Bernie Sanders ran on an anti-racism platform

Can an economic program such as Bernie Sanders's make progress in ending racism in US society? Hal Ginsberg turns to the evidence of history to argue that it can.

1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

It has become clear that Hillary Clinton’s victory in the Democratic primaries depended on the overwhelming support she received from African American voters.  Former Black Lives Matter activist and current New York Daily News opinion writer Shaun King is reconciled to Clinton’s win over King’s preferred candidate Bernie Sanders even though, King says, “everything wasn’t fair and square” because “Hillary crushed Bernie in the Deep South.”  A sizable majority of Democratic voters in the South are black.

Clinton’s success in winning over 75% of the African-American vote may seem counterintuitive given her record.  In a recent Medium piece, organizer Neilini Stamp wrote that Clinton supported “policies that destroyed the Black community.”  So why did black voters hand the nomination to Hillary?

Quoting the Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith, Caleb Lewis at Vox explains that while “neither Democrat ran on a truly anti-racist platform,” for Hillary Clinton this shortcoming was masked by her and her husband’s “long history of cultivating relationships within black communities.”  By contrast, Lewis argues, “Sanders had no such privilege.”  Lewis exhorts Sanders to reach out to African-Americans with more explicitly race-focused solutions so that they will feel welcome in the emerging progressive movement Bernie’s campaign helped spark and which he hopes to shepherd over the next few years.

King agrees in part with Lewis’s explanation for the results of the Democratic primaries.  Perplexed and disappointed by Southern voters, King notes that Clinton’s “ties there paid off and the Sanders campaign struggled to figure out how to resonate in meaningful ways in most of those states.”  But he surely disagrees with Lewis’s contention that Sanders did not run on an anti-racist platform since he campaigned for Sanders and writes that “Bernie has none of Hillary’s weaknesses.”  Stamp is even more emphatic in her insistence that Sanders did run as an anti-racist.  She analogizes his campaign directly to Shirley Chisholm’s in 1972.

So who’s right? Smith and Lewis, who say Sanders did not run on an anti-racist platform, or King and Stamp.  While Lewis praises Sanders’ relentless focus on economic inequality, the Vox writer contends that this message worked well with whites who are angry that their economic prospects are worse than their fathers and grandfathers were.  But, says Lewis, blacks were non-plussed since Sanders “wouldn’t acknowledge that [white working-class] wealth was tied to the exploitation of people of color.” 

Providing support for Lewis’s argument, Ta-Nehisi Coates voted for Sanders in his state’s primary but did not explicitly endorse him.  Coates spelled out that he supported Sanders call for class-based remedies to economic injustice but that such remedies were insufficient to end racism since past injustices provided whites with advantages over blacks that could only be resolved through direct reparations to African-Americans.

The debate centers on the question of whether there is an organic conflict between the economic interests of working class whites and African-Americans.  Simply put, is the economic well-being of non-affluent whites inversely correlated to that of blacks?  If the answer is yes, then Smith and Lewis are correct.  Sanders did not run as an anti-racist.  He opposed Coates’s plan for race-based reparations and he does not tie white working-class prosperity in the ‘50s and ‘60s to the exploitation of blacks.  Instead, Sanders insists that trade policy, strong unions, and a highly progressive tax code were responsible for the more equitable wealth distribution mid-20th century Americans experienced.

The idea that the economic interests of blacks conflict with those of poor, working, and middle-class whites is not new – it has been argued by virulent racists since before the Civil War.  In 1848, South Carolina Senator John Calhoun defended slavery on the grounds that the subjugation of blacks meant all whites “belong to the upper class,” even those toiling in the fields next to slaves.

In his memoirs, President Ulysses S. Grant took the opposite position.

The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre–what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation. Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave-owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.

A century after the Civil War, Alabama’s white supremacist Governor George Wallace infamously declared “Segregation now, segregation forever” in his 1963 inaugural address.  Less famously, Wallace promised Alabamians to “fulfill my duty toward honesty and economy in our State government so that no man shall have a part of his livelihood cheated and no child shall have a bit of his future stolen away.”  Like the Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith and Vox’s Caleb Lewis, Wallace was connecting white economic prosperity directly to Jim Crow and a racist economy.

Influential working-class labor leaders in the 20th century saw things very differently.  While Wallace was pandering to the worst racists, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther was marching with Dr. King on Washington.  Labor historian Thomas Sugrue described “large industrial labor unions” as “critical allies of the African American freedom struggle.”  Their leaders, Sugrue told NPR in 2013, “believed that black workers and their fate was intertwined with that of white workers; that questions of economic security and anti-discrimination were joined at the hip.”

History vindicates the positions of President Grant and the 1960s labor leaders.  There is a positive, as opposed to an inverse, relationship between the economic well-being of blacks and less affluent whites.  During the Jim Crow era, poor whites in the South and blacks were far worse off than their brothers and sisters in the far less segregated North.  In the 1890s, then-populist Georgia politician Tom Watson told mixed crowds “you are separated (by race) so that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings.”  In this century, University of Georgia historian F.N. Boney has confirmed Watson’s view, writing in 2004 about the World War I era that  “Southern and Georgia whites had less money, less education, and poorer health than white Americans in general. Only southern blacks had more handicaps.”  This situation only “grew worse” in the 1920s, according to Boney, due to boll weevil infestations.

The American economic boom that began with the end of the Depression and continued until the late 1960s – early 1970s led to much improved economic conditions for blacks and whites.  Throughout the civil rights era, when the war on poverty was going full-bore, labor unions were strong, top marginal tax rates were high, and tariffs were imposed to protect American manufacturing jobs, poverty rates for whites and blacks were dropping sharply with the percentage of impoverished blacks falling faster and the wealth and income gap likewise narrowing.

Many of the nation’s poorest and most disaffected whites lived in the South – both during slave times and the Jim Crow era.  Virulent racism and ruthless suppression of blacks did not enrich or empower the majority of Southern whites.  By contrast, race-neutral redistributive economic policies designed to improve the condition of working-class Americans coupled with civil rights legislation led to better living conditions for non-affluent whites and blacks with a reduction in wealth and income disparities.

This record fully supports the position of Shaun King and Neilini Stamp.  Bernie Sanders’ class-based anti-poverty programs, which look to the American economic environment of the post-war era for inspiration, will benefit blacks and non-affluent whites alike.  The evidence refutes Smith and Lewis’s contention that post-war white working-class affluence depended on racism.

The justness of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ criticism against Sanders for refusing to endorse race-based, in addition to or in lieu of income-based, wealth transfers is likewise open to dispute.  In February, University of Pennsylvania political science Professor Adolph Reed defended Sanders against Coates as follows:

You can go down Sanders’s platform issue by issue and ask, “so how is this not a black issue?” How is a $15 minimum wage not a black issue. How is massive public works employment not a black issue. How is free public college higher education not a black issue. The criminal justice stuff and all the rest of it. So one head scratching aspect of this is what do people like Coates imagine is to be gained by calling the redistribution program racial and calling it “reparations”?

Bernie Sanders ran as an anti-racist.  His economic policy proposals, to the extent they are implemented, will benefit blacks and non-affluent whites with African-Americans likely to benefit as much or more than any other ethnic or racial group.  It is past time for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of poor, working, and middle-class Americans to join together with Bernie Sanders to bring about a truly progressive and inclusive America.


Hal Ginsberg lives in Montgomery County and blogs at Halginsberg, where this first appeared.