“This is our campaign,” announced Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at a political panel held in the historic Riverside Church just west of Harlem on September 20, 2019. The radical professor of African American Studies at Princeton University — which still maintains a school and residential college named after the ardent Klan defender, Woodrow Wilson — was responding to the question of the event’s title, “What could a Bernie Sanders presidency mean for racial justice?” Taylor was joined by two younger black female panelists, Jacobin magazine board member Ariella Thornhill and Sanders’s national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray, to discuss an old white man’s presidential campaign and its promise of advancing racial justice in America. This racial disjunction was one of a series of seeming contradictions that structured and motivated the evening’s conversation, co-sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) AfroSocialist/Socialists of Color Caucus and Jacobin, where Taylor is also a columnist.
Before a sold-out audience of about 200 attendees of a broad spectrum of age, race, and background, and over 10,000 viewers watching online by livestream, these three black women attempted to clarify why Bernie Sanders — the 78-year-old white man who has served for nearly three decades as a national representative of one of the smallest, whitest states in the union — would best represent the intersectional classes of oppressed Americans in the country’s brutal capitalist democracy, including women of color, queer people of color, undocumented immigrants, and, as Taylor took care to point out, 20 million poor white people. Taylor insisted, moreover, that the campaign not only represented black women like herself and her fellow panelists, the campaign was, in fact, their campaign.
Team Sanders obviously sees the necessity of refining this message, in the face of a Democratic field that includes, at last count, six candidates of color, five women, and one openly gay man. As Jacobin has explored, and even corporate media outlets have confirmed, Bernie Sanders was dogged in 2016 by a hostile media narrative, cribbed liberally from the PR apparatus of the DNC/HRC campaign, which reduced the senator to his age, race, and gender characteristics in order to cast identitarian skepticism upon his candidacy and its putative supporters. The progressive socialist was caricatured as the representative of a regressive, misogynist, racist “BernieBro” base, despite the fact that he was the first Jewish candidate to ever win a presidential primary, the son of a poor Polish immigrant father who left Europe only a decade before the rise of Nazism led to the mass murder of his family, and a working-class civil rights activist whose commitment extended back over fifty years to his antisegregation organizing as a student leader for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) at the University of Chicago.
In a fit of faux wokeness, using the stalking horse of Joe Biden to conceal the angle of the attack, mainstream media outlets continue to denigrate Sanders as just another old white man. So, when Professor Taylor announced that “this is our campaign,” she was responding to the oft-criticized disjunction between the whiteness of the candidate and the purported racial justice of his politics by proposing two further disjunctions: one between this present campaign and the past, and another between the necessarily limited identity of the candidate and the broad, inclusive identity of the campaign and movement that he represents, responds to, and depends upon. This is what Sanders now refers to with the catchphrase, “It’s not me, it’s us.”
Accepting many of the criticisms from 2016, and indeed exalting them, Taylor pointed out how “unique” it was that Sanders had actually listened to black supporters and critics, and had evolved. “In 2016, many of us said that, ‘We are with you, Bernie, when you point out the inequality at the heart of American society,’” Taylor explained. “‘But we want to also hear you talk about the ways in which this system targets black life. We want to hear you speak to the ways that racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia contributes to the victimization of black people, Latinx people, Arabs and Muslims in this country… We wanted you to speak to the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and the ways that when bound together, they create new dimensions of oppression and possibilities for exploitation, which means that we must pursue political and legislative responses that reflect this complex, lived social reality.’ We said that, ‘We want to see more of us in your discussions about economic injustice and inequality.’ And Bernie Sanders’s campaign saw us, they heard us, they communed with us, they met with us, and so we are now out here with them together.”
Between the two disjunctions, Taylor intuited a union: the current Sanders campaign is now, according to Gray, “the least white, most female, most working-class campaign, of the field,” precisely because Sanders learned from the past and from the intersectional movements that supported his candidacy, and realigned his campaign to reflect the actual diversity of his base. Taylor and Gray together reminded the audience that the senator has demonstrated his renewed commitment representationally, rhetorically, and politically in his policies. He hired a senior campaign staff that is over 50% people of color and over 70% female, he now speaks publicly about the particular mechanisms and consequences of racism, sexism, and other forms of intersectional oppression, and his campaign carefully developed policies with his coalition of advisors and allies to address the intersectional specificities of oppression within his broader program of economic justice. As Gray said, “What’s really heartening to me about the Sanders campaign is that, finally, we’re presented with policy solutions that actually address both racial disparities and economic disparities.” She challenged the audience to find any Sanders policy that lacked sections to “directly address racial, gender, sexuality, physical ability, every metric of identity you can imagine, incorporated into each.”
The consistent defensiveness in the press secretary’s statements was palpable, and understandable, since identitarian media narratives continue to accuse Sanders of a “sexism problem,” a “problem with black voters,” and “a Black Woman problem.” That day, TIME magazine featured an article about the online harassment of the Working Families Party by purported Sanders supporters after the WFP endorsement of Elizabeth Warren. As Gray confided near the end of the panel, “it was a crazy day on Twitter” — like all days on Twitter, one could say — “and I’m a little tired as a result of all that.” But this persistent disjunction between media representation and reality was precisely what Gray said propelled her from law into journalism, and then into the Sanders campaign earlier this year.
“What happened in 2016 is, in large part, what is happening again today,” Gray explained at the outset of the panel discussion. “I was confronted with a lot of narratives in the media that jarred extraordinarily with what my lived experiences were.” Near the end of the conversation, Gray returned to this and reflected, “Look, I became a journalist, I started writing largely because I was so frustrated in 2017 by all the ‘BernieBro’ stuff that just wouldn’t go away.” She wanted “to validate what it feels like to be a supporter of someone and be told constantly that you…don’t exist,” since the political community to which she belonged was portrayed as “still somehow ‘bros’ and tyrants.”
Taylor did not mince words about the cause of this establishment hostility towards Sanders, calling it “a concerted effort by the mass media and the leadership of the Democratic Party to try to bury this campaign.” Unlike other DNC-favored candidates, Taylor suggested, “this is an insurgent campaign that the political establishment wants to smother in the cradle.” But Taylor also cautioned against the temptation to “respond to things from bitterness and despair and ‘they’re wronging us,’” instead counseling acceptance of this predictable reaction by a system organized to defend its own survival. “Sanders represents an existential threat to the political leadership of the Democratic Party, and so, of course, it’s dirty tricks season, it’s nasty comments season, it’s crazy season,” she said.
Although Taylor did not elaborate, some have seen the recent spate of “reparations” attacks on Sanders in the media, following the lines of criticism developed in 2016 by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as one such “dirty trick,” functioning primarily as a “wedge issue” to indict the only socialist campaign. Cedric Johnson, professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argued in Jacobin in 2016 that Coates’s demand for reparations undermined Sanders’s universal economic approach to restorative and redistributive justice and imperiled class solidarity. While neither Taylor nor Gray voiced this view — and Taylor unambiguously supported direct cash payments to the descendents of those enslaved — the specter of reparations haunted the event at the Riverside Church, site of one of the most famous appeals for reparations fifty years ago.
As Gray pointed out in defense of Sanders, many campaign proposals advance the aims of “reparations” demands. The campaign’s redistributive policies especially favor black Americans, at the particular expense of rich white Americans, both in their deliberate formulation and also in consequence of the systemically unequal distribution of wealth, debt, and economic opportunity. Nevertheless, Coates’s arguments, which have been multiplied by many others since 2016, presume that class and racial justice approaches are mutually incompatible, or at least that one tends to diminish the other. Gray gestured toward this category mistake, complaining that “intersectionality” is a discursive mode that “often is used as a ‘bully pulpit’ to divorce [race] from a conversation about class as one of those intersectional prongs, and therefore puts us in this kind of holding pattern, where we all are…in agreement that racism is bad, and we need to get past it, but which…binds our hands when it comes to solutions.”
Ironically, this peculiar insistence on a disjunction between class and race also inspired the media backlash against Martin Luther King, Jr., following a speech at the Riverside Church in 1967, exactly one year before he was murdered. The reverend had announced his opposition to the Vietnam War based on a radical class analysis, explaining that he was “compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” The war, he argued, was “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” namely “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” King concluded that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The New York Times condemned “Dr. King’s Error,” arguing that his “fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate” had “done a disservice to both,” in a “wasteful and self-defeating” diversion of “the energies of the civil rights movement.”The Washington Post, Newsweek, TIME, LIFE, and even the NAACP followed suit. To envision racial advancement through the radical restructuring of the economy, to see a conjunction between race and class inequality, was King’s unpardonable sin — as it is Sanders’s.
Obviously, Senator Sanders is not Reverend King, but he did join him in the March on Washington in 1963, and he began his lifelong political activism by organizing around desegregation. Sanders arguably came to focus on economic justice by way of racial justice, just as King did. However, while they both emerged as leaders of national social movements advocating radical reorganization of American society, Sanders is a professional politician, not a preacher, and he avoids “reparations” out of concern for its political “divisiveness,” while King embraced economic radicalism in the face of the open threat of political backlash, even against the advice of his own allies.
Still it would be unjust to suggest that Sanders’s concern about the “divisive” nature of the contemporary “reparations” demands somehow echoes the white liberal incrementalism that King confronted and condemned in the civil rights movement. Rather, the senator’s concern emerges from his central commitment to the conjunction of social struggles — in “talking to everyone who suffers from oppression and exploitation at the heart of capitalism,” as Professor Taylor said, “to build a mass movement of the working class with the fight of the oppressed at the center of that.” Like King before him, Sanders wants everyone who cares about the fight for social justice — including racial and economic justice — to be able to say, “This is our campaign.”
Mat Cusick is a graduate student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program, and a Student Fellow in the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.