Black Lives Matter vs. Bernie Sanders

850 - Netroots Nation Protesters
Black Lives Matter protesters at Netroots Nationa. Photo fom Al Jazeera coverage:

About two weeks ago, Bernie Sanders (who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination) had a run in with protesters at Netroots Nation, and things got controversial.

If you’re not familiar with Netroots Nation (I wasn’t), it’s an annual political convention for progressive activists run by the Daily Kos. (Netroots Nation used to be called YearlyKos.) The hecklers came from Black Lives Matter, an activist group that was founded in the aftermath of George Zimmerman‘s acquittal (in 2013) for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin. So you might be a little confused that Black Lives Matter was protesting at a convention of their allies, and that confusion is exactly why the story garnered so much publicity. So, why did Black Lives Matter target Netroots Nation? I’ll leave that to BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullous, who said (in an interview posted at Daily Kos), that part of the reason was that “we wanted to stage an intervention in the progressive movement that’s largely led by white folks around the conversation of having a new racial justice agenda.”

The protest took place during a session which was scheduled to have a pair of interviews two Democratic presidential contenders: Martin O’Malley (former governor or Maryland) and Bernie Sanders. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas was doing the interviewing. While O’Malley and Vargas (but not Sanders) were on stage, Black Lives Matter demonstrators streamed into the room and began taking over. As CNN covered it:

“What side are you on my people?” they sang in unison as they approached.

Tia Oso of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, who represented the demonstrators, climbed onto the stage, secured a microphone, and delivered a speech while O’Malley looked on.

“We are going to hold this space. We are going to acknowledge the names of black women who have died in police custody. And Governor O’Malley, we do have questions for you … As the leader of this nation, will you advance a racial justice agenda that will dismantle — not reform, not make progress — but will begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States?”

“Yes,” O’Malley replied, but before he could say more, the demonstrators in front of the stage shouted over him by reciting names of black women who have died in police custody. While they shouted, O’Malley stood in silence.

The event really showed the tension and strain in the coalition between white Democratic politicians and black Democratic activists. This comes across in lines like this one: “Conference organizers begged them to allow O’Malley to respond.” Then there was O’Malley’s attempt to align with the protesters, which they rejected out of hand:

“I think all of us as Americans have a responsibility to recognize the pain and the grief throughout our country from all of the lives that have been lost to violence, whether that’s violence at the hands at the police or whether that’s violence at the hands of civilians,” O’Malley said, before being interrupted again.

“Don’t generalize this s***!” one person shouted back.

O’Malley’s biggest mistake, however, was replying to the “Black lives matter” mantra by saying, “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.” This was a big mistake, politically at least, and as CNN goes on to report:

O’Malley later apologized for the remarks, telling This Week in Blackness, a digital news site, that he “meant no disrespect” to the black community.

“That was a mistake on my part and I meant no disrespect,” O’Malley told the outlet. “I did not understand the tremendous passion, commitment and feeling and depth of feeling that all of us should be attaching to this issue.”

Things didn’t go any better for Bernie Sanders when he took the stage, and his back-and-forth with the protesters was even more prickly. “Black lives, of course, matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity,” said Sanders. “But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to outscream people.”

There’s a lot going on here, and I don’t want to try and analyze every aspect in this one post. I have mixed feelings, and I’m still mulling things over. I have tremendous respect for the passion of those who stand up and scream “black lives matter” with obvious pain and commitment. I also think the fundamental critique of white Democrats as co-opting and/or ignoring black interests is valid. It’s very close to my own opinion of social justice ideology. I was struck, for example, by the protesters reviling notable figures like Al Sharpton and saying instead that, “My sisters got this.” Most conservative analysis of this protest has been superficial, as far as I’ve seen, never getting beyond schadenfreude in seeing progressive protesters interrupt progressive politicians.

On the other hand, the idea that you have to apologize for saying “black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter” is disconcerting even if it’s understandable, and a lot of the criticisms of Bernie Sanders (O’Malley doesn’t get criticized as much largely because he’s not as politically relevant, I think) are problematic. This article from The Week gets into why: What Black Lives Matter gets wrong about Bernie Sanders.

In the article, Ryan Cooper argues that focusing on race to the exclusion of class is a mistake. He concedes that “upwardly mobile or even wealthy blacks are still routinely victimized by the police,” but then digs deeper into the differences between race and class with some cold, hard numbers.

Consider the criminal justice system, a major focus of Black Lives Matter. One rough way to consider the bias of this set of institutions is by overall lifetime likelihood of imprisonment of men by educational attainment — reasonable proxies for the levels of oppression and income, respectively. A 2009 statistical comparison between two cohorts of men on this measure, one born from 1945-49, and another born from 1975-79, provides a window into how such rates changed, since the latter cohort came of age just as the incarceration rate was reaching its peak.

Over that time, the overall imprisonment risk for men with some college, either white or black, didn’t change much, increasing from 0.4 to 1.2 percent, and from 5.3 to 6.6 percent, respectively. That is a large disparity to be sure, but the numbers are nothing compared to the staggering rates among black high school dropouts, which increased from 14.7 to 68 percent. (White dropouts went from 3.8 to 28 percent.) As Berkeley sociologist Loïc Wacquant points out, this implies that the class gap within race groups is larger than the gap between them. In the 1975-79 cohort, blacks are five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites overall, but black high school dropouts are 10 times more likely than blacks that have completed some college.


Cooper goes on to say that while “there is much bald racial prejudice revealed here… poverty is an equal if not greater factor” and concludes that “Money, quite simply, is power.” He’s right. And, what’s more, the difference matters.

It matters for two reasons. First, because to the extent that we misdiagnose social inequality, we can’t propose policies to fix it. Policies proposed based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem are just as likely to make things worse as to make things better, and can’t possibly succeed other than through sheer, dumb luck. Second, misdiagnosing social problems can, in this case at least, make them worse. To the extent that racism rather than poverty is seen as exclusive or even primary driver of suffering, the understandable reaction is a lot of rage. Which in turn leads to lack of communication, lack of cooperation, and in the end becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of mutual racial alienation.

My point is not that racism doesn’t exist, isn’t a problem, or shouldn’t be addressed directly. Neither is Cooper’s. My point is that there’s a lot more going on than can be explained by racism (even by systemic racism) and that we are in grave danger if we do not acknowledge that fact.