Bernie Sanders' Black Critics Are Right — But Talking About Our Country's Racial Problem Isn't The Real Solution

On Saturday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a current presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination, spoke at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix. While many progressives support Sander's unwavering defense of the middle-class, others are becoming increasingly frustrated with the senator's — and most white politicians', for that matter — near radio silence on structural racism and the rhetoric Sanders tends to use to elaborate on economic solutions. When #BlackLivesMatter protesters at the conference tried to point this out by demanding that Sanders "say the names" of black victims of police brutality, he briefly addressed their protests and, in his frustration, offered to leave if he wasn't welcome. Many were rightly dissatisfied with Sanders' response and set off #BernieSoBlack on social media to protest his blind spot to racial injustice. In the end, Bernie's black critics are right, but their calls through the hashtag #BernieSoBlack missed an important point.

The Netroots conference was held to focus on immigration, and while Sanders discussed the issue with his audience, his perspective, as always, addressed it from the angle of economic inequality. But what has worked for Sanders so far failed that day largely because black activists rightly demanded that politicians — presidential candidates, in particular — put more of their attention on racial issues. However, these activists ultimately treat the act of talking about racial issues as a quick fix and the only remedy, disregarding ideas for concrete action and viable plans for equality — both of which Sanders actually is providing.

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Roderick Morrow, the creator of #BernieSoBlack stated in an interview with Vox:

Bernie Sanders, while he does have a good track record on race in the past, he's kind of been avoiding talking about certain racial issues now. Whenever he's asked a question, he goes into a spiel on economics — which is fine, obviously, people do want wage and class equality. But certain issues are race issues, and they do need to be talked about, at least from a candidate that I would like to vote for.

The "good track record" Morrow is referring to includes Sanders' 1960s protests against segregation while he was a student at the University of Chicago and coordinating for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. However, bringing up this "good track record" to excuse the fact that Sanders seldom elaborates on modern racial issues is exactly what #BernieSoBlack was created to protest. Black Lives Matter activists want Sanders to speak about modern racial issues like police brutality and ongoing structural racism and challenge himself to extend his advocacy beyond the middle-class to African Americans who need him,today.

However, it has to be conceded those problems aren't going to disappear overnight just because politicians start to talk about them. Structural racism has to be addressed in policy and practice, not just words, and even then, there is no magic button any politician can press to make prejudice and bigotry disappear. Raising awareness is so important to inspiring change, but so are concrete actions and plans. Bernie definitely needs to talk about it more, but he certainly understands structural racism. This is demonstrated by many of his stances and policies which attack the consequences of structural racism that are most destructive to people of color. Here's what he's proposed to do.

Minimum Wage & Working Conditions

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The State of Working America reported:

In 2011, 36 percent of blacks, including 38.1 percent of black women. were employed in low-wage jobs (earning poverty-level wages or less). Among the white labor force, 23.4 percent were employed in low-wage jobs.

The "Fight For 15," which demands that federal minimum wage be raised to $15 by 2020, has a prominent place in Sanders' economic platform. On Wednesday, he and other Congress progressives introduced a $15 an hour national minimum wage bill. Increasing minimum wage would have disproportionately positive effects on African Americans, who make up a significant proportion of low-wage workers. Improving economic prospects for African Americans is incredibly important when you consider how some researchers have found economic class is another significant factor in police violence.

Statistics from 2013 indicate that 72 percent of African American children are born to single mothers. In an essay in which Sanders redefined "family values," he supported paid maternity leave and sick days. Sanders also asserted that paid sick days were important so parents didn't have to send their children to school sick just because they couldn't afford to stay home and care for them, which would especially benefit single parents and their children.

Marijuana & Mass Incarceration

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In a 2014 interview with TIME magazine, Sanders expressed full support for medical marijuana and is a vocal advocate for ending the War on Drugs.

I have real concerns about implications of the war on drugs. We have been engaged in it for decades now with a huge cost and the destruction of a whole lot of lives of people who were never involved in any violent activities.

African Americans are disproportionately persecuted by racist law enforcement, and tend to serve longer sentences than their white counterparts.

Law Enforcement & Mass Incarceration

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During that same Netroots conference, Sanders made an insightful comment on spending federal dollars to reduce mass incarceration:

It makes more sense to me to invest in education than for jails. I want our country to have the best education instead of having more people in jail.

Sanders has always been a vocal supporter for progressive prison reform. Historically and even today, structural racism has plenty of say in determining who ends up in prison and how long they stay. Sanders has also heatedly attacked the prison industrial complex, addressing its terrible conditions that black prisoners disproportionately take the brunt of, and prison labor's destructive connections to greedy corporations.

In an interview last month with PBS, Sanders brought his audience's attention to the disturbing consequences of racist law enforcement:

A black male baby born today, if we do not change the system, stands a one-in-three chance [of] ending up in jail. This is [an] unspeakable tragedy.

Education

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Sanders is most criticized for his tendency to steer the discussion to employment, education, and economic class when addressing the incarceration and unemployment rates of black people and youth. Yes, he needs to emphasize the role of structural racism much, much more, but when he discusses his plans to make education more inclusive and available to all socioeconomic classes, he is sharing his concrete ideas to remedy racial issues. He has already expressed support for seriously enforcing anti-discrimination policies in the workplace and education. No one has the power to eradicate racism in these institutions, but the senator understands that he — and all politicians — have the ability to empower the oppressed with more inclusive education, and all the possibilities it brings with it.

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the graduation rate of black students who enroll in college is currently at 42 percent, while a 2012 report found that only 4 percent of college students were black males. Low college entrance and graduation rates among African Americans have nothing to do with racial inferiority, but everything to do with the need for a more economically inclusive higher education system.

In May, Sanders proposed a bill to make college tuition free for four years, and free college tuition is among the most famous aspects of his platform. Extending college education to African American families in lower socioeconomic brackets could help effectively destroy inter-generational poverty. It could also drastically lower unemployment rates in the black community, along with Sanders' March proposal to Congress to create 9 million jobs through closing corporate tax loopholes. Free college would allow countless youths raised by parents who worked in low-wage jobs to pursue careers that require degrees, and would empower generations.

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An ally should never invalidate the feelings and experiences of the oppressed, and must always acknowledge their criticisms. Sanders made a mistake by allowing himself to get frustrated at Black Lives Matter protesters on Saturday. True, he had come prepared to discuss immigration and must have been thrown off by the yelling of protesters, but I'm fairly certain the presidency entails a good amount of on-the-spot thinking for solid, comprehensive responses. Sanders needs to talk about structural racism a lot more, and his Black Lives Matter critics should continue pushing him to. However, they should also consider that moves that would help the black community are already being proffered by the Vermont senator.

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