#BlackLivesMatter, Bernie Sanders and the Problem With (Some) White Progressives

Amid tension between white progressive supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and activists from #BlackLivesMatter — the latter of whom have disrupted two of his presentations to highlight racial injustices they feel are often given short shrift by the former — many commentators have weighed in on the simmering beef.

Some in the Sanders camp have blamed #BlackLivesMatter for their tactics and methods, even while claiming to support their larger goals. Others in that camp have engaged in rather blatantly racist dismissals of #BlackLivesMatter, implying that because activists interrupted their hero, the movement for racial justice and an end to brutal policing was all but dead in their eyes.

On the other side, some have pointed out the way in which the disruptions of Sanders’ speeches ultimately moved the needle forward considerably within his own statements and policy pronouncements, elevating racial justice to a place previously untouched within his campaign. Some have suggested that any criticism of #BlackLivesMatter by whites is by definition racist, and that whites who are not facing the disproportionate brunt of police violence have no right to lecture those who are.

As someone whose entire life’s work has been about confronting racism and white supremacy — and its interrelationship to issues of economic injustice across the board — I am intuitively attracted to the #BlackLivesMatter camp and their position here. I know first hand, and even from my own history, how white progressives can and do often subordinate matters of racial justice to concerns about which we are frankly more comfortable speaking: class matters, the environment, or militarism among them. Despite how obviously connected these issues are to matters of racism (or maybe that’s not obvious to some, and perhaps that is the problem), it is indisputable that white leftists and liberals are far too quick, both historically and today, to minimize black and brown concerns about racism. I won’t recount or even try and document that history here, but if you need persuading as to the claim’s veracity, suffice it to say that either you know nothing about the history of the white left — from the labor movement to the antiwar movement to white feminism to the dominant LGBT liberation movement — or you have only been a leftist for about three weeks, or perhaps both. I’ve written about this elsewhere, notably, here, so feel free to take a read if you’re interested.

Having said that, I also understand the frustration of some within the Sanders camp, including folks of color there who feel, rightly or wrongly, that the tactics of some within #BlackLivesMatter might backfire, or split the movement for social justice, within which we need all kinds of folks, focused on all kinds of issues, including the economic inequality ones upon which white activists are often concentrating. I get it. I do. And personally, I too have questions about tactics and strategy (on both sides), and I suspect that as with most things, there is plenty of legitimate feedback and even criticism to go around, for folks on all sides.

But there is one thing about which I am crystal clear: the place to air those concerns, and to have those discussions is not out here, in the wide and very public world of the interwebs. This is one of the things that sticks out most to me about the white leftie backlash to #BlackLivesMatter: precisely because those folks are not involved in BLM or the larger movement for racial justice, they don’t have anyone in their personal circles or activist circles to whom they can turn and have real heart-to-heart discussions about these things. Precisely because white lefties are so often cut off from the struggles being led by people of color, they (we) lack the insights, the narratives, the humility and the opportunities to hash this stuff out as friends and comrades behind closed doors. So instead, they (we) end up doing dirt in public, completely oblivious to the way in which truly reactionary forces and the dominant media will try and take advantage of those disagreements to drive a wedge in our movements.

That is the problem. The issue is not about being white, and therefore “unable” to criticize black people. Jesus, how anyone could believe that in a culture where white critique of black people is a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute pastime is beyond me. Rather the issue is, are you connected enough to black and brown leadership to actually sit in struggle with them, listen to them, learn from them, and then offer your feedback from a place of solidarity, comradeship and love? Because if the answer to that last question is no, then you shouldn’t be surprised when the black and brown peoples you criticize think you’re full of shit. If they haven’t seen your face in their place, working on the issues that they prioritize as if their lives depended on it — because they do — then why in God’s name should they presume your commitment to the cause? On the other hand, if the answer to the question above were yes, my guess is you wouldn’t be losing your mind about what #BlackLivesMatter folks are doing, even if you had some strategic differences with them. You would take that shit to them, because you would be part of them, or because you actually knew them, and you’d work it the hell out.

And if you don’t know where those circles are, within which you could have those discussions productively, then that is the problem. It isn’t that white folks have to agree with everything black people do. Rather, it is this: until we show ourselves to be folks who are down for the eradication of white supremacy as a primary concern (and not something we’ll get to later, after we address the corporate oligarchy or climate change or Wall Street criminality), then we cannot expect to be taken seriously by those whose ability to put matters of racial justice on the back burner is constrained by this thing we call breathing.

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