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?