The left’s challenge: facing institutional and individual racism

This is going to sound harsh but for me there is noteworthy parallel (note, I say parallel rather than equivalence) between the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s garbage and the support by his followers in the past few days and the reaction of the Bernie Sanders campaign and its supporters to a couple of protests at rallies held to give Sanders a platform for his campaign.

We can learn about the dominant ideological positioning of the Trump campaign, the Republicans generally, and the extremism of the bulk of their vocal primary supporters by the apparent response of many GOP voters to the Megyn Kelly/GOP-FOX debate kerfuffle. The tenor of the backlash to Kelly’s strong questions about Trump’s sexism (notably not lodged against the nine other sexists on the platform)  and other of Trump’s critics reveal how obviously, sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-working-class sentiments are at a fever pitch over on the right.

With this in mind, what does the response of Sanders’ supporters and his campaign to the events in Seattle this past weekend suggest about what is happening over here on the left? Focused and emotionally intense criticisms that range from denunciations of the protesters’ “tactics” to denunciations of one of them as a Palin supporter or as Hillary Clinton plants or whatever is to me revealing of how some of us on the left handle public discomfort addressing racism-our own and the power structure’s. Defenses of Sanders’ record in the 1960s and making the point that he hired an African American woman in his social media campaign ring hollow, with good reason, for too many people. (They seem to parallel Trump’s own claim that he can’t be sexist because he likes women CEOs or whatever garbage fell from his bloated yap.)

Sanders has given good speeches about racism, with special focus on how his presidency might address the racist criminal justice system and systemic education inequalities. But these speeches and statements seem to be made in all the traditionally correct spaces (to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, e.g.). I’d like to see him whip up a crowd composed racially of whites like the Seattle rally denouncing racism-both its individualist utterances and its structural articulations-like Richard Trumka did in 2008 and subsequently. Let’s make that kind of condemnation part and parcel of ordinary politics. Sanders gives excellent class-based political analysis in his speeches, if this one in his Seattle appearance later that evening is a good sampling -maybe his intensity was fueled by the events of the afternoon?

But the protests really aren’t even about Sanders either, as I see it. In addition to saying stop hurting us, protest is usually also about raising the consciousness and courage of the sympathetic and revealing the contradictions, hypocrisies, or true allegiances of those who denounce protest. Some of the observations offered on a local Seattle news website by Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal seem very reasonable to me. The response by many in that crowd in Seattle, many who support Sanders online, etc. is way off-base, she hinted. Some of it goes like this: if you don’t stop picking on Sanders, you’re gonna lose my support (statement that seems to be oft repeated in the comments section of any Facebook post not eh subject). Instead, she’d like to see Sanders’ supporters also vocally support the protests.

Personally, I’d like to see them get as angry about the wave of killings of African American people that has gripped this country, as angry about incarceration, unequal opportunities, etc. as people did about Cecil, even more angry than they got about missing a short stump speech at an outdoor rally on a hot day.

Jayapal’s also reasonably advises: “Here’s what I would love even more: for the Sanders campaign and BLM nationally to sit down and talk about an agenda on racial justice that he can use his presidential platform to help move. Imagine rolling out that agenda and inviting black people to talk about it on stage with him. Now that excites me.”

Perhaps hammering out a common agenda violates the de-centered concept of the Black Lives Matter movement, but I imagine there are still excellent ways of working something out along with other national and local Democratic and progressive candidates.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets his supporters at a rally, Aug. 10, at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth, and a former editor of Political Affairs.