A recent CNN poll shows that among potential Democratic candidates in Iowa caucuses Senator Bernie Sanders has the highest approval rating from people of color. And the diversity of the Sanders-inspired left was on display at the Sanders Institute Gathering in Burlington Vermont earlier this month, which I covered on my podcast, The Katie Halper Show.
But empirical evidence has not stopped much of the corporate press—including many "liberal" or "progressive" outlets and commentators—from condemning the senator as having "a race problem."
Over the past week we saw Jonathan Martin of the New York Times (who happens to be white) claim that Sanders "has done little to broaden his political circle and has struggled to expand his appeal beyond his base of primarily white supporters." Meanwhile, Clara Jeffery, the editor-in-chief of Mother Jones (also white), recently presented not only Sanders' supporters but the left movement in general as white. Linking to a written exchange between two Splinter journalists about Sanders, she tweeted, "In which white lefties have a debate that somehow does not discuss the fact that Bernie has no real purchase among the POC base of the Democratic party. And that problem has not improved for him, if anything it seems larger…"
Even those who openly mock the concerns of the white working class, undermine their own alleged commitment to marginalized voices when they ignore the diversity of Sanders' supporters.
But despite evidence like the new CNN poll, in which Sanders had the highest approval among non-white voters, outlets reporting on the survey studiously avoided mentioning that key finding which undermines the media narrative about Sanders' struggle to appeal to minority voters. While it's only one poll, and his favorability among voters of color isn't far ahead of Joe Biden's, it's newsworthy and significant precisely because it undermines the media narrative about Sanders' alleged struggle to appeal to non-white voters. On social media people who happily call Sanders #FakeJews, and defend Hillary Clinton's use of prison slave labor, continue to vilify Sanders as somehow "racist."
Most politicians could "do better," when it comes to addressing and speaking about racial inequities, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism. But the claim that Sanders is exceptionally problematic is absurd, given, for example, that Biden opposed integrated busing in the 1970's; mistreated Anita Hill during the confirmation process of Clarence Thomas; called Obama "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy"; and said "You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking."
Sanders' critics smear him as blinded by straight, white, male privilege. The mere mention of class gets Sanders and others condemned as class reductionists. The irony is that many of the most vocal critics attacking him for being insufficiently intersectional fail to address class altogether as an aspect of identity.
It's cruel, immoral and politically disastrous to dismiss the experience of working class people of all colors and backgrounds. But even those who openly mock the concerns of the white working class, undermine their own alleged commitment to marginalized voices when they ignore the diversity of Sanders' supporters. By ignoring the people of all ages, backgrounds, genders, sexuality, and ethnicity who support Sanders, they engage in the very erasure and marginalization of the women, people of color, LGBTQ people (and all the intersections thereof) that they claim to oppose.
The real story is very different, as I found at the Sanders Institute Gathering. Organized by Jane Sanders and David Driscoll, the 3-day event was more about the movement that Sanders helped spark than it was about the man. Though Sanders delivered the keynote and participated in several panels, the gathering focused on issues, bringing together leaders, thinkers, organizers and activists. Participants included physician and public health activist Abdul El-Sayed; San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz; actor and activist Danny Glover; executive director of Good Jobs Nation, Joseph Geevarghese; Our Revolution director, Nina Turner; Presente.org's executive director Matt Nelson; and many others. Over the weekend, the panels and roundtables addressed healthcare, climate change, criminal "injustice," civil rights, immigration, Puerto Rico, the housing crisis, the international progressive movement, and other issues with attention to class, race, and gender.
Bernie Sanders: Bringing people together
The first person I ran into at the gathering was, believe it or not, Bernie Sanders himself. I told the senator, "One of the things that's really frustrating to progressives who support you is this narrative about your not being a feminist or not being anti-racist." Then I asked, "How can we push back on that, given how much the corporate media seems to be interested in that narrative?"
"What we are fighting for is to bring people together—Black and White and Latino, Native American and Asian American—around an agenda that speaks to the needs of ordinary Americans and not just the one percent."
—Sen. Bernie SandersTo which he replied:
What we are fighting for is to bring people together—Black and White and Latino, Native American and Asian American—around an agenda that speaks to the needs of ordinary Americans and not just the one percent. We want Medicare for All, we want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, we don't want our kids to be living in a planet ravaged by climate change. So we are making progress. We expect opposition to continue. And we're gonna do the best in this fight that we can.
When you look at corporate media, you're looking at media owned by large, often international corporate conglomerates, which are owned by some of the wealthiest people in this country or in the world. They will do anything and everything they can do to protect their own interest and they will say anything about anybody that they want.
During a panel discussion later that day, he went spoke further about the dangers of divide-and-conquer strategies deployed by the enemies of equality:
When people are pushed aside, when people are hurting, you have demagogues who step in and say "Our problem is that Mexican who is picking strawberries." So you take that anger and frustration and pain that people are feeling and you turn them against people who are in worse shape than [they] are. And our job is to bring people together and say, "No. It is not some Mexican who is picking strawberries who is our enemy. It is Wall Street, it is the fossil fuel industries, it is the drug companies, it's the insurance companies." Let's stand together and take those people on.
Mayor Michael Tubbs: We absolutely have to be intersectional
I also interviewed Stockton, California Mayor Michael Tubbs, who—as he put it during a panel at the Gathering in Burlington—grew up a "poor black child on the south side of Stockton with an incarcerated father and a mother who had me at sixteen as a teenager. The things we fight for like affordable healthcare, affordable childcare, entitlement programs like WIC and Head Start all paved the way for me to be here today."
After the round table he spoke to me about how Sanders' 2016 run pushed him to embrace bolder more progressive ideas:
Senator Sanders came and spoke in Stockton in a presidential campaign, which was unheard of—someone running for president to come to Stockton. And I was able to introduce him. And I was also impressed with the number of people who were at that rally in the middle of the day like five- or six-thousand people. And Stockton's not a super rabid political town and I was like, "Wow, this message is resonating." And I think that gave me the confidence to be a little more bold in my policy prescriptions or pilot programs that we're doing in the city because I saw the hunger and the want for a government that is actually responsive and works for regular everyday people.
The mayor sees such bold progressive policies as crucial to defeating the equally bold but opposingly reactionary policies of Trumpism. There is "no middle ground," Tubbs said, when you're battling fascism. "Some of Trump's supporters wanted to see—and I don't think that discounts racial resentment—something bold, shocking, say something that's different, that's not vanilla."
"We absolutely have to be intersectional in how we think about things. It's not just one thing, we have to be intersectional in our policies and programs."
—Mayor Michael TubbsThe president's rhetoric and policies are xenophobic, Tubbs continued, and his solutions are bad. "But some of the problems he articulated with trade deals and the way they impact regular people are clear problems that we have to address," he said. "So I think it's about how do we give people something bold that relates to their everyday life that says [to them]: 'I am seen. I am heard. This leader cares about what I'm dealing with.'"
Tubbs sees intersectionality and multiracial organizing as challenging but crucial.
"Historically since Bacon's Rebellion," Tubbs explained, "poor white folks have voted against their best interest and I don't think we've done enough work to actually show people why is it in your best interest to cast your lot with these folks that don't look like you. We absolutely have to be intersectional in how we think about things. It's not just one thing, we have to be intersectional in our policies and programs."
Mayor Gus Newport: Neoliberals are single-issue people
Right before speaking to the mayor of Stockton, I interviewed the former mayor of another California city. Eighty-three year old Eugene "Gus" Newport worked with Malcolm X, is the great grandson of a slave and was the mayor of Berkeley from 1979-1986. He and Sanders were mayors at the same time and Newport had stumped for Bernie earlier during Sanders' unsuccessful runs for governor of Vermont in 1972 and 1976.
Newport recalls that as the two campaigned in Burlington, a reporter asked Sanders, "Why does a Jew from Brooklyn, who's a Socialist, invite Gus Newport, a former black nationalist and a socialist from Berkeley to campaign for him in a state that is 97% white?" Bernie's answer was short: "Because we're gonna talk about the issues." After that, Newport explained, the reporters had no more questions. "I've loved him ever since," he said.
"Why does a Jew from Brooklyn, who's a Socialist, invite Gus Newport, a former black nationalist and a socialist from Berkeley to campaign for him in a state that is 97% white?" Bernie's answer was short: "Because we're gonna talk about the issues."
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Sanders would later appoint Newport to the Democratic Unity Commission in 2017 in the wake of Hillary Clinton's loss to Trump. "I found out more than I ever wanted to know about the Democratic National Committee than I ever wanted to know," he said, but "nobody in the Democratic Party has ever spoken to all the issues in the depth that Bernie Sanders has."
When I asked him what he thought about the claim, often perpetuated by the media, that socialism is a white project, Newport responded:
The media—look who they work for, that's corporate America. You must remember Malcolm X was a socialist and Martin Luther kIng was moving towards socialism when he talked about the war against Vietnam. But a lot of Black leaders didn't go along. We've got to educate our own to become an integral part of this. And we're gonna do it. Danny Glover and I, we've gone down to Mississippi and South Carolina with Bernie. And the minute it appears that Bernie's going out there [to run in the 2020 primary], we're gonna go organize. I'm gonna be ready to campaign 9 to 10 months out of the year. I'm going to rehab now for this bad knee but as soon as I can—I'll do a lot of walking.
While some smear Sanders for being a "single issue" candidate, Newport believes it's the centrist "neoliberal" Democrats who deserve that label. "They are a single issue people," he declared. "They do not work around other issues [like class or poverty]. They're usually not a part of the working class. We're looking for real people."
Newport was thrilled that the Gathering—for which "Jane Sanders needs to be given all the credit in the world"—provided participants with "a challenge to pull ourselves together and make sure there's a worthwhile future for the next generation."
Though people often consider the intersection of race, gender and sexuality—class and age are often excluded. A popular narrative which pits people of different ages against each other is that of the spoiled, entitled and lazy millennial. Newport has sympathy, empathy and righteous outrage for the bleak economic reality that millennials face.
As he said at the Democratic Unity Commission, it is time to get "past our own egos and look at the issues." He added, "Too many of us who get into body politic eventually just focus on ourselves. We got retirement for life, we got healthcare for life. But what about the people? You gotta think of the reality: the millennials have had enough. Many of them know they won't be able to buy a house in their life times. They gotta pay student loans. So I'm proud. But we have a lot more work to do."
Naomi Klein: connecting the dots between all issues
In some ways climate change affects us all, as writer and journalist Naomi Klein told me: "Climate change impacts everything because we're all inside the climate so there's no prying anything apart from it."
"[The left has to] deepen its analysis of what racial capitalism means. Too often race is an add-on. Too often gender is an add-on. And we have to take that on board and do a better job."
—Naomi KleinIn some ways, climate disasters don't discriminate: "As anyone who's lived through a hurricane knows, no matter how rich you are or how powerful you are those winds are absolutely terrifying; no matter how rich you are or how powerful you are if the flames are coming towards your house in Malibu, you're not safe." But, Klein added class perspectives to her analysis. "Climate change doesn’t affect all of us equally." She explained:
It's tricky. [Climate change] isn't a leveler. In the short term what it does is exacerbate pre-existing inequalities. It's already here for people who are very precarious and who have no protections. And it is true that wealth can buy you protection for a couple of generations. And in the meantime there are enormous profit potentials. It's not very comforting that there's such a keen interest in Mars. Because that really does start to feel like a Plan B. Not that it's a realistic one.
Ultimately this is a system that will collapse on everyone's head... eventually. But in the short term there are definitely rooms that are going to collapse first.
I'm not making the argument that it has to be the issue to trump all other issues. I think we need to have an analysis that is all about connecting the dots between all of these issues.
Klein pointed to the distinctions among Democrats that the Sanders campaign exposed. There were liberal centrists who were liberal centrists "because they honestly didn’t believe that more progressive, more redistributive policies were popular or possible. But when they saw that they might be, they got on board." And then there were liberal centrists who didn't shift to the left because, it turned out, they "just opposed those ideas."
"We've all have our eyes opened by that," Klein said. "And then you realize, we're not all on the same side."
Roseann DeMoro: The duplicitous Bernie Bro smear
Former executive director of National Nurses United and of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, Roseann DeMoro does not mince words when describing the dishonesty of the latter group.
"I was just talking to Susan Sarandon," she explains. "We were all accused of being Bernie Bros. It's to delegitimize us. It's a lie. It's a duplicitous, ugly, malicious, horrendous, calculated lie. It's a calculated lie by the DNC. It's a PR campaign masquerading as politics."
I agreed that many of the people who spread the Bernie Bro smear are, indeed, disingenuous and malicious. Others, however, are more misinformed by the coordinated propaganda campaign which portrays Sanders as "bad on race and gender" whose supporters are a monolith of white men or people who want to curry their favor.
DeMoro objected to prioritizing identity over policy and profits over people. "People are suffering across the spectrum," she said. "They can't take care of their families or of themselves. Their personal dignity is going down the drain. Ultimately, what we were supposed to do was to buy into a neoliberal paradigm to elect a neoliberal woman who didn't share our values because she was a woman. Well, Margaret Thatcher was a woman."
Of course, as DeMoro and I agreed, one of the differences between Clinton and Thatcher is that neither Thatcher, nor her fans, ever claimed the Iron Lady was a feminist.
An ardent supporter for Sanders to run again in 2020, DeMoro is prepared for more of the smears which started in 2016 and never really went away. "They're gonna throw everything at us, when it comes to Bernie, and we're gonna be like Wonder Woman and bounce 'em right back. So put on your bracelets."
Maria Svart: You can’t understand class without understanding gender and race and vice versa
I also interviewed Maria Svart, the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), for The Real News Network and my podcast. She also criticized the Bernie Bro narrative.
"Look at Bernie Sanders," Svart said, "the most popular politician in the country. And yet people that support Bernie are called Bernie Bros. You look at DSA. I am a Latina. I'm leading the organization. And there are many women of color in leadership, and yet we are characterized as a bunch of Bernie Bros."
Svartz went on to describe her own intersectional identity:
"You look at DSA. I am a Latina. I'm leading the organization. And there are many women of color in leadership, and yet we are characterized as a bunch of Bernie Bros."
—Maria Svart, Democratic Socialists of America
You can't understand class without understanding gender, and race—and vice versa. How can you possibly understand, for example, the life experience of my grandmother, who was an undocumented Mexican immigrant, without understanding the much bigger picture, the whole systems of our society, whether it's white supremacy or xenophobia or capitalism? They all intersect. And we need to talk about the complexity of that reality all the time, and we have to push back against lean-in feminism, mainstream feminism, all the time.
Whether or not Sanders decides to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination (and in case you can't tell, I hope that he does), the movement he sparked is deepening its understanding and analyses of the intersectionality for the electoral and organizing work ahead in 2020 and beyond.
According to Klein, the left has to "deepen its analysis of what racial capitalism means. Too often race is an add-on. Too often gender is an add-on. And we have to take that on board and do a better job."
No matter what the landscape looks like in 2020, Klein continued, "we have to spend 2019 building as broad a coalition as possible, understanding as deeply as we possibly can that all these issues are so profoundly intertwined. To me what's clear is that if we fail, it is not because our ideas are unpopular. It is because we failed as organizers."