Three Hundred and Sixty Five days separate us from the day of the murder of Mike Brown, though we are not so separate now from that murder, and while, as a white male, I could never be justified in making assessments on improvements for Black folk over that time, I can say, and feel obligated to say, that many self-identifying “progressive” or “liberal” white folk over the last year have not adequately increased their scrutiny of the institutions of white supremacy — evidenced most clearly by white responses to Marissa Janae Johnson and other activists from the Black Lives Matter movement staging an action at a Bernie Sanders speech Saturday night.
The typical indignant refrain in being confronted with their complicity with white supremacy, pooling from the most recent action and the action at Netroots against Martin “impartial-statistics-driven-policing-makes-it-not-racist” O’Malley, is “Hey, Sanders is on your side, he organized for your right to vote fifty years ago, and while he hasn’t really done anything for you since then, because us progressive folks helped you get the vote you should get in line and vote for us now”, as if voter disenfranchisement is the only issue affecting the black community.
Putting aside the question of whether “racism is rooted in economic inequality”, there is no denying that racism has forced onto the black community distinctive sufferings that will not be sufficiently handled by combating economic inequality alone. White progressives fail to appreciate how firmly rooted white supremacy is in American life, in the American dream. It is the lefts’ own take on “trickle down” economics – “the rising tide of Bernie Sanders raises all middle class and lower class boats”. Robert Reich, liberal economics guru, (and someone I agree with a good amount of the time) made just that sort of ignorant claim in response to the Netroots action. But racial inequality is no longer coextensive with economic inequality, if indeed it ever was, and failure to recognize this amounts to a privileging of a post-racial optimism that, because we are still deeply entrenched in racist institutions, would compound the advantages of white folks born into entitlement and the disadvantages of black folks that have not been addressed. By extrapolating from a personal feeling of a lack of bias towards blacks to a procedurally impartial economic policy, the unequal starting points that undermine the fair utilization of such procedures are ignored. Naomi Murakawa makes this point in regards to the carceral system in “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America”.
Bernie Sanders, as a white male, has had plenty of opportunity to talk, and on Saturday it was time for Marissa Janae Johnson and others to speak for themselves, as it has been for a long time, lest the democratic party (make no mistake, Sanders is a democrat, not an independent, not a socialist, a Washington democrat) continue to decide that the issues the black community faces are those that are most convenient for the democratic party to address. White liberals and progressives need to recognize that they have not even come close to appreciating all the issues that the black community faces, and which should become a part of the democratic platform, rather than to take black voters for granted.
Some supporters of Bernie seem resentful that Johnson and other BLM activists should challenge their tacit consent to the institutions of white supremacy, rather than take their actions to Republican Party events. The BLM activists have studied popular movements and organizing in academia and know what they are doing. On Saturday they staged their action where they did because they see promise in Sanders’ supporters as allies. Let us not be hostile to their justified criticisms of our complacency with the unjust systems that ensnare black folk. It is not a matter of them “joining up with us”, getting “on board with us”, as has been so callously said. It is a matter of listening to each other. As Cornel West has said, in our time there are matters of democracy because democracy matters.