So Barack Obama is “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” He’s “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” and “a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” Those are the words of Cornel West, an African-American academic whom Bernie Sanders invites to campaign beside him.
And Sanders’ fans wonder why Bernie isn’t catching on with black and Latino voters. They argue people of color just need to know their hero’s “positions.” They’d learn that if Sanders were to win the Democratic nod and be elected president, he would do more for them than any other candidate out there.
Wait one second.
Everyone is entitled to criticize Obama’s policies, but beating him up in racial terms is crude and unfair. Being black himself does not excuse West from the racial extortion he practices. (By the way, why can’t an African-American be a Rockefeller Republican if he so chooses?)
Not only hasn’t Sanders condemned these remarks but also his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, defends them. Weaver says of West: “He’s a forceful voice for understanding the intersection of racial justice and economic justice. He understands very well Bernie’s message.”
Boy, are these guys tone-deaf.
That’s the problem with movement politics, no matter what end of the political spectrum they occupy. Movement politics tend to be narcissistic and dictatorial. They allow dissent only within a narrow philosophical band. That constrains the ability to hear through others’ ears.
Mother Jones magazine related the story of how Sanders swatted down a fellow Vermont activist for posing an innocent but off-script question. It was during Sanders’ 1972 run for Vermont governor that Greg Guma asked Bernie why he should vote for him. Guma recalled Sanders responding: “If you didn’t come to work for the movement, you came for the wrong reasons. I don’t care who you are; I don’t need you.”
Sanders has much mellowed since then, but he still inhabits a self-righteous cocoon that has made him an ineffective and marginal figure in the Senate.
Even Democrats express frustration at working with Sanders, an independent who caucuses with them. Moderates bristle at his moralizing and refusal to make compromises required to pass needed legislation. The undeniably liberal Barney Frank, former rep from Massachusetts, complained of Sanders’ “holier-than-thou attitude.”
Bernie’s positions on civil rights have been close to impeccable, but his history with nonwhites is more complicated.
Back in 1960s New York, black radicals weren’t keen to sit at the knees of white intellectuals and be told what’s what. The ensuing tensions prompted many white radicals to flee to the more accommodating hills of Vermont. Sanders was one. There’s no gentler way to put this, but they were part of the era’s white flight.
I’m not crazy about the term “white privilege,” but there is something to the notion that middle-class whites get a pass on the sort of “bad choices” that ruin black lives.
Jeb Bush consumed prodigious amounts of pot in his dorm room at the elite Phillips Academy with no legal consequences. Had a poor black teen been caught doing the same thing on his front steps, he might very well have gone to prison. He couldn’t have served in the Army, much less as commander in chief.
Sanders has a son born out of wedlock. In 2015, that is not a disqualifier — certainly not if you’re a white male. If you’re black (or female), I couldn’t imagine such a detail going so little noticed.
I know that Bernie people are going to howl at me for this unflattering portrait. I ask them how they’d react to Donald Trump’s defending race-studded attacks against our admirable president.
They may insist that to know Bernie is to love him. Well, love can be blind — and deaf.