Bernie in the briar patch

Maybe it’s his decades of residence in lily-white Vermont. Maybe it’s his stubborn streak. Maybe it’s the overweening self-regard that inevitably develops in the mind of the successful politician. But Bernie Sanders is having an awful time getting over his “black problem.”

It’s gotten to the point where a possibly innocuous move like visiting Jesse Jackson takes on a “some of my best friends are black” vibe.

“Longtime friends, the senator and the civil rights leader held a very productive, hour-long meeting on important issues confronting the country and the African American community,” spokesman Michael Briggs wrote in the statement.

Err, Mike. Don’t try too hard with the “longtime friends” stuff.

Bernie ought to be the candidate of racial justice as well as the economic variety. But he can’t quite seem to find his footing after twice being challenged by “Black Lives Matter” protesters. The latest gaffe came Sunday on “Meet The Press”:

CHUCK TODD: Buzzfeed has an article out this morning. Headline is this: “Sanders Campaign Reaches Out to Black Lives Matter Activists.” Quote, “I apologize it took our campaign so long.” Tell me more about it.

BERNIE SANDERS: Well, that was sent out by a staffer, not by me. Look, we are reaching out to all kinds of groups, absolutely.

CHUCK TODD: I understand that but, you said a staffer put it out, but you felt an apology was necessary?

BERNIE SANDERS: No, I don’t. I think we’re going to be working with all groups. This was sent out without my knowledge.

Well, that’s just great.

Bernie had been taking concrete steps to reconcile with “Black Lives Matter” — and right there he went back to the “All Lives Matter” line of thinking that’s anathema to the movement. Plus, bonus negative points, he undercut his own African-American outreach director, who sent the email in question. All because, apparently, he’s too crusty and self-centered to apologize.

Which he should, for purely political reasons if nothing else. And he ought to be plausibly sincere about it. Not only for the sake of his own campaign, which needs to be a Rainbow Coalition if he really wants to take down Hillary Clinton; but for the sake of the 2016 campaign, because the Democrats need a strong and active minority presence to win the presidency. And he’s not helping.

The longer he continues this pattern of mixing positive steps with hurtful comments or actions, the harder it’ll be to extricate himself from the situation and to regain the trust and support of the black community. He doesn’t deserve that trust and support because he marched for civil rights in the 1960s or because Jesse Jackson is his “longtime friend”; he earns it through his present-day actions. He’s still got some work to do.

And now, a word for Sanders supporters who don’t believe he has a problem.

He does. And you’re part of it.

When Bernie backers react angrily to African Americans who are dissatisfied with Bernie Sanders, they are making it worse. The great Imani Gandy, a.k.a. Angry Black Lady:

Sanders’ fanatics have been viciously harassing Black people on Twitter and Facebook for weeks now—ever since the #BlackLivesMatter activists stood up during the presidential town hall at Netroots Nation and demanded that Sanders provide substantive answers about what he would do about the epidemic of police violence in the Black community.

In the wake of that protest, Sanders supporters took to Twitter to condescend, patronize, and belittle Black people, talking to us as if we are stupid and don’t know what’s best for us, and therefore should listen to our White Progressive ™ betters lest we usher in a Trump presidency or a Clinton presidency or whomever is the Boogey Man du jour.

Okay, white Bernie Sanders supporter. How do you react to that? Kneejerk consternation or anger?

Better check yourself. A whole lot of black progressives see things her way, and you should be asking yourselves why.

In my spare time, especially if I’m cooking or canning, I’ll listen to sports-talk radio. Harmless background chatter. Often, a show will feature white and black co-hosts. (The white guy is usually a sports radio lifer and the black guy is an ex-athlete. Stereotypes live!) Whenever a racial issue comes up, the reaction is predictable: the white guy doesn’t think it’s a big deal and the black guy does.

This ain’t coincidence. It’s the way our perceptions are shaped by our own experiences. That’s why diversity is a social good, whether it’s based on race, gender, religion, or whatever. Similarly, there is no way a white person — especially a white person from Vermont — can be fully in touch with the black experience in America, no matter how well-intentioned s/he may be.

Bernie needs the active, passionate support of blacks (and Hispanics and women and the LGBT community) more than they need Bernie. He needs to stop the temporizing and bloviating, and get to some serious listening.

And not just to his longtime friend Jesse.


15 thoughts on “Bernie in the briar patch

  1. climateplan

    I’d like to see the Sanders campaign bring in more minority staffers, consultants, etc — particularly African-Americans, Hispanics and Latinos.

  2. Jimmy

    You’d like him to make an apology just because it’s a good political move? That’s not why tens of thousands turn out to see him. They’re sick of that. There’s lots of stuff that goes on in the Twittersphere. Rarely are the steps Bernie has taken on the race question even mentioned. There’s just the constant drumbeat about two activists closing down his event. If you are demanding to be heard and then someone speaks, then aren’t you obliged to listen? More than one prominent African American as well as BLM members have said Sander is targets because he’s accessible. It’s not about Sanders, it’s about the issue and they feel they get them most bang for the buck by attacking Bernie. Why they aren’t targeting the woman who is ahead by 30 points in the polls is another question.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      This is just the kind of smug belittling that I was talking about. These are not the concerns of “two activists” or random Tweeters. This is a sizable portion of the black community, and you are completely dismissing their point of view.

  3. Jimmy

    I didn’t mean that it was only two activists but if you look at twitter there are 50 posts a day about the two women from BLM in Seattle, two weeks later, like it’s breaking news. Lots has transpired since then that people are choosing to ignore. Lots that black activists have given Bernie credit for. A strong statement on his website. His reaching out to and now employing an African American press spokesperson. If anyone has any criticism of people’s tactics they’re literally called a white supremacist. Are you seeing any of that? Is it legitimate to call Bernie and the “lily white” Vermonters he represents white supremacists? When he points to his record they say they don’t want to hear about his record. When he says what he would do they say he’s pandering. He’s in a no win situation. Whatever he does is either ignored or called pandering. No one is belittling anyone. My own point of view is that a protest at the White House, where there’s a person in power, the person who employs the Attorney General might be more effective than protest a person who is on your side, who many people agree is ignored by the press. Sorry to be so smug and belittling. I’m just a lily white VErmonter commenting on a blog. And you’re the same, no matter if you think you’re MLK.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I don’t have any illusions that I’m MLK. That’s why I take the views of people like ABL very seriously.

      The real question for Bernie is, why didn’t he make his campaign more inclusive from the get-go? He had to know he was trying to build a movement, and that he would need diverse participation. Why did he have to botch a crucial confrontation before pivoting to a measure of inclusiveness? And why is he still saying stupid stuff like that “Meet the Press” exchange?

  4. Sue Prent

    Yes, Bernie and Hillary both need that voting cohort, and they are both experiencing uncomfortable confrontations with Black Lives Matters.

    It is Black Lives Matters’ job to confront, but it is Bernie’s job to try to stay on message while nimbly shapeshifting to explain why that message has real meaning to each interest group. Not easy, but I think he’s making an honest job of it.

    The big question that I haven’t heard from anyone is why Republican candidates have not been targeted in equally high profile ways by Black Lives Matter?

    This would seem on the surface to be a pretty big strategic blunder.

    Why did they choose to focus first on their most likely ally? If it was just because that was easier than confronting Republicans (who really own defacto racism), I’m not impressed.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      My guess: the protesters targeted Democratic candidates because Democratic candidates ought to be their natural allies. They don’t expect anything from Republicans, so there’s no point in confronting them. Considering that BLM protesters march where the cops are known to violently overreact, I don’t think we can accuse them of shying away from confrontation.

      In a way, they are acting the same way Progressives do toward Democrats. The Progs didn’t expect Jim Douglas to support their initiatives; they did expect more from Peter Shumlin, so they’re a lot tougher on Shumlin.

      1. Sue Prent

        I disagree with that equivalent, and with any logic that says it makes sense to target your natural allies more than your dedicated opponents.

        Progressives targeted Jim Douglas when he held the power, and now that Shumlin is in power, they target him when it’s specifically needed. No equivalent.

        I don’t see a really clear relationship between the protests that target the police and this other, oddly narrow political arm of BLM.

  5. Jimmy

    Lots of prominent black activists have also questioned the action in Seattle. He wasn’t given a chance. What would anyone, no matter how politically savvy, have handled what happened at Netroots? (To suggest a politician “handle” the situation because they should be savvy could itself be construed as racist) Would they have said to these people who didn’t want to hear anything “Oh, let’s sit down and discuss it”? When they confronted him and he began to speak they didn’t like what he had to say so they shouted him down and took over the microphone. Any response by Bernie would have been met by the same reaction from the BLM people who were protesting. Before all this happened he said he thought we should apologize for slavery. He is, and has been an ally and one who would be pandering to say “I’m sorry” for what happened at Netroots. On wait, I just thought of a candidate who would have handled it. Hillary. She’d be like the male hooker in that cartoon from the New Yorker leaning into the woman’s car saying “oh yeah baby, i’ll listen to you —I’ll listen to you all night long”. And she’d say it arms raised like Eva Peron. At the moment, two thirds of blacks don’t even know his name. His campaign is three months old and I’ll bet he’ll win lots of support from POC. Unless all this gains traction and he’s booted out for being a white supremacist. These things have a habit of taking on lives of their own. Then we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming.

  6. gyrfalcon7

    Well said, John. I’m old enough to remember when white liberals (we were liberals then, not “progressives”) constantly chastised MLK and SNCC et al for being so “confrontational” with their sit-ins and scary marches of hundreds of thousands of black folks on Washington. MLK even said in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that he was beginning to think white liberals were a bigger obstacle to the movement than white racists.

    I thought we’d evolved past the place where white people felt so free to instruct black folks on the tactics they should use as they’re trying to save their own lives, but apparently not. The number of white “progressives” I’ve seen expressing outrage that these rowdy black people made it impossible for them to hear Sanders speak is incredibly disheartening.

  7. Sue Prent

    Careful. You’re characterizing the “white progressives” rather freely.
    You seem to think that the only reason people might object was because they were out of touch with the very real injustice suffered by the black community.

    What if the people who interrupted Bernie’s appearance had been a non-race-related interest group? Would it then have been okay if the people who had gathered to hear Bernie speak (probably queueing up for hours to do so) were a little upset when he was shouted off the stage? Would they have necessarily been hostile to the concerns of the interlopers or just to their behavior?

    Black Lives Matter had a perfect right to disrupt if they felt that served their purposes; but don’t blame the audience for being unhappy about not getting to hear Bernie speak.

      1. John S. Walters Post author

        Well, you strongly implied that they lack the courage or dedication to confront Republican candidates:

        Why did they choose to focus first on their most likely ally? If it was just because that was easier than confronting Republicans (who really own defacto racism), I’m not impressed.

        You did include the “if,” but the implication hangs in the air. And you rejected my entirely plausible explanation — that their chance of influencing Bernie is greater, that their expectations of Bernie are understandably greater, and their frustration is more keenly felt.

        At this point, we’re going around in circles, and after this message I’m disengaging from this thread.

    1. gyrfalcon7

      I never blamed the audience for being unhappy about not getting to hear Bernie speak. I blame them for being beside themselves with outrage and for instructing what they apparently see as their less bright or less sophisticated or just less polite African-American fellows on the proper tactics to use so as not to outrage white people.

      If you can’t see what’s so profoundly offensive about that, well, you can’t see it. The white liberals who condescended to lecture MLK and SNCC on proper behavior couldn’t see it, either. But they survived and the Civil Rights movement survived anyway. I’m just disheartened.


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