Bernie’s race problem is also a class problem
Mumia Abu-Jamal and Assata Shakur
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On August 9th Seattle-based Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists Marissa Johnson and Mara Wilford interrupted a Bernie Sanders talk, criticizing the campaign for a supposed failure to address racial justice issues. Especially prior to the disruption, which arguably boosted the campaign's racial politics, Sanders was criticized for framing racism as a largely economic issue. His talking points focused on helping black communities rise out of poverty, rather than on police brutality.
While this criticism is justified, an odd byproduct of Sanders’ racial politics is that Hillary Clinton, a far more establishment-friendly politician than Sanders, has unjustly been able to capitalize on his shortcomings. According to a July Washington Post poll, Clinton (then) led Sanders 58% to 22% among white Democrats, but led 71% to 9% among non-whites. This may change as Clinton was also recently confronted by BLM activists, including Daunasia Yancey, who denounced Clinton’s record on racial justice as “abysmal.” Nonetheless, it’s important to confront the ideological fiction that race and class are largely separable entities. Understanding this intersection will dissolve the fiction that Clinton can have better race politics than the left-leaning Sanders.
While discussions in the American context about class oppression that ignore race are incomplete, non-inclusive, and insensitive, it is equally problematic for a candidate known for having poor class politics to claim to have good race politics. Racism is not just about acting prejudicially around people with different skin color, but is also about white actors taking advantage of prejudice to build structures of power. One cannot talk about class oppression in America without talking about race, as even the most destitute white Americans were not systematically enslaved into the 1860s. Simultaneously, one can not talk about race without class, when a significant portion of American anti-black racism has its roots in white property owners having a vested economic interest in keeping black Americans oppressed.
In her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis notes the American prison system has not evolved gradually over time, but in spurts that tie in with developments in America’s race-class environment. In the American South following the abolition of slavery, Davis notes that southern states were quick to introduce “anti-vagrancy” laws in order to ensure (inevitably impoverished) recently freed slaves would be brought en masse into the prison system and could be used for chain gang labor. Davis also notes that between 1984-89, the era of Reagan-led austerity, the number of prisons in California doubled, and as was the case in the post-war south, America’s new (and old) prisons disproportionately contain black (and other racialized) people.
By making moderate promises about addressing issues like mass incarceration (e.g. calls for more flexible sentencing guidelines) Clinton is able to claim a stronger position on racial justice than Sanders. But while she may be able to find some niche positions to take, Clinton ultimately can’t address the problems of mass incarceration and racism in any meaningful way. Doing so would require acknowledging that the American prison system is a product of capitalism — a system that marginalizes people by impoverishing them, and then looks to exploit their labor while they are incarcerated.
Sanders meanwhile is seen as having good class politics because he is a self-described socialist and has taken strong stands on issues like the trans-pacific partnership, the cost of post-secondary education, etc. As I have noted previously, however, in most parts of the world Sanders would not be thought of as a socialist, but a social-democrat (and indeed he cites Sweden and Norway, not Cuba, as his inspiration). While the quantitative difference between social-democrats and socialists can vary quite a bit, what essentially differentiates the two categories is that socialists are committed in one form or another to the abolition of the current private property system, while social-democrats merely seek to reform it through taxation.
While there are definitely areas where Sanders can easily improve his racial-politics (convincing his supporters not to ‘boo’ BLM activists is one), Sanders, like Clinton, is limited in how far his racial politics can go by his unwillingness to question the American capitalist system as a whole.
One blemish on Sanders’ racial justice record is his 1998 vote in favor of a motion calling for the extradition of black radical Assata Shakur from socialist Cuba, to serve a prison sentence over dubious charges that she killed a police officer. In Sanders’ defense, the motion was a non-binding one buried among others in a 4000 page document, it is important at least that he apologize for this vote to the numerous leftists who’ve called him out over it. By acknowledging and supporting the leftist and black nationalist position on Shakur’s case, Sanders can begin to make the argument that he is indeed a socialist, and indeed capable of acknowledging that black lives matter. This would mean starting with those that the American state finds convenient to de-legitimize.
Those eager to support Sanders because he is a “socialist” should take pause and think about the Sanders campaign’s failure thus far to align itself with the racial justice movement. As a “socialist” Sanders should understand that police enforce the current (capitalist) order and as such, he should be just as willing to criticize America’s police forces (and army) as he is to criticize “the billionaire class.” As a “socialist” Sanders should have already been seeking out allies in the black liberation movement where activists like Angela Davis and the late Fred Hampton have long espoused a socialist agenda. Sanders should also express solidarity with radical black activists marginalized by America’s justice system, including Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal, who only recently got off a thirty-year stint on death row and remains incarcerated.
As the democratic primary rages on, Clinton may attack Sanders for being a class-determinist on race. Sanders’ race problem, however, may in fact stem from him not beating the drum of class loudly enough.