Race or class: Must Bernie choose?

Is Bernie Sanders’ greatest weakness his campaign’s limited addressing of race?  Or is he being unfairly targeted for taking on economic injustice – an issue that racial justice activists ought to get behind? In fact, this controversy over Sanders’ perceived lack of attention to the issue of racial justice is more complicated than “class first or race first”. Settled institutions of economic power were built through the exploitation of immigrants, African-Americans, and women. Because of this, these groups’ voices are critical to a policy agenda that claims to solve poverty and inequality. But what are those voices saying?

With the Iowa caucus fast approaching, Democratic candidates Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have each come under intense pressure to show that their candidacy is the most likely to triumph over the Republican presidential nominee.  The Sanders campaign has been steadily gaining momentum, but has not been immune to its share of public criticism. That seems to be intensifying as the fight for Iowa draws near. Sanders has continued to come under fire for his perceived weakness on issues dealing with systemic racism.

Then again, our attention to the issue of systemic racism should not be limited to whether or not the Sanders campaign is addressing it. Whoever is the next Democratic party nominee (or for that matter, the next President) will have to deal with injustices tied to race, gender, and sexual identity and orientation not as back burner topics, but at the forefront of their agenda–along with economic and class politics. We’ve seen the beginning of these struggles coming together through the Fight for $15 and the Movement for Black Lives (#BlackLivesMatter).

Nonetheless Sanders’ perceived reticence around race may threaten his campaign. The African-American turnout in voting has been rising steadily since 2000. By percentage, African-American turnout exceeded that of whites by two points in 2012, 66 percent to 64. This is coupled with the consistent rise in voter turnout of the Latino community.

If Sanders’ campaign aims to be “of the people,” then it can be argued that his campaign should first address extensively the most oppressed among us. Systemic racism is an issue that many voters of color face on a daily basis, and if Sanders is to win over a majority of them, his campaign can’t afford to ignore, or be coy, about an issue that these voters don’t have a choice but to face every day of their lives.

Critics vs. supporters

The most recent controversy over the Sanders campaign erupted last week when journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates asked the Vermont Senator if he supported reparations for African-Americans. Sanders’ reply was that he was not in favor of reparations and that its likelihood of getting through Congress was nil. The Senator suggested that reparations would be divisive and added:

“…[W]hat we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African-American and Latino.”

As Coates points out, there is irony in a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” candidate shying away from endorsing a policy that would help a disadvantaged group because it may be “divisive”. Although Sanders makes a compelling argument for economic justice that would also benefit African-Americans and Latinos, he seems to quickly dismiss a topic that is seen as very important to the African-American community by simply stating it is impossible to get through Congress. This is despite the fact that his campaign, as others such as Coates and Kathleen Geier of The Nation have pointed out, is one that stands on many demands and proposals that may be just as “impossible” to get through a Republican-majority Congress as reparations would be.

Or is it that Sanders is leading with a “class first” mentality, one that holds that racism will be eradicated once economic justice is achieved? Is this a faulty way of going about dealing with the issue of systemic racism?

Coates argues that the “class first” approach is one that relies on the myth that racism can not exist within socialism. He explains that raising wages and bettering the economy will not, by default, cure racial injustice. That it will not address the wage gaps between blacks and whites, or housing discrimination based on race, and other ills of capitalism that target marginalized groups specifically. He asks: if Sanders’ campaign is about visionary revolutionary change, why not include the fight for reparations?

Supporters of Sanders have replied directly to Coates’ criticisms. Celebrity and avid Sanders supporter, Michael Render (Killer Mike), took to Twitter to respond to Coates when the controversy broke. Render asserted that it was a shame that African-Americans needed to even make a case for reparations, but that it was unfair to target just Sanders when the other candidates, such as Clinton, have also come out against reparations. Render went further to add that he encouraged “other blacks that are concerned with our poor, working class & middle class to vote Sanders.” But does his encouragement hold weight when looking at Sanders’ platform?

Is Sanders’ economic platform enough?

Some would argue that the Sanders campaign, in addressing economic injustice, is actually addressing racial injustice, and does not treat systemic racism as an afterthought.

Adolph Reed, an author and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in a recent interview on Behind the News with Doug Henwood: “You can go down Sanders’s platform issue by issue and ask, “so how is this not a black issue?” How is a $15 minimum wage not a black issue? How is massive public works employment not a black issue? How is free public college higher education not a black issue? The criminal justice stuff and all the rest of it… [T]he only way we’re going to be able to make anyone’s life better is to change the terms of political debate. And we can only do that on the basis of common experience and the most broadly shared experience is that of those who work for a living or are expected to work for a living.”

Anoa Changa, an Atlanta based attorney, and one of the organizers of African-Americans for Bernie, spoke with People’s World about the scrutiny the Sanders campaign is getting from activists. Changa stated that the economic injustice Sanders wants to dismantle is connected to the black struggle for equality. She expressed that, although the fight for raising the wage to $15 an hour and expanding union rights was not enough to deal with racism, African-Americans are “disproportionately affected when the economy is bad”. Changasaidthat a deeper conversation on race needs to happen–not just within the Sanders campaign, but the whole movement.

“The criticism shouldn’t be treated as an academic exercise,” Changa argued. “This is larger. It needs to be a more balanced conversation. [We need to] discuss race in democratic politics. Black votes need to be seen as more than just a bloc to be coveted by candidates.”

The need to build power

Others, such as Moumita Ahmed, would argue that the weight of dealing with race in relation to the system should not rest solely on Sanders’ campaign. Ahmed, a national organizer for Millennials for Bernie, and supporter of Black Lives Matter, spoke with People’s World. She said she felt that the Coates’ article was a bad analysis of the Sanders campaign, and that although she felt he had a right to be critical, he was unfairly targeting Bernie.

Ahmed asserted that “race analysis and class analysis go hand in hand,” and that Sanders isn’t someone that plays “identitarian politics,” but pushes politics that will benefit everyone. She concluded that the ultimate power doesn’t lie in any one candidate, but with the people, “Grassroots push for change. When the grassroots push them [the candidates] they listen.”

Changa expressed similar sentiments, noting,  “At some point, for sustainable change to take root we will have to be involved in the political process at the local and state levels, as well as national politics.”

Changa makes an important point that the movement has to demonstrate power in a wide array of sectors that goes beyond questioning racial justice in academia and demonstrations in the streets.

Left-wing hip-hop artist and author Boots Riley explained in a recent interview on Democracy Now that there needs to be an understanding that at the base of this system is the exploitation of labor, and that it is up to activists to push that point. He asserted that “radicals have to organize a new labor movement, a new radical, militant labor movement that withholds labor and breaks the (anti-union) Taft-Hartley laws in order to do that. This will give social movements teeth.”

No saviors

Activists’ close look at the Sanders’ platform has opened a dialogue on a topic that can often get pushed aside on the left: how to address the fact that there can be no true economic justice without an acknowledgment that much of this system is built upon racial and gender oppression.

Intersectionality, (the idea that racism, sexism, classism, etc. are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another), is a concept that many on the left and any Democratic presidential hopeful should get familiar with. There are battles in progress (for example, the current court battle around affirmative action) that can serve as a starting point for politicians to begin to address racial disparities, but there is a long way to go. The burden cannot rest on one candidate alone.

AnoaChanga perhaps summarized it best: “People assume [grassroots supporters] want a savior, or someone to save us.  I don’t see Bernie as my savior. We are looking for a leader. [There] needs to be a course correction.” 

Photo: Eliane Thompson/AP 


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson believes that writing, in any capacity, should help to reflect the world around us, and be one of the tools to help bring about progressive change. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong belief in people power and working class strength. As a social media content creator and writer for People's World she seeks to make sure that topics that affect working class people, peoples of color, and women are constantly in the spotlight and part of the discussion.


  • Its probably significant that Bernie really dealt with “reparations” for African Americans-a critical voting block, especially in the presidential elections, in the an abstract, and generally irresponsible way. How could unification and support for literally millions phenomenally gifted of victims of governmental genocide be “divisive”? He, of course, in this, said or writes nothing about the activities or legislation of his congressional cohort (Representative and not Senator), John Conyers, in this vein.
    Conyers’s H. R. 40 offers a scope and review which makes reparations both practical and meaningful in national politics.
    Drawing from much of the period cited here (Conyers’s bill period is 1619 to present), coinciding with the historic masterpiece of the Communist W. E. B. Du Bois’s Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638 to 1870, if it were to use Du Bois’s indefatigable scholarship, it would consider the contributions of Marx and Freud to economics and psychology to remedy the way race and class have combined to create a racist color line
    which is devastating the Americas and the United States, even now in and national economic sense.
    It is these sharp, deep, scholarly weapons and legislation (H.R. 40) and analysis, which we need to address reparations for our groupings of African descent now, finding themselves in a distressed, on the verge of total ruin, United States of America.
    Sanders, and any and all presidential candidates cannot dismiss this issue, its study and addressing it as “divisive”, especially when real tools and painstaking deliberation are extant to help resolve this critical issue to the well-being of the United States of America, its peoples, and especially its multi-national(largely of the African element) children, and their futures.
    Consider Flint and Black Lives Matter.

  • Bernie does not have to make the choice between race and class Anyone who knows their Marx should know that there is a superstructure that is based on the substructure of the individual’s relationship to means of production. It is the change of the relationship which defines revolution.
    Aspects of the superstructure the take on alife of their own.
    More jobswill not alleviate structural racism and sexism.
    It is of note that the author here does not even mention sexism.(one mention of gender)
    As for Bernie saying he is against reparations for the African American community because it would not pass congress, how can he turn around and say people should not criticize him for proposing Medicare for all because it would not pass Congress?
    If Sanders truly wishes to win the Presidency he needs to be explicit, and make the case for a revolution FOR ALL not just working class and middleclass angry white men. A quick for instance would be to link the burgeoning US penal population on the need to keep a proportion of the population out of the job market forever so there is an additional way of hiding true unemploymemt numbers , especialy amongs the minority communities depriving them of their life long right to vote.

  • This is an extremely important discussion, and kudos to Chauncey for initiating it. A little history of the left: In the early 20th Century the labor and socialist movements in the United States mostly took the position that socialism was coming soon and that under socialism, issues like racism and racial oppression could be dealt with. in the old Socialist Party, there was a definite tendency to think that the fight against racism was a distraction from the class struggle. When the Communist Party broke away from the Socialist Party in 1919, the communists took the position that the class struggle could not advance without fighting in every way to break down racial oppression and inequality. They often cited Marx’s statement that labor in a white skin could not be liberated while labor in a black skin was “branded”. So while what remained of the old social-democratic tendency even tolerated such things as segregated union locals, communists fought hard against these and all other manifestations of racism. My own view is that it is impossible to carry forth a radical class politics without tackling racism and racial inequality head on. The reparations issue, therefore, needs serious discussion and action. So I don’t agree with Sanders being dismissive of the Reparations demand, but note that Hillary Clinton’s apparent acceptance of the “Gone with the Wind” version of African-American history is worse, and of course the Republican candidates are worst of all.

  • This is a great article it brings forth the sincere strong feelings about race, class, gender and if economic justice can be obtained by African-Americans. It can, but only if we are able to convince the majority that economic justice for African-Americans means economic justice for all. We must be in this struggle together against the one percent billionaire class.

  • Thought provoking article! IMO It is possible that a the next President can easily ignore issues of race, class and gender. If the movements that are developing now choose to go home after the Presidential elections like they did when President Obama got elected we could see a right wing back lash that would cause the next President not fully address those issues.

    Bernie Sanders has vowed to better address race as far back as August according to an AP article titled “Bernie Sanders Vows To Better Address Racism” and which Bernie Sanders has done made improvements. How much of a mass demand has reparations become among African Americans? Which organizations among the African American political community are calling for Presidential candidates to support reparations? Is Hillary Clinton call for reparations?

  • Not only is the article thoughtful, but the comments are as well. Reparations are not the only way to end discrimination and end exclusion and marginalization. To lift everyone up we must prioritize the effort and resources to those who need them the most.

  • The whole idea of this is ridiculous. Bernie Sanders has fought for equal rights for many years starting in 1963! Most of the people throwing this stuff at him likely weren’t even born then and certainly haven’t bothered to research his record. The idea of reparations would not only take all of our resources that need to go to making OUR country a better place for all of us. If you want to get into reparations you would have to include everyone who has been wronged in the history of this country. I’m talking about Native Americans Latinos, Irish, many of whom were indentured servants. The list could go on and on. No, we’re all in this together and we all have our axes to grind. How about we team up and get Bernie elected and then sort all of this out? Can you show me a better alternative that Bernie? It sure isn’t Hillary. Why isn’t she coming under the same attack? Look at her record and compare it to Bernie’s. If you do that you would see that there is only one choice to make our country work for all of us and that choice in Bernie Sanders!

  • My take on Sanders’ response to Coates and to the interchange in general is that unlike most politicians, Sanders doesn’t pander. Sanders has come out against institutional racism calling for police reform. His agenda is way ahead of anyone else running in solutions than benefit working people and the poor.

    I also not that Sanders listens. He has listened to Black Lives Matter. He has listened and grown on foreign policy issues and especially on the Israel-Palestine issue. It is in our interest to support Sanders as well as to push him. What is the alternative and if not now, when?

  • The notion that a white person who is too poor to afford dental care is more privileged than a middle-class black person is a notion that only middle-class people can enjoy. So long as the poor are disproportionately of color, a class-based approach is a race-based approach.

  • This is a great article with excellent points and thoughtful quotes from some wonderful interview subjects. However I want to be clear that this article’s premise is not legitimate. Bernie knows that black lives matter and that much needs to change. Instead of having “a perception of reticence” he in fact has been doing a great job of bringing together the issues of economic equality and institutional racism. His excellent and extensive racial justice platform lists the any reasons he sees these issues as inextricably linked. Had you done more research you would have been pleased to see this evident in Bernie’s speeches and statements. One excellent example is the BET Criminal Justice Forum that was unfortunately not televised but can be found on youtube. Bernie won extensive applause for his long list of recommendations for bringing accountability to the police forces and courts to make all of our communities better. He says often that he doesn’t want a woman to die because of a missed turn signal, or a black boy to be unable to walk home safely. He urges the US Justice department to.investigate all fatalities that occur in police custody. Bernie is as popular as he is for the reason that he truly listens and cares about making our country a better place for all of us. He wants to end inequality in all its forms, social and economic. If he didn’t have this stance then I and Ms
    Changa would not support him with the passion that we do.

  • My issue with reparations is “what is it trying to repair and what can actually repair it?” The leftovers of slavery messed it up for everyone. (It even jacked it up for white people as a society is harmed when any of that society is oppressed.) What fixes it for one may not be what fixes it for another. While I personally wouldn’t turn down a couple hundred dollars it certainly wouldn’t fix 100s of years of oppression both legal and illegal in my mind. An official apology would go further to addressing the moral and emotional damage than a new set of tires on my car.

    Giving to one group and not another will only piss off the other group who in turn may decide to give group 1 hell for it. Imagine if a law was passed to have black people be paid 20% more than white people for the next 100 years, a full generation. What would be the fallout? Does that make life better for black people? Are we over slavery now? Can white people stop feeling guilty now, if any alive ever did? What if the white people who always saw us as equals, respected us, fought for us then became resentful? What about the ones who already feel we are taking from them simply because we want to be treated equally? Well, they’d be madder than a wet hen.

    Me, I see reparations as combatting what can be combatted, fixing what can be fixed. Stuff like free higher education leveling that playing field, universal health care leveling that playing field, ending prisons for profit and the war on drugs which can put our black men back in the home to help raise their children. These things would have far greater impact than some straight monetary prize . We shouldn’t turn our nose up at what I feel IS reparations, the Bernie Sanders Political Revolution, just because it helps more than just black people. Just as society as a whole is harmed when people are oppressed, society as a whole can be healed when oppression is given an opportunity to end.

  • As Tavis Smiley pointed out in a recent Democracy Now session, when it comes to economics the African American community has suffered the most in every single category. Sanders is quite right that, among positions perceived as radical such as single payer and free education, the subject of reparations is even more so. That does not dismiss it from the spectrum of topics to be considered. My personal belief is that we should begin with pursuing the return of properties stolen in very recent history and for which documentation exists or can be show to have existed. That aside,for most people poverty is still the real killer, driving everything from shorter lifespans to incarceration to suicide. Wall St, Bernie’s much dissed “fall back” topic is the direct cause of this suffering. Most of us realize that even the less radical positions Bernie takes may be themselves undoable but it is important to drop anchor and stop the continuing and devastating drift to the right.

  • Very thought-provoking article. Political revolution does not signify comparing apples with oranges; it means defeating the ultra-right.
    Forcing any candidate to choose between 2 categories so closely interconnected as race and class by history, politics and socio-economic relations has the potential to disrupt unity advocated by broad coalitions like unions, churches, civil rights, LGBTQ and Hispanic groups.
    Instead, building consensus, identifying priorities and developing strategic alliances opens a path for voters to overcome disillusionment. Then, the fight for reparations can take its rightful place in the discussion.


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