Facing the White Blind Spot: Bernie Sanders and Anti-Racist Organizing

Elections can be confusing and clarifying, meaningful and mystifying, often in the same moment or in an identical gesture. The gaudy, billion-dollar national campaign surging around us now is an inescapable vortex sucking into itself all available light. Elections are in some ways less important than we give them credit for -- the deep state has a much longer game plan -- and in other ways more important than we notice.

The real struggle, we all know, is on the ground and in the organized communities, where power resides and interests are contested. At the same time the dance of the senators, governors, and others from the political elite creates a pallet for our fears and hopes, our strategies and positions. So the debates occasioned by the election season are telling.

The Bernie Sanders candidacy, like those of Eugene McCarthy, Shirley Chisolm, and Jesse Jackson, has caught the imagination of millions. Even those who know we need a more fundamental change are energized by the idea that even a liberal socialist could make such a strong run. The chance to turn away from Clinton, the cynical, elitist neo-liberal Democratic Party candidate, comes as a breath of fresh air.

With that point clear, though, we should be able to examine and critique Sanders -- particularly as to what he represents as a white liberal socialist. Sanders may be an exciting prospect on the national political landscape, but let's use this moment to consider how to address the worst, the shameful, history of white America. My purpose here is not to "out-left" the electoral campaign or to call Bernie out for not being a perfect paragon of revolutionary clarity. But we should be able to face what his candidacy tells us about the state of politics and ourselves in these times.

When he was challenged by Black Lives Matter activists, his first response was the clueless "all lives matter." He quickly backpedaled on that one and has been trying to develop a position on anti-Black racism since then. But in the end, even with time to consider and all the strategy sessions with his team, he only comes up with those same suggestions about jobs and anti-poverty programs.

Clearly these remedies are ridiculously narrow. Asking corporations to give jobs to oppressed communities does not address the kind and quality of initiatives that communities need -- even if he could create jobs, would they be jobs building drones, fracking for oil? Communities must have a voice in defining their needs and power to enact solutions to address them. More importantly, the simplistic focus on jobs and poverty programs suggests that racism and white supremacy are just byproducts, psychological problems that undergird class oppression. This focus ignores the structural, deliberate colonial lockout of African American working-class people from viable economic projects. It ignores the repressive violence that Black and Brown communities experience in the streets, through the prisons, and at the border.

When Sanders was asked about Ta-Nehisi Coates' articulation of the need to address reparations for African Americans, he replied that this discussion would be too divisive and followed it again by vague discussions about jobs and anti-poverty programs. What is most disturbing in these debates is how many Sanders supporters, those on the left who are hoping this campaign offers some hope in a dreary electoral season, attack any and all questions that are raised about their candidate.

As soon as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out Sanders' weak position on race, a number of people piled on against him -- accusing him of being Black bourgeoisie, an impractical intellectual, a divisive force. The two strongest attacks against Coates were by scholars Cedric Johnson in Jacobin and Paul Street in Counterpunch. Their arguments centered on the position that class, not race, is the main contradiction. The class before race group hold that racism is just a subset of class oppression and white supremacy is just bad ideas in white people's heads. The massive Black and Brown prison population, the government Cointelpro attacks against Black leadership, the police shooting of Black and Brown youth -- are apparently all part of class oppression.

Moreover, those who are anxious to burnish the Bernie image have argued that he was in the "front lines" of the Civil Rights Movement. I don't want to get petty on the details but being active in CORE in Chicago for some years in the '60s and perhaps appearing in a photograph of the Selma march does not make you a civil rights leader. As one African American friend posted, "I sold a guy a dime bag of weed 20 years ago. That does not make me a drug dealer today." What matters is: what does Bernie Sanders understand about imperialism and about colonial oppression expressed as racism? What should have been a moment of clarification and honest reflection on the historical race blind spot of white leftists has turned into a frantic doubling down by those who will broach no criticism of their candidate.

Another part of the attack on Coates has been to brand him as part of the "Black Bourgeoisie" or a petty-bourgeois intellectual. There is indeed a class of the Black bourgeoisie, those from the colony who identify with and work for the oppressor. On the other hand, intellectuals from the oppressed people, from W.E.B. DuBois to Huey Newton, from Martin Luther King to James Baldwin, are often the ones who articulate the demands of the community. The attack on Coates' personal life is really a red herring argument. The question is what interests, what demands, the speaker lines up with.

Many of the "class not race" proponents attack any demands and movements of the oppressed as "identity politics." In some situations, individual identity politics is certainly problematic. It is characterized by a kind of petty bourgeois subjectivism; it is seen in people whose political identity is limited to discussions and calling people out in college classes; it is not particularly interested in the masses or in social change. But to broaden that critique to reject any protest of colonial or gender oppression is to fall into that narrow old economist version of Marxism.
The old-guard European Marxists, those wedded to a domestic economic analysis, those who regarded the "advanced capitalist" working class as the natural vanguard of revolution, generally dominated radical theory. This formulation supposed that workers in colonial countries, and Black and Brown workers inside the US, were of secondary importance and needed to follow the lead of the more evolved white working class. Their mechanical analysis was essentially what we should call economist, that is to say it is a narrow understanding of the social and cultural reality of political economy.

For the reduction of national liberation struggles or gender and racial oppression to simply something that "divides the working class" is no revolutionary approach at all. This goes back to the struggles of the '60s and '70s when many groups which claimed the mantle of Marxism rejected all national liberation struggle as "dividing the working class."

Today US imperialism has withstood the challenges of the 1960s, and moreover has extended its parasitic relationship to the Third World even more by moving manufacturing, not just extraction, to the colonial regions. The struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism - including the settler type, the occupation type, and the domestic type of colonialism - is clearly still central to any work for equitable transformation. The empire is reaching the end of its outward expansion and is beginning the process of implosion. Our organizing work must counter the inevitable turn toward fascism that is gripping many white people and must hasten to create the kind of equitable, participatory society that is in the interest of the vast majority.

Activists who work for serious change can certainly participate in the Bernie Sanders campaign - but only by addressing the issues of colonial oppression, not suppressing them. Is that more difficult to do than just appealing to narrow self-interest? It certainly is. But no one said organizing against imperialism would be easy. And let's not have contempt for the capacity of working class people to understand the deep structures of imperialism.

Organizing against White Supremacy
Can white working class people be brought in to solidarity with the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles? Certainly, they can be and they have been often. The massive refusal of US soldiers to fight in Vietnam is a telling example. But narrow self-interest demands, the vague calls to unity, have ignored the way privilege operates. The point is this: what we call racism, or white privilege, is more than bad ideas in white people's heads. It is a material reality and reflects actual property (in the words of Derrick Bell) used against colonized people -- those colonized around the world as well as domestically colonized Black and Brown communities.

White leftists have notoriously ignored this reality and have been quick to lecture Black activists on how they need to line up behind them. Ta-Nehisi Coates goading of Bernie Sanders is precisely a challenge to this tradition and should be honored.

Of course, everyone on the left agrees that we must oppose racism. The question is whether racism -- or racial-national oppression of a people -- is a problem in people's minds or is it a structural, crucial part of the structure of imperialism. Likewise, is colonial conquest simply a "preferred policy" of the capitalists or is it fundamental to advanced capitalism?

We can embrace the Bernie Sanders candidacy as a tremendous organizing opportunity, a moment that creates more space and openings for dealing with the deep problems in the US. But we should also not be afraid to deepen the insights -- that's what organizers are responsible to do. Ta-Nehisi Coates' arguments here are not about individual advancement, "access" to narrow success, or sentimentalism. His critique of Sanders is in line with the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for fundamental change.

Especially in a moment like this, white socialists should be willing to look deeply and honestly at the "white blind spot." To ignore this is not just a little oversight. It would be a betrayal of everything that matters in the struggle for fundamental social change. It is blind to the very forces that have shaken up our political, cultural, and social landscape. Does the Bernie train rally need to trash any such reality checks in order go forward? I would hope not.