If anyone had to name fifty white people in the 20th century that have helped Black people – literally committed themselves to the cause of Black people for longer than a march – Sanders probably wouldn’t make any of those lists. He certainly wouldn’t make any of the lists generated by Black people, and that’s because Bernie Sanders is not a racial justice crusader. And it’s okay to say that out loud.
In the 1960s it wasn’t the hardest thing in the world for someone like him to step into that movement and play a part. Even someone on the fence with their racism could see how wrong segregation was and how inhumanely Black people were being treated under it. That’s so easy we still allow teachers to teach it that way in schools: that the television saved Black people by enlightening white people over dinner about racism. That doesn’t make Sanders bad or mean he never cared about Black people. But we didn’t check everything off the Black problem to-do list in 1964. Black problems persist. And because they persist, people who work to solve those problems must be measured on a “what have you done for me lately” yardstick.
People need to stop treating marching with King like an Erdös number. At what point do we get to move beyond you being a thing, and you used to being a thing? Because in 2015 Bernie Sanders is to Black liberation what Kim Kardashian’s book career is to publishing: it’s just enough effort to be able to put it on your resume. I know that sentence is hard to read, Bernie fans, but I need you to understand what I said from the beginning: the problem isn’t that Sanders has been walking around trumpeting Black causes without doing Black work. He’s not a hypocrite. He hasn’t been doing black work for a long time, nor has he been trumpeting the causes. By your own count, he hasn’t done the actual work in fifty – FIFTY – years. But that just makes him just like every other white American. In that way his efforts are completely average at best. No, the problem is with the movement around Sanders, which is so eager for his success that they interpret any criticism of his platform or history as an enemy attack.
One of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison, makes a big deal out of the fact that he, too, marched with King. And yet, that doesn’t stop him from exhibiting a bit of racism, in saying something or mocking something in a way that is racist, in personifying a person or character in a racist manner. So what am I to do with this person, this person who believes enough in civil rights and Black people to march with King, and yet remains in part a racist, and has lived his life as such longer than he has pre-Marched with King? I’ll tell you: I measure him by his acts, or lack thereof. I do not give him credit where it is not due. I never give him a pass because he marched with King fifty – FIFTY – years ago. I don’t necessarily set out to check up on his race relations stats every month or anything, but I also don’t let anybody try to tell me what he is or isn’t on the issues…especially on MY issues. If marching with King was all it took to make someone not racist, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, not because Ellison and Sanders and any other non-Blacks who marched with King would have been cured of their racism, but America would have been cured of its racism. We would have kidnapped white people and forced them to march every day if that’s actually how that worked.
Except that’s not what racism means, is it? It hasn’t meant “bad white guy” in a long time. And by “in a long time” I mean “ever.” Sure, we collectively thought it meant “bigot” for a long time, but it’s 2015. Most of us know better now. And so it’s important for us to keep checking our own gauges and filters on the issue.
But let’s be clear:
I refuse the narrative that Black people need white people to survive. We don’t. We will survive without the half-largesse of well-meaning, good intentioned white folks. That doesn’t mean we won’t accept their help. What it does mean is that their help is going to have to come on our terms – our definitions, our values, our goals, our history, our knowledge, our life stakes, our context. You don’t get to tell us what qualifies you or anyone else as representative of our struggle. You don’t get to designate representatives at all! If #BlackLivesMatter should be teaching you anything it is that representative anti-racism is dead. Collective anti-racism – deconstructing anti-racism as an institution and not a Whack-a-Mole game – is the goal. We’re not playing chess anymore, where we keep sending our best lights into your worst darkness. You eat our lights. Your darkness is all-consuming. It is too large, too vast, too ingrained. That I am today telling all of this to our so-called allies is proof enough of how deep the darkness of racism is, how slick its sides, how insidious its nature.
Because that’s the real crime here: it’s not Bernie Sanders…it’s people who support Bernie Sanders and can’t take a criticism of their man that isn’t in their interest. Look at the audacity – the sheer balls – of the white people telling Black people how they should accept him, and under what terms. How he is the “best candidate on race”. How we should be glad he’s fighting for us. How something he did fifty – FIFTY – years ago is enough. ENOUGH. Enough what, evidence of his feelings? I cannot eat evidence of his feelings. Enough what, proof that he was going to do something for black people if he ever became president? I cannot protect Black people from police with the forced nascent proof of his good intentions.
Your fucking audacity is galling and offensive. You’re telling Black people who their best leader is, who their hope should lie in. That, my friend, is completely and utterly racist.
I refuse that narrative, not because I dislike white people, but because waiting for enough white people to care to the point of continued, relentless activism to make a difference relies on waiting on a magic number of Black people to die. And apparently, despite mounting evidence of a “problem”, we have yet to achieve that magic number of dead black people. Even in clumps we have not hit it. Nine people shot dead in a prayer meeting is not enough. Dozens upon dozens of videos capturing the nearly literal war being waged on Black people institutionally by police is not enough. Being able to click a button and observe for one’s self violence committed on non-white people by police literally from our pregnant wombs to the elderly walking in their own neighborhoods is not enough.
So you will forgive me if I did not see in Sanders campaign the means through which that would be addressed, let alone resolved, before last week. You will forgive me for pointing that out. You will forgive me for standing behind people willing to disrupt your pep rallies to show that we’re still here, that this is still happening, and that it is still worthy of your attention and, my god, a political platform.
If his supporters had just said, “You know, that issue is important. Thank god Bernie addressed the racial platform now” instead of demonizing the protesters, we’d have nothing to argue about. Your candidate was made more well-rounded politically, was made more culturally astute and relevant, and more genuinely interesting as a candidate (and a news story, by the way). So the only thing Black people should really be hearing from Bernie supporters is, “Thank you.”
And then, based on how convincingly you offer it, we get to choose if you are, indeed, welcome.