Bernie is a white man. And that’s ok.
I remember last year when the US presidential candidates surfaced, and, with all due respect to Dr. Carson, I thought, “wow, it’s going to be so weird to have a white president again.”
As this long election season has played itself out, though, and I’ve “checked my privilege” and all that, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bernie is a white man. And that’s ok.
Even though it’s true that the majority of domestic terrorists in the US are white, Wall Street upper ranks are overwhelmingly white men, not to mention the many white male faces of police brutality, I still think we should give Bernie the benefit of the doubt.
It’s quite enough to take on big money and power, everything status quo and call for revolution in one fell swoop; Bernie Sanders is also faced with convincing certain female and black Americans that he’s their strongest candidate, notwithstanding being, unapologetically, exactly who he is – a white man.
Early on and ages ago, Hillary Clinton made it perfectly clear her plan to get popular support amongst democrats would center on being a woman, and the implicit one-dimensional interpretation of feminism that equates it wholly and exclusively with women, and then adopting whatever Bernie said that proved popular, all whilst being a woman, which made her “better.” She’d also invoke President Obama and her husband, the alleged “first black president” a la Toni Morrison circa 1998, when it came time to prove she was also “black.”
Saturday Night Live captured this phenomenon with sartorial precision when its Hillary character proclaimed, “in 2008 of course I lost, but I was running against a cool black guy. But this year, I thought I got to be the cool black guy.”
Bernie, for all of the content I’ve watched, which is probably way too much, hasn’t tried to be the cool black guy. Or a woman. And his now trademark Brooklyn Jewish accent and isms, and discussion of Israel prove he’s not trying to hide his religious or cultural background either.
(Michigan (amongst other states’) voters have already dispelled the myth that Arab and Muslim Americans would shy away from a Jewish candidate.)
When the Hillary-Gloria Steinem SNAFU went down (wherein Steinem said young women support Bernie to meet boys), Bernie joked that the noted feminist had once described him as an honorary woman. He accepted the statement for what it was intended to be – a compliment and testament to his commitment to women’s equality – but admitted he didn’t really know what that meant, to be an honorary woman.
Similarly, I don’t expect to ever see Bernie donning a pair of sunglasses and playing the sax on late night television. I don’t imagine he’ll be singing in black churches.
He’s not trying to be black, a woman, or not Jewish. His authenticity is the greatest testament to the reliability of his platform and its coherency to equality – you don’t have to be black to fight against discrimination, you don’t have to be a woman to be feminist, you don’t have to be Christian or Muslim to identify with their lives. You just have to have values, and act accordingly.
Sometimes his presentation and that of his supporters has come off as tone deaf to the persecution of black Americans and can feel miles away from the day to day reality of, as Dr. Beth Richie describes, “the prison nation” that, disproportionately, black people in the US contend with.
I haven’t heard anyone argue that his campaign is as glossy fresh as President Obama’s was. And the Occupy Wall Street feel of some of his organizing base can definitely be a challenege to interact with, if you’re not a part of that club.
But I’m exhausted by decision making on the basis of marketing and packaging. And I know that Bernie has been Bernie long before white millennials started organizing in Zuccotti Park. (Sarah Silverman puts a nice collection of vintage Bernie moments together here.)
Though Susan Sarandon has taken a beating for “her privilege” being the reason she can refuse to commit to vote for Hillary should she win the nomination, Michelle Alexander forewarned/asked, in a recent Nation piece, if she and her fellow African Americans were really going to fall for this again? Ms. Alexander’s point is heavily reminiscent of a famous speech Malcolm X gave in Detroit in 1964, the Ballot or the Bullet, in which he implored fellow black Americans to not fall for the theatrics of party politics, especially without getting anything in return.
Were Ms. Alexander and Malcolm also speaking from privilege?
Having worked on grand corruption cases for the last six and a half years with people – in government, media and civil society in the US, Europe and Africa – I’ve seen how massive thievery of public assets is part and parcel of the societal oppressions that are more tangibly felt in our everyday. I very much agree with commentators who have pointed out that Bernie’s economic justice, anticorruption and antiracism agendas are very similar to where Martin Luther King and Malcolm X stood decades earlier.
In a MLK Jr Day chat with Bernie, rapper/activist Killer Mike responded to Bernie’s question about why working class white Americans vote against their interest [and support the elitist fiscal policy of the Republican Party]. His answer was clear and powerful: “I understand how holding on to that whiteness can be the only thing you got. When you ain’t got nothing, whatever someone tells you you got, you got…I’m just saying, it’s time to smarten up.” Dr. Cornel West laid the political context to describe the phenomenon as a legacy of white supremacy:
“if they can scapegoat the most vulnerable, [they can] identify with the powerful symbolically, even as the powerful are still manipulating and dominating them.”
Dr. West’s description extends beyond Trump supporters.
Economic inequality and all varieties of division, discrimination and hate are comfortable bedfellows. When things get bad, it’s nice to be able to blame someone else. Or, at least, it’s nice for the corrupt leaders to have us blaming people who don’t look like us, so they can evade any accountability for their own participation in the problem.
Since we now have extreme inequality, we should not be surprised by extreme expressions of fear and hate of the other. Everyone feels oppressed and angry and taken advantage of – whites, blacks, Muslims, women, youth, immigrants, and on and on. That’s because the 1% percent thing is real. It means 99% of this country got beef. So 99% of us are all fighting with each other while various opportunists use each jab as a stepping stool to more power.
In this context, the question of reparations for the enslavement of African Americans was raised (as it had been in previous elections). It’s a good question to ask. I’d add some additional claims of indigenous peoples. Bernie took a lot of heat for responding, in the negative, that reparations are too divisive.
Those who are working on the issue of reparations should continue to do so. From the recent UN working group recommendation, it seems there might be growing space to address the issue. I hope those proponents, including the very eloquent Ta Nahesi Coates, will not drop the topic after election season. Any task as large as that one will take unstoppable persistence, organization and patience, and deserves ongoing commitment, regardless of who the next US president is.
It was, however, an impossible question for a candidate to answer correctly, given the current lack of foundation/support for it amongst the voting public, and the resulting negative answer fed a disproportionate backlash against the most progressive candidate.
The impact seemed to include a surrendering into the “common sense” of supporting the safe, known status quo, if after all, the hero was a fraud.
Meanwhile, the mainstream political and media machines were gunning down any suggestion of the feasibility of economic and social equality with round after round of so-called economic analysis in barely veiled pro-Hillary opinion pieces.
Is it that hard for us to believe that things could be a lot better than they are now? Do we really have no concept of how much wealth, resources and space a very small elite has captured? And how it is used to control information and opinions, through the media, which in turn protect the looting? Is it beyond our imagination that an old white guy from Brooklyn, New York might have actually survived 33 years in American politics, 25 of which in federal positions, and still come out swinging with a keep-it-simple-stupid perspective on how to turn things around?
Or do we know all these possibilities are real, but we’re much more comfortable in our little safe prisons, living with the reasonable logic of the devils we know?
I don’t fear a Hillary presidency. I don’t even fear a Trump presidency. I fear if we the people are so fearful of and obedient to exorbitant wealth and power, if we are so fascinated with delusions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, that even when we see past the packaging, when we know in our hearts what we should do for our own survival and vitality, we don’t do it, because we’re too scared.