Black Lives Matter Movement Gives Bernie Sanders’ Racial Justice Agenda the Push It Needs

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has unveiled a comprehensive racial justice agenda aimed at “addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”  The agenda includes, among other policy proposals, a call for police demilitarization, community policing, aggressive prosecution of police officers who break the law, the re-enfranchisement of those with criminal records, banning for-profit prisons, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, youth employment programs, free college, and pay equity legislation.  Sanders also has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.

In the 1960s, while a young Hillary Clinton was supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater – an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation – in his quest for the presidency, Sanders was leading protests against police brutality and segregated schools and housing, marching in the March on Washington, and working as an officer for the Congress of Racial Equality.  His voting record while in Congress, first as a Representative (1990-2005) and then as a Senator (2006-Present), has earned him consistently excellent marks from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The NAACP has given Sanders 100% ratings on its Legislative Report Cards for the entirety of his time in the Senate and near-100% or 100% ratings during his time in the House for, among many other things, voting in favor of strengthening the Voting Rights Act, anti-discrimination laws, and hate crimes legislation and against the death penalty, stringent sentencing guidelines for those caught up in the criminal justice system, and the welfare reform law of 1996 (the only blip on his record is gun control, an issue on which he admittedly has a mixed voting history, though his stance on the issue is much more sensible than many of his detractors contend).

A 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago in the 1960s (via

In the 1960s, a 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago (via

Because of that excellent record, a number of Sanders supporters have been upset by Black Lives Matter protests targeting Sanders.  Sanders supporters’ frustration seems to be borne out of two observations.  First, Sanders’ passion for economic justice – raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, breaking up the big banks, making our tax system more progressive, advancing single-payer health care – is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.

Second, and relatedly, Sanders has received a disproportionate amount of attention from protesters relative to Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates, who have almost-uniformly worse records and stances (the one exception may be Clinton on gun control) on issues affecting Black Americans (in fact, Sanders has what is by far the best record of any prominent candidate on civil and human rights across the board; he has long been a strong ally on issues affecting Latinos, the LGBT community, women, and poor people around the world).  Sanders supporters wonder why Black Lives Matter is applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.

I myself am a strong Sanders supporter and find these observations relevant, but they miss a few crucial points.  For one thing, while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.  As Jennifer Roesch puts it in an excellent article for Jacobin:

It is certainly true that the struggle against racism today must entail a radical program of economic demands…It is also clear that such reforms would benefit the entire working class and reduce income inequality. But such demands cannot be delinked from, or stand in the place of, explicit demands around racism…

Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform. Jobs programs would have to include affirmative-action policies and a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of a criminal record; fights to expand funding for public hospitals, schools, and services would have to recognize the specific needs of black communities hollowed out by decades of deindustrialization and neglect; and housing policies would need to explicitly target practices such as redlining and predatory lending.

The crisis faced by black America is also not solely economic — it is also a social crisis. Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities…

This fight will require forging a unity not by collapsing the fight against racism into a broader class fight for economic equality, but by highlighting the central role of racism and making it a concern of the entire working class.

Black Lives Matter protesters wanted Sanders’ campaign to stop treating racial justice as an inevitable byproduct of economic justice.  They wanted Sanders to instead promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and they had every right to demand that he do so.

While I also hope to see Black Lives Matter turn the pressure up on Clinton and the Republican candidates in the weeks and months to come, criticisms of their tactics thus far – targeting Sanders and “taking over” some of his speaking events – are in my view off base.  Black Lives Matter is the type of grassroots people’s movement that Sanders prides himself on representing; he was a good first target precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond to such a protest with a policy agenda addressing its legitimate concerns.  Writing about the first protest at Netroots Nation, Joe Dinkin captured it best:

Here’s one stab at a better response [Sanders] could have given [to the Black Lives Matter protesters]: “We need a democratic revolution, and you are part of it. I admire your courage in speaking up. I learned of the troubling death of a black woman in police custody, and, yes, I will say her name: Sandra Bland. I will say her name because black lives matter. I admit I don’t have all the answers. But your fight is my fight. For dignity and equality for all. I need you to fight with me and help me learn. Together we can change both politics and culture and ensure that black lives matter…”

This constituency is demanding to have the issues of structural racism and police violence taken up within the political system…They’re forcing Sanders and other candidates to respond on an issue that it seems like they would have preferred to avoid. If Sanders responds by joining in their fight, they’ve pushed the Movement for Black Lives into the presidential debate and into the mainstream of [American] progressive politics—from which they currently and justifiably feel left out.

This is fair game, and an approach that fans of Bernie Sanders should understand…For people who simply wanted to hear the candidates answer questions and present their stump speeches, there are plenty of opportunities for candidates to share positions on the issues—at least on the ones they’re not ducking…The Black Lives Matter agenda is not the only issue of moral urgency, but it most certainly is one of them. All progressives should applaud activists who took the opportunity to push it forward.

It is quite possible that, were it not for the Black Lives Matter movement, Sanders’ racial justice agenda would not yet exist.  That it contains excerpts like the following is telling:

“At the federal level we need to establish a new model police training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country. With input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter we will reinvent how we police America.”

So we have two groups to thank for Sanders’ ambitious racial justice platform. Sanders and his campaign staff absolutely deserve credit for unleashing it and for being allies in the movement. Black Lives Matter deserves the bulk of the credit, however, not just for pushing the conversation on this issue forward, but also for reminding us that even the best presidential candidate won’t be able to enact the change we need without a constructively critical social movement behind him.

Update (8/11/15): The original version of this post included the following paragraph as part of the block quote from Roesch’s article:

As the historical record shows, we cannot assume that reductions in the overall level of inequality will trickle down to African Americans. In the golden age of postwar American capitalism, an era to which many left-liberals yearn to return, economic inequality was much lower than it is today, but there was no corresponding decrease in racial inequality. If anything, it was even starker — in 1959, more than half of black families lived in poverty, while 15 percent of white families did.

While it is certainly true that a strong economy on its own has never come close to eliminating racial disparities in economic outcomes, the wording in this paragraph implies that outcomes for Black Americans did not improve during “the golden age of postwar American capitalism,” an implication which is incorrect (big thanks to Dean Baker for pointing out this issue).  In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that a strong economy is especially important for Black workers.


Filed under 2016 Election, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion

8 responses to “Black Lives Matter Movement Gives Bernie Sanders’ Racial Justice Agenda the Push It Needs

  1. Excellent reporting. In solidarity with #BLM and Bernie Sanders!

  2. avedon

    Nicely done.

    I would somewhat disagree that Sanders and his supporters treat racial justice as something that would inevitably evolve from economic justice, but rather as something that will not come without economic justice. We need more than just an equal shot at no jobs, no education, no money, and no protections from police violence and judicial unfairness.

    I do think it’s a good thing that Sanders’ campaign finally put all of his positions on racial justice into one document, but let’s not pretend those weren’t his positions all along and that he wasn’t talking about them all of the time for the entirety of his career.

    I suspect that having a specific and cosmetically separate racial justice platform may have been resisted because many people feel (rightly, I think), that it can be counterproductive to appear to prioritize race in a country where a focus on the specifics of racial injustice has tended to be used to stir up tribal resentments between poor blacks and poor whites. Look at the way poverty itself was turned into a “black issue” and “poor” became a code-word for “blacks” – and suddenly it was no longer “Christian” to care about the poor, but just bleeding-heart liberalism trying to privilege blacks over whites. The result is that without specifically saying so, the right-wing aristocracy has managed to convince poor whites that there is some sort of extra-special black welfare system that whites don’t have access to. It’s amazing to hear people say, “No one ever helped me,” even though they have been on welfare – the same stingy, stifling welfare that blacks get.

    The black community, by upwards of about 90%, has always been on board with the economic programs that Sanders is advocating. I think the idea has been to talk very specifically about these economic issues and try to create solidarity and common ground instead of making these things all about race – because talking about race opens up the insecurities of poor whites about race instead of allowing them to start to see that these issues aren’t just about blacks, but about them, too. With an entire PR apparatus of the aristocracy aimed at dividing and conquering whites and blacks as well as the middle-class and the poor (not to mention the old and the young), someone may have decided it was unhelpful to highlight race and thus alienate potential support from the downwardly-mobile and poor majority.

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I agree with most of what you wrote, but I think there’s a bit of a disconnect between the assertion that Sanders has been talking about racial justice issues “all of the time for the entirety of his career” and the acknowledgment that someone likely made an initial call *not* to talk about them very much during the campaign. You’re certainly right that racial justice will not come without economic justice, and that Sanders knows that, but my point was that Sanders’ talking points and initial responses to Black Lives Matter seemed to imply (incorrectly) that economic justice will necessarily bring about racial justice. While Sanders’ record shows he knows racial justice requires more than economic solutions, that acknowledgment wasn’t part of his campaign until recently, and I am happy Black Lives Matter helped to fill that hole.

      You’re also right that racial issues are often used to divide people who should be working together. But I would argue that we much more effectively address that problem when we confront it directly.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment and for reading the piece!

      • avedon

        I’m still going to quibble with you about whether Bernie has actually added racial justice issues to his agenda – I listened to the speech and I’ve looked at the page and I don’t see anything there I haven’t seen from him before. I’ve seen videos of two talks he gave in the week before Netroots Nation that made the same points, so it’s not a post-BLM-incident thing. It’s also clearly not a presidential campaign thing – I see YouTube has a video from 1991 of him objecting to tough on crime policies on the House floor. He pushed back throughout the ’90s against the Clintons punitive agenda.

        What I do see is that he has consolidated his points and put them a little bit closer to the top. I’m still up in the air about whether the impression that BLM made him do that is necessarily a good thing with voters at large. I can easily imagine right-wingers insisting this proves he is “pandering” to political correctness and has weakly caved-in to noisy black women. Much as I may worry about my nephew getting shot in the street for Walking While Black, I still worry about optics, too. It’s not that I think Bernie is going to be the Messiah, but I really do feel that without him, we don’t have a prayer.

        • avedon

          PS. Vocabulary note: When I say “right-wingers”, I of course include “centrists” from the Democratic leadership and the media elite.

          • We agree about Bernie’s record – he has been advocating for this stuff over the course of his entire political career (the video you mention is a great one, by the way). I think “he has consolidated his points and put them a little bit closer to the top” is mostly right, and important.

            My general view on optics: Barack Obama will be called a socialist whether he pushes the ACA or single-payer health care. The ACA is also much easier to trash than single-payer would be because it doesn’t work as well. I think it’s a major mistake to allow baseless opposition arguments to prevent us from doing the right thing – when we do, we generally get equally baseless opposition arguments, suboptimal policy, and a political conversation that considers that suboptimal policy to be much farther Left than it actually is.

  3. Ruby

    I was at the Sanders rally. the crowd was not hostile until the woman who spoke started ridiculing the crowd. then she was booed. I heard her interviewed a few weeks later and she said they broke into bernie Sanders’ rally because they thought the would be shot if they tried the same with almost any other candidate.

    In other words, they chose to disrupt Sanders’ rally because he was the only candidate that would acknowledge their right to be there.

    Their behavior, and the misrepresentation of Sanders’ response, was a significant factor in giving the DNC the cover to torpedo Sanders’ candidacy.

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