white discrimination. For 50 years, conservatives have hammered the message that liberalism is excessively sympathetic to people of color, claiming that major institutions—from the Democratic Party to the federal government, from universities to unions—care more about people of color than about white people. In this context, when Sanders repeats the refrain that Black Lives Matter, many white people hear him as kowtowing to a powerful special interest, or even engaging in a form of racial betrayal.

We think a different approach is necessary, one that links, rather than counterposes, class and race. The progressive movement should expand from a vision of racism as violence done solely to people of color to include a conception of racism as a political weapon wielded by elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike. It’s time for Sanders and other white economic populists to take up the race conversation with white voters, by directly addressing racial anxiety and its role in fueling popular support for policies that hand over the country to plutocrats.

Beginning in the 1970s, conservatives deployed a highly racialized strategy that relentlessly linked public institutions to undeserving minorities in order to undo the country’s social contract—one grounded in good government, strong unions, and regulated capitalism. In the New Deal and Great Society years, white majorities broadly supported activist government because they perceived it as helping people like themselves—hardworking, deserving, decent. But as government programs became available to people of color, conservatives saw that they could gain ground by dog whistling about welfare and criminals, using racially coded terms to invoke the specter of liberal government coddling people of color—the very groups whose fortunes seemed to be rising just as life was getting harder for the white working class in the 1970s. As GOP campaign strategist Lee Atwater put it: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things.… [but] anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”

Today’s right-wing, anti-tax, anti-spending agenda succeeds by stoking a deep distrust of the purported beneficiaries of government in thinly veiled dog-whistle language that is almost always about race, whether the conversation is about people who just want “free stuff,” the need to drug-test welfare recipients, “illegal aliens” as rapists and criminals, “runaway spending” under our “Food Stamp president,” or simply that our country is divided between makers and takers. On the basis of such narratives, Republicans routinely win 3 of 5 white votes nationally (and far more in the South), and draw roughly 90 percent of their support from white voters.

Democrats have struggled to respond. Initially, they simply opted to stop talking about race. Eventually, they adopted the GOP’s tactics. Bill Clinton in particular sounded the dog whistle by crusading for welfare reform, a crackdown on crime, and the end of the era of big government. White populists remember Clinton’s betrayals as inviting Wall Street into the Democratic Party, passing NAFTA and repealing Glass-Steagall. But the two trends were connected: Democrats simultaneously gave up on racial liberalism and on pro–working class policies. Progressives have been frustrated ever since as they watched white working-class voters embrace self-defeating promises to cut taxes on the wealthy, deregulate big business, and undermine workers’ rights, sometimes at the urging of Democrats themselves.

This is the race story that Sanders and every progressive leader ought to be telling every time they step to a microphone. The reactionary economic agenda made possible by dog-whistle politics is responsible not just for the devaluing of black lives but for the declining fortunes of the majority of white families. College costs have soared because anti-government dog whistling has mainstreamed extreme cuts to state budgets. Union busting, which drives down wages and benefits for all workers, has become popular because the image of the union worker has been tarred: now not a white man in a hardhat but a black woman behind a bureaucrat’s counter. When conservatives vilify every modest public benefit, from healthcare subsidies to unemployment insurance, as handouts to the undeserving, the social contract is shredded for everyone. By exposing how the political manipulation of racial anxiety has hollowed out of the middle class, Sanders can elevate a simple message: When racism wins, everyone loses.

This insight can also help connect resurgent economic populism with the newly energized racial-justice movements. If white progressive leaders persist in perceiving racism as exclusively damaging nonwhites, they’ll never convince communities of color that racial justice is more than a distraction from their main message. Take Sanders: If he were to truly get that plutocrats use racism against all of us, and if he made this central to his stump speech to audiences of all races, it could convince voters that he is fighting racism because of, not in spite of, his core commitment to economic equality. When a white politician like Sanders—or Clinton or Martin O’Malley, for that matter—starts telling white audiences that combating racism is important to them, people of color will believe that battling racism is important to him.

Make no mistake, this is not an argument that anyone should equate the harms to whites and to people of color done by racism. Obviously, the damage inflicted on communities of color over the life of this country, as over the last half-century, has been much more concentrated, brutal, dehumanizing, and devastating than the harms visited generally on white communities. Progressives of all colors must acknowledge this, just as we should all endorse specially targeted reparative efforts. But explaining how political or strategic racism works doesn’t mean ignoring structural racism. In fact, it explains the latter’s durability.

Consider, for example, mass incarceration and police killings of unarmed people of color. When Richard Nixon threw himself into dog whistling, the number of people in state and federal prisons stood at around 200,000. Republicans then started the drum beat about blacks as marauding criminals and whites as innocent victims. Democrats soon picked up the same themes, and then both parties were boosting aggressive policing, building steel cages—and filling them. Politicians, not the police, created a climate in which massive violence against people of color became the norm. As a result, the prison population now stands at 2.3 million people. This same story can be told in many areas, from disinvestment in urban areas and schools to mass deportation campaigns.

Sanders, like most economic liberals, often laments that the United States does not have the generous social programs of a country like Denmark, without acknowledging the rather obvious reason. We don’t look like Denmark in terms of our social policies because we don’t look like Denmark demographically. In our diverse society, racism has been the plutocrats’ scythe, cutting down social solidarity to harvest obscene wealth and power.

This summer, confronted by the movement for black lives, Sanders adopted the cry that black lives matter. He did so in the spirit of recognizing the human worth of African Americans, and as a fundamental acknowledgment of our shared humanity across colorlines. Now there is an opportunity to explain to white audiences that black lives matter also because, when white people doubt this, they are easily lured into fearing people of color and handing over power to billionaires. Fostering solidarity across racial divisions is the single greatest challenge America faces in uniting the 99 percent, and until progressives speak to it, our politics and our public policies will serve the 1 percent. Fearful of one another, working people will continue to lose, but for each other, we can rebuild the American Dream. We will not get our country back from the very rich until we commit to a vision of “we the people” in which “we” means everyone, not divided by racial fear but  convinced of our linked fate.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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