I am a White radical who has been very vocal in his support for Vermont Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, an Independent who is running on the Democratic ticket. I am also a White ally who has been engaged in the fight for racial justice in this country through my involvement in mobilization efforts on the ground to the point of police arrest as part of the #KettleAtRoss, in church-sponsored marches, and in my academic life as a doctoral student doing work around critical whiteness and hip-hop. In fact, it is in large part because of my dedication to decolonizing whiteness that I, a White radical ally, have found myself so enthusiastic about Sanders’ compelling campaign with its revolutionary socialist rhetoric and its thrust toward the redistribution of wealth, which carries implications for deconstructing hierarchies that are classed, gendered, raced, and sexed.
However, in light of my ideological commitments to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I cannot ignore the protests that disrupted the Netroots Nation 2015 event (#NN15) in Phoenix, AZ on July 18 and caused a stir of White “progressive” backlash at the Black protesters for their supposedly misinformed attempts to be heard by a prospective co-conspirator in the Black freedom struggle.
In light of the call to White accountability that a movement in which I wholeheartedly believe has offered not just Sanders, but White progressives, in general, I cannot help but reassess my own, until recently, blind enthusiasm for the presidential candidate—a zeal lacking in the critical self-reflexivity necessary for White allies such as myself to be effective in the move toward freedom from bondage to White supremacy that affects us all.
Upon the kind of critical self-reflection on my investments in Sanders for which the cries of agitators at Netroots Nation called White progressives, and if I’m to be sincere with myself, this fervor for Sanders has been informed by a kind of unconscious racism on my part called White paternalism, an attitude that takes responsibility for and thus displaces the needs of the Black lives which I so often, through social media and in my own activism and academic work, proclaim matter.
That’s a rough confession to make inasmuch as it challenges me to question my perceived innocence as one who professes himself—in the spirit of Alicia Garza’s admonition to White allies of the #BlackLivesMatter movement—to be a “co-conspirator” in the fight to abolish the structural inequalities that perpetuate in and through acts of discrimination and violence against my brothers and sisters of color in America and around the world.
But I need to offer this inventory as a check on the pride, arrogance, self-delusion, and self-centeredness which would have me believe that I, a White male, know what is best for Black people. “Step back, brother,” I tell myself, and “slow your roll”—words a Black priest-friend of mine from Baltimore told me when I critiqued his own deeply personal engagement in race matters in the course of an online exchange in May of this year.
The supremacy of Whiteness and the privilege that secures its hegemonic stranglehold at the level of individual and institution is insidious. It has snuck up on me and I’ve let myself be seduced by it in my own unquestioned adherence to a campaign that, if I’m again to be honest with myself, has not been as vocal as it could be about the fact of White supremacy and its intersections with the unjust economic conditions that Sanders rightly laments. In his seeming lack of racial analysis regarding income inequality in America, meanwhile, and his unwillingness to field the questions of protestors at the #NN15 gathering concerned with his commitment to ending Black blight, Sanders reproduces the paternalism and racial privilege to which all White progressives are subject in believing they have a monopoly on the “best practices” of social protest and/or reform.
In the defensiveness I’ve felt around Sanders and the gusto I’ve mustered on behalf of his campaign, I’ve been avoiding a conscious acknowledgment of paternalism as it functions in the subtleties of my past reproach for the line of critique that claims his racial analysis is lacking.
Previous to the interruption at the #NN15 event, I have used social media, primarily facebook, to highlight the ways in which Sanders has indeed been part of the struggle for racial justice in this country, as evidenced by his involvement in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), his voting record, his own vocal excoriation of police brutality and mass incarceration, and his awareness of the disproportionately disenfranchising effects that income inequality has on people of color in this country. I also capitalized on the news concerning rapper Killer Mike’s endorsement of the presidential candidate—in no small part, whether or not I was aware of it at the time, because of the MC’s Blackness, exploiting it as testimony of Sanders’ appeal to the Black vote (as if Killer Mike is the sole representative of African American cultures) to advance a political agenda. #smh
Lastly, I recall the racially insular comfort of a conversation I had with a White friend of mine during a hike through a regional park in the hills of North Berkeley a few weeks back in which I admitted in so many words, “I think Sanders is it. I am just worried about the Black vote. I hope it does not go to Hillary.” Perhaps this admission might seem innocuous at first glance or upon hearing it in passing; but when scrutinized under the light of the critical Whiteness I espouse in my own work as scholar-activist, it reveals an ironic anxiety about the self-activity of the collective Black political body–diverse and variegated as it is in and of itself–that indeed knows what it means to take part in the political process! #smh
Admitting all this throws me into an imperative crisis of identity and identification as the defects and contradictions of my own character come roaring up at me in the mirror like monsters returned from the repression of my racial closet—the door of which was opened yesterday upon reading on my pastor Michael McBride‘s facebook wall an article detailing the incontestable uproar of Black activists at #NN15 and subsequently witnessing Sanders’ glib dismissal of their demands for recognition in an evasive reiteration of his populist economic vision—wholly lacking in the necessary humility and poise of deep listening that I believe was being asked of someone championing such political commitments as his platform proffers.
The criticisms from Black activists are incontestable precisely because the fragility of Black dignity and life in this moment and throughout the history of the modern world deems it so. My professed adherence to the Christian Gospel of Love deems it so. The pangs of a conscience I feel, which are informed by the Christian Gospel, deem it so. I say this not out of the insecurity of White guilt, which would be counterproductive to the cause, but out of the security of a self-responsible ethic of empathy.
If I am to be serious about the sincerity of my engagement with the cause for racial justice, then, it is necessary that I undergo a continual inventory on racism as it manifests in my consciousness and character if only to create a space of vulnerability and open-heartedness within myself to receive the moral indictments of my Black brothers and sisters whose rage refuses White silence (i.e. consent) and demands accountability from those touting “revolution” as a slogan for a movement not altogether unrelated to the aims of #BlackLivesMatter.
Because of the messiness of splitting I feel within myself and which I am witnessing in the current battle in which White and Black progressives seem pitted against one another, I’ve had a hard time conceiving a viable picture of “where to go from here” in terms of the move forward regarding issues and stances that both Sanders and those in the #BlackLivesMatter camp hold dear and true in their hearts—issues and stances that I, myself, hold dear and true in my heart.
I am disappointed in myself. I am disappointed in Sanders. I am disappointed that he failed to receive the invitation, even if challenging, to just listen in Arizona. It saddens me that he seems to have under-utilized his privilege—which he could very well leverage given the clout he has garnered in a convincing grassroots political movement that overlaps with the goals of the global #Occupy—to talk more incisively, more intersectionally, more prophetically about systemic racism as well as the concerns voiced by those whom he chose instead to hush in Phoenix. I am equally as disheartened by the White “progressive” backlash in his defense.
At the same time, I remain wary of a wholesale rejection of his campaign.
This is not to reinscribe the implicitly paternalistic proselytizing I believe was operative in my past endorsements of his platform, nor to claim a monopoly on the “best practices” of social reform, but to hold true to my own convictions that Sanders has a lot, if not the most, to offer the movement(s) for racial justice in this country of any major party candidate running for the job thus far–largely because of the work he’s done to combat the disinheriting monolith of monopoly capitalism that hurts racial minorities the most. By the same token, I believe said movement(s) have much to offer his “revolution” as a deservedly celebrated creative foil and corrective to his progressivism, in particular, and that of White liberals, in general (myself included), inasmuch as it reminds us all that the issue of racism must be treated as a problem in and of itself–without reducing the issue of social inequality to race alone–and that the self-activity of Black organizers must be taken seriously (see Dara Lind in Vox, “#BernieSoBlack: Why Progressives are Fighting about Bernie Sanders and Race,” July 20, 2015; see also this article in The Nation).
Neither the movement for economic justice nor the movement for racial justice is mutually exclusive of the other and I fear that what could function as an invitation toward unification across difference in the present social media uproar regarding Sanders and Black lives is instead turning into a kind of ideological race war: anti-progressive Black radicals versus anti-radical White progressives. In a word, it seems people on both sides of the divide in this specific conflict are castigating each other into corners of categorical disposal, resorting to an “all or nothing,” “us versus them,” and “black versus white” mentality that is flattening the complexity of a potentially fruitful moment for “real talk” rather than cynical stone-throwing from each corner.
That being the case, as far as I can tell, I wonder what the possibilities are for a unified crossracial progressive movement rooted in more nuanced class- and race-based policy reform that brings together the predominantly White base at the foundation of Bernie’s platform and the predominantly Black base undergirding the various movements committed to ending institutional racism and racialized violence in this country. What could happen if there was a joint effort that combined the best insights of each movement for the purposes of overhauling our current political-economic infrastructure without drowning out the clarion call to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter and that racial injustice and economic injustice are intertwined?
Though he has not ignored the issue of racialized oppression in America, Sanders’ predominately class-based critique of the present economic situation fails to name the ill of White supremacy at the root of the present order of things in which economic inequality is merely one symptom of that global disease. By the same token, it’s important that the issue of economic injustice and class-based reform not be altogether disregarded either.
If anything, Sanders’ bid for president presents us with an opportune moment to at least consider the need for a co-conspiratorial grassroots movement sharpened by the precision of a race-class cultural critique that looks at the ways in which class is organized along racial lines and vice versa; that recognizes that income inequality and racial inequality work in tandem and must be addressed as two sides of one corroded coin of monopoly capitalism, the global processes of which function to erect what intellectual-activist Andrea Smith calls “the three pillars of heteropatriarchy” that constitute White supremacy: Slavery/Capitalism, Genocide/Colonialism, and Orientalism/War.
I am not proposing anything new—see Cornel West’s Race Matters (1994), for example—yet this moment, in which class- and race-based measures for change seem to be at odds with one another in the split imaginaries of progressives isolated from one another across what is amounting to a racial divide of mutual alienation, incites us with a pivotal urgency to put theoretical intersectionality into practical action in a joint effort for policies that address classism and racism, bedfellows that they are, as well as the ties of each of these -isms to various other forms of prejudice (heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).
You cannot adequately address one issue without the other in this line of logic, which accounts for how Whiteness, specifically, and class formation go hand-in-hand. I find labor historian David R. Roediger‘s insights useful here as he argues convincingly that class-based reform is as much a precondition for attacking racism as attacking racism is for class-based reform. We must all wake up to the fact that the income gap is deeply racialized and that racialized violence is deeply classed–to say nothing of the gender and sexual dynamism at play, here. I believe Sanders recognizes this, but needs to be more explicit about this. Not just by attacking racism, but by calling out this country’s “possessive investment in Whiteness” (George Lipsitz 2006) itself for its collusion with the global processes of capitalism in creating a racial hierarchy that is also classed, gendered, and sexed.
That said, I think Sanders is on point in so many ways, but needs to fine-tune his approach to meet the race-based demands of those at the center of the #BlackLivesMatter movement so that the largely White progressive movement he represents might divest itself from a “possessive investment in Whiteness” (Lipsitz 2006) to which we are all victim. By the same token, it is important that those in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and other organizations campaigning for racial equality fine-tune their approach to reform so as not to overlook racism’s economic dimensions. In the end, none of us can hope to accomplish anything by shouting over each other as such action only fuels a deafening resentment. On that note, it is not up to White progressives to decide what are best tactics for Black protest, particularly in a movement that purposely eschews a politics of respectability in favor of a politics of disruption. The most important step across the color line is that of listening.
Hopefully, the chaos of righteous Black indignation and the White racial anxiety it provokes will pave the way for constructive, clarifying dialogue to take place across current divides. In the meantime, it’s important that we hear each other out and keep grappling with underlying causes–to paraphrase the words of a friend and colleague who quoted Dr. King recently in a facebook thread on this very issue–so that our social analyses remain as sharp and precise as the long arc of the universe which bends toward justice.