For anyone not following the Democratic primary contest closely (does anyone reading this actually fall into that category?), the hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite exploded across Twitter this past week, and even made the jump into the mainstream media both in the U.S. and beyond. The hashtag emerged in reaction to how some pundits inaccurately dismissed Sanders' overwhelming victories last Saturday in the Hawaii, Alaska and Washington state caucuses.
In one example, CNN's senior digital correspondent Brian Moody wrote: "These caucus states -- largely white and rural -- are the type of places Sanders traditionally does well." During an on camera CNN discussion of the five Sanders wins over the previous week, thus including Idaho and Utah in addition to the three mentioned above, Molly Ball characterized the voters in those five contests as "overwhelmingly white electorates." The Atlantic and the Washington Post offered statements that were similarly, er, factually challenged. Before correcting it, the WaPo's initial headline about the three Pacific contests referred to them as having taken place in "whiter states."
The reality: Hawaii is--wait for it--the least white state (at about one-quarter of the population) in the union. Half of all Hawaiians are Asian American, and over 10 percent are Native. Alaska, where one-third of the people are Native, is the sixth least white state, while Washington is about average in terms of percentage, and ranks 23rd out of 50 on that front.
These media blunders were inexcusable from a fact-checking perspective. But they also demonstrate just how lazy many commentators are. There exists an established narrative--Hillary does better among non-white voters than does Bernie--and too many pundits simply shoehorn new developments into that narrative, even when they don't fit. Hence: #BernieMadeMeWhite.
There are some truly hilarious (remember, the best comedy often comes from a place of pain) tweets from Bernie supporters under the aforementioned hashtag:
The hashtag itself was created by Leslie Lee III, an African-American Bernie supporter currently living in Japan who hails from Louisiana.
Most of the Twitter activity under this hashtag has come from black Bernie voters, and most media coverage of the issue has focused on them as well. They have long felt ignored by the constantly repeated theme of overwhelming black support for Hillary Clinton. And I feel for those voters. However, no one said 100 percent of African Americans voting in the Democratic primary were voting for Hillary. It wasn't inaccurate to say that most were.
What #BernieMadeMeWhite and the media coverage it lampoons really highlights is the reality that if you are neither white nor black the media, and even many public figures and activists, don't understand how to talk about you--if they see you at all.
As the photo at the top of this post indicates, the largest groups (in terms of the percentage of their state's population) who were wholly and collectively erased by the media coverage of the Pacific caucuses were native Hawaiians and Alaskans, as well as the Asian-Americans of Hawaii. There may not have been an equally high percentage of Latino voters in the three states that voted most recently, but a narrative dominated by a black/white dichotomy--one that equates "non-white" and "black" when it comes to voting patterns--ignores Latinos as well.
Hillary may well beat Bernie soundly among AfricanmAmericans and will likely win a majority, although probably a lesser one numerically speaking, among Latinos. However, he almost certainly won Asians and Native Americans last week, and a recent Los Angeles Times poll gave him a lead of 43 percent to 35 percent among Pacific Islanders/Asians in California. They are likely to be 12 percent of the state's voters. By comparison, blacks are expected to be only 6 percent of California's voting population.
This year's election coverage isn't the only issue where the black/white dichotomy oversimplifies matters. For another example, we can look at the term white privilege. Credit for coining the term goes to Peggy McIntosh, a white anti-racist activist, who wrote a long essay in 1988. She listed dozens of ways in which white people are privileged, and noted: "As far as I can tell, my African-American coworkers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions."
McIntosh's essay, one that obviously has had a tremendous--and overwhelmingly positive--influence on our society mentions no Americans other than those who are black and white. How exactly do groups like Asian Americans fit? Are they disproportionately likely to be mistreated by police, or followed by security personnel when they shop? Certainly not in the same way African Americans are.
Let's be clear about something: This isn't to suggest that other non-white groups don't face discrimination. Furthermore, the point here is neither to criticize McIntosh nor the concept of white privilege, but instead to emphasize how it's all too easy to fall into the pattern of seeing every issue in America through a black/white prism. Doing so misses a great deal.
In 1970, 95 percent of Americans were either non-Hispanic white (84 percent) or black (11 percent). That percentage dropped to 88 percent in 1990, and 76 percent in 2010. The way we talk about race and ethnicity in America must recognize that reality.