Johns Hopkins University
One day short of a year since the murder of Michael Brown, Bernie Sanders was to speak at a public event in Seattle, Washington. After he thanked Seattle for “being one of the most progressive cities” in the US, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, two black women, took to the stage and demanded to be heard. Before yielding the stage, a white male organizer said, “We are trying to be reasonable... We are going to give you the mic—after Senator Sanders.” Those remarks continue the long-standing racist and sexist dismissal of dissent by black women. They signal a progressivist version of liberal colonialist attempts to confine blacks to what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls the “waiting rooms of history."
Refusing to be made to wait, Johnson passionately denounced colonial settlement, gentrification, racial profiling, Seattle's proclivity to punish blacks from a young age, and the fact that she had to fight her way through a crowd to insist that her life matters. She was met by cries of support and a flood of angry boos. By denouncing white supremacy before a largely hostile white audience of supposedly progressive allies, Johnson and Willaford demonstrated a bravery that beneficiaries of white privilege largely do not understand.
To protect that optimism, Sanders has been defended across social media and news outlets, oftentimes through criticisms of BLM. Some defenses have been thoughtful; others have ranged from dismissive to explicitly racist. The most common have included: (1) Sanders is the best ally of minorities, as evidenced by his legislation and participation in the Civil Rights Movement; (2) BLM has not shut down events held by Clinton or any of the Republican candidates, who would make better targets; (3) BLM has not supplemented disruption with positive proposals; (4) BLM activists are being disrespectful, selfish, childish, and even opportunistic (one comment on a Facebook thread accused BLM protestors of harboring careerist motives. Though the author retracted that remark after it was challenged, the “likes” it received still stand); (5) Johnson and Willaford have been damaging to BLM and the pursuit of racial justice more broadly; and (6) BLM is an episode in the Left defeating itself through division or identity politics, which amounts to a win for bourgeois, conservative power.
These responses to BLM—a movement founded and led predominantly by black women—have been advanced overwhelmingly by whites (more often by men than women) and less frequently by blacks and non-black people of color—a fact that is reason for greater reflection. This pattern repeats the trend of whites championing non-whites who agree with their positions and enable them to deflect accusations of racism. That non-whites iterate the same criticisms as whites, however, does not necessarily prove the validity of those criticisms. It suggests that respectability politics is one of their common frames—a frame that props up whiteness by abjecting black voices and radical actions, of BLM and of black women in particular. That abjection is happily supported by the Right.
It is wrong to say that criticisms of BLM are necessarily racist and patriarchal. It is also wrong to say that defenders of Sanders must be racist, sexist, or playing white. Nonetheless, the pattern above is striking. More alarming still is when defenders of Sanders decry BLM with a similar vehemence to that of the Right. One could easily imagine a game in which criticisms of BLM are shuffled and players guess whether a comment is from a defender of Sanders or from the figureheads and viewership of Fox News. Players might be surprised half of the time.
For that reason and others, there is an antiblack strand within the most progressive zone of presidential politics today. If there is a history lesson here, it might be that hierarchies of race and gender have been employed to protect optimism in shots for a better world.
|Wangechi Mutu, A Shady Promise, 2006.|
-A view of BLM as “disruptive” might marginalize black voices by implying them to be outside of and even threatening to Sanders's campaign rather than as integral contributors from within.
-It might be appropriate to say that BLM has “interrupted” Sanders's speeches but inaccurate to say they “shut them down.” As Cullors said at the Netroots event, “It's not like we like shutting shit down but we have to.” When non-blacks say that BLM shuts down Sanders's speeches, it is not because they recognize the agency of black protestors; they are playing a blame game that overlooks the fact that Sanders could have listened and responded to specific concerns on the spot.
-A view of BLM as only interruptive overlooks its demands, which include demilitarization of law enforcement, publication of the names of officers involved in the deaths of black people, and redirection of funds from law enforcement to housing, education, and employment for impoverished black communities.
-It is not enough to say that Sanders has now incorporated BLM demands into his racial justice platform. Defenders of Sanders have to acknowledge that the direct action of black protestors played a significant role—even if they (the defenders) felt deeply upset by the interruptions in Phoenix and Seattle. Non-black defenders should further acknowledge that the pursuit of racial justice will make them uncomfortable and that bad feelings are not sufficient reasons for shouting down black voices and challenging black tactics.
-One could view Sanders and many of his defenders as slow to respond to the rich and powerful BLM protests across the nation. Couldn't Sanders have proactively reached out to BLM to shape his racial justice platform so that it would not have to interrupt him? When those interruptions have happened, why has he not listened and respond to BLM's concerns on the spot? Why did he threaten to leave in Phoenix? Why did he leave in Seattle? Wouldn't reaching out, listening, and responding to BLM on the spot have given Sanders enormous political capital—something desired by his defenders? Why haven't defenders been supporters by holding Sanders accountable, not for purposes of political capital but for racial justice? Is this deficit of accountability shaped by race?
-When they refer to his record, defenders of Sanders seem to believe that blacks can be absorbed into the category of “people of color” while they lump together differently racialized, gendered, and sexualized groups under the conveniently flat label of “minorities.” This presumption, as scholars such as Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton have pointed out, denies the specificity of antiblack racism—something that could be more greatly acknowledged by Sanders and his supporters.
-It is possible that some in BLM have been targeting Sanders because they view him as their greatest ally and thus hope that he'll address their concerns.
-It can be patronizing for non-blacks to proclaim which presidential candidate will best serve black lives. The complexity and diversity of black needs cannot be encapsulated by presidential platforms nor can they be determined by non-blacks even when some blacks agree.
-To demand that BLM comport with presidential politics is to determine its function and thus deny its agency. That demand is incompatible with the movement's recent announcement that it will not endorse any political party.
-To say that BLM is threatening the nomination of Sanders or the possibility of a unified Left is to subordinate black voices to those of non-blacks. If so, then the progressivist optimism of Sanders's defenders relies on the extension of antiblackness.
-Claims that Johnson and Willaford have damaged the push for racial justice: (1) presume that non-blacks or some blacks know what is good for all black lives; (2) subordinates the pursuit of racial justice to terms that would be acceptable to non-blacks; (3) perpetuates the minoritization of blacks by turning challenges into appeals; (4) maintains the whiteness of public space by marginalizing black outrage to preserve non-black comfort; and (5) conceals these power plays through seemingly innocent terms like “strategies.”
-Dismissals of BLM as “identity politics” presume that police brutality, mass incarceration, and other offshoots of what Saidiya Hartman has called the “afterlife of slavery” are “black issues” that do not implicate everyone in the US. The label of “identity politics” is not only misguided; it absolves non-blacks of the responsibility to dismantle the systems of power that privilege them.
-Why not believe that the Left splinters itself when it does not proactively address antiblack racism? Who defined the core of the Left, centered it around Bernie, and made fights against antiblack racism a peripheral concern anyway? One suspect is “whiteness.”
-Finally, most appalling has been paternalistic claims that BLM needs to educate itself on Sanders's record and on how to organize, strategize, and effect change. Part of that criticism shifts the definition of political action into the hands of whiteness, with men as determiners and women and “respectable” people of color and blacks as supporters. Condemnations of the tactics of BLM presume that black protestors have not already been planning in ongoing, rich, and productive ways—a presumption that is particularly condescending given the magnitude and widespread success of BLM that is due to the wits and resilience of black activists today and to long histories of black resistance and radicalism that have literally changed the world.Given this array of points (which is not at all exhaustive), my stomach turns when defenders of Sanders hastily close the disagreements that they arguably opened by not holding Sanders accountable for building a platform shaped at the outset by the demands of BLM. Some of the points raised by defenders are indeed important, such as the need for positive proposals and to think about the broader political field. Those points, which had already been made by blacks, are not untrue, just contestable—as are a number of the points I have made. We could go back and forth on numerous issues because objective standards of evaluation are unavailable.
I am not saying that non-blacks cannot challenge BLM. That might be permissible if those of us who are not black exercise extreme caution because even well-meaning challenges can disqualify black voices through feats of speaker privilege. Antiblackness rears its head not only in explicit remarks and harsh tones but in quick assertions as well. We might wait for the emergence of black reactions to events, commit to an ethos of generous listening, identify the black voices with which we agree, and explicitly acknowledge the validity of black voices that disagree. These and other actions of patience and care might lead us to raise questions and suggestions rather than proclamations and judgments.
Many defenders of Sanders have not acted in these ways. They have proceeded as if their arguments lie on solid ground and have presumed that BLM has not given thought to their issues, either properly or at all. Given the rapidity with which BLM has been criticized, I am worried that defenders of Sanders will begin to use the “We stand together” chant, which was designed by the Sanders campaign for the purpose of drowning out disruptions by black protestors.
I am not wishing to call out Sanders and his defenders so much as to call them in, as Ngọc Loan Trần has put it. Sanders has indeed been more responsive to BLM than other candidates have been. Since the Netroots event, he has rolled out racial justice goals that accord with BLM's demands, responded to #SayTheirNames in his speeches, and hired the black criminal justice advocate Symone Sanders as his press secretary after she pressed him on issues raised by BLM. These shifts are genuine reasons for hope. They are not, however, reasons for an unchecked optimism that can be a vector of antiblack racism and sexism when it discredits blacks, speaks over them, shouts them down, and confines them to the waiting rooms of US history, whether progressivist or otherwise.
To close this article and send off this call in, I offer the words of Sanders—not Bernie, but Symone: “Do I think everyone in the movement agrees with the way the protestors commanded the stage today? No. Am I going to condemn the protestors for standing up and expressing themselves? No. Because their voices matter.”
*Many thanks to Diana Leong and Jairus Grove for their helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this piece.