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What the Presidential Debate on Race Is Really About

When the Democratic establishment opposes the universal programs in Bernie Sanders’s platform, it’s not because they want to do more to address racism. It’s because they want to do less.

Bernie Sanders speaks while Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg listen during the Democratic presidential debate at the Fox Theatre on July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Anyone who watched the US media dissect the free-for-all of the first two Democratic presidential debates could be forgiven for concluding that while the Left may own issues like health care, antiracism belongs to its opponents. The notion that the Left is less committed to fighting racism than the liberal center is now a commonplace view in American politics. And today, self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders is considered especially vulnerable to charges that he prioritizes economic inequality over racism and discrimination.

That interpretation, however, not only distorts Sanders’s record, it also misunderstands the nature of the divide on this question within the Democratic Party. At base, this isn’t a conflict between progressives concerned about Trump’s bigotry and institutional racism on the one hand, and class-first radicals who focus on economic issues on the other hand. And it certainly isn’t a disagreement between pragmatic advocates of racial justice and socialist ideologues more concerned with fighting capitalism than fighting discrimination.

Rather, the key divide is between left-wingers like Sanders and mainstream Democrats who are committed to maintaining the status quo in American society.

The value of the left-wing approach to fighting racism is perhaps best captured by a speech Sanders gave this past January in South Carolina, at a commemoration of Martin Luther King Day. Barely noticed by the national media, that speech received mention primarily for Sanders’s denunciation of the Trump Administration’s bigotry (as if that was ever in question).

Ignored by media accounts, however, was the singular political perspective Sanders put forward in the speech. That perspective has three key distinguishing features.

First, unlike many of his establishment critics, Sanders understands that racism is not simply a matter of individual attitudes or group psychology — that is, it is not just a feeling people have about other people. That’s why symbolic gestures or expressions of sympathy won’t cut it. Fundamentally, racism is a matter of power and inequality. Challenging it means expanding access to a wide variety of legal rights and protections, and — crucially — dramatically shifting the distribution of resources in society.

Second, Sanders recognizes that carrying out these changes will require ambitious measures that go well beyond the limits of the current political consensus — measures that would, in fact, break with the whole trajectory of American politics since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. What’s needed, Sanders believes, is a mass movement powerful enough to defeat those with concentrated political and economic power.

Finally, Sanders believes that such a movement can only be formed on the basis of an ambitious program of far-reaching reform. As he makes clear in his MLK Day speech, Sanders is quite aware of how pervasive racism is, and he believes that only a profound transformation of American society can really address it. For the same reason, however, he believes that a program that addresses racial inequality also has the potential to attract support from wider swaths of society — not through a narrowly tailored set of modest policy changes, but through a radical shift in wealth and power toward the poor and powerless.

King the Revolutionary

In his MLK Day speech, Sanders began by emphasizing King’s radicalism and willingness to stand for justice against a hostile political establishment. As he told the crowd: “We are here today not just to remember Dr. King, not just to honor Dr. King, but to understand that he had a revolutionary spirit. Yes, he was a revolutionary. And we are going to stand with him by taking on the political and economic establishment.”

Sanders recalled MLK’s decision to come out publicly against the Vietnam War in 1967, describing it as an example of his immense moral and political leadership:

People came to him and said, “Dr. King you’re a Civil Rights leader, why are you going to talk about the war?” And with enormous courage, King said, “how can I preach nonviolence when our country is involved in a brutal war? How can I claim to speak for the poor when we’re spending billions of dollars bombing that country?” And he spoke up, and you know what happened? Editorial writer after editorial writer criticized him. Many of his liberal friends deserted him, the president of the United States turned on him. But he reminded us of the courage of conscience — that we must stand up, no matter what the costs, and take on the powerful, to fight for economic justice, to fight for social justice, to fight for racial justice, to fight for environmental justice.

Moreover, Sanders pointed out, King recognized that economic inequality and racism were inextricably linked. “Racial equality must be central to combating economic inequality,” Sanders said. “Think of where Dr King was when he died. He was in Memphis, Tennessee, standing with exploited sanitation workers. . . . Think of the work he was doing at the end of his life: he was organizing was a Poor People’s March. Remember that? And what he said was ‘we are going to bring together black workers, and white workers, and Latino workers, and native American workers, and we are going to change the priorities of this country.’”

Today, the connection between racism and economic inequality remains strong, Sanders concluded, noting that fifty-six years after the 1963 March on Washington, many of the demands raised by the civil rights leader remain as relevant as ever.

Racism exists in this country today. It exists when the median white family owns ten times the wealth of the median African-American family. Racism is alive when Republicans . . .  and the United States Supreme Court and Republican governors make it harder for people to color to vote. . . . Racism is alive . . .  when we have a broken criminal justice system, and we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth. . . . Racism exists . . .  when we have massive levels of health care inequality, when the infant mortality rate in the black community is more than double what it is in the white community. . . . Racism is there when gentrification pushes out black renters, black homeowners, and black business owners from communities that have lived there for decades. Racism is here, when the United States has the highest rate of child poverty in the world, and 34 percent of black children live in poverty. . . . Racism is here when black schools are overcrowded and inadequately funded.

For Sanders, all of this illustrates the necessity for a dramatic change in the government’s priorities. “We need jobs and education for our young people, not more jails and incarceration,” Sanders said. He listed a series of reform proposals, including a $15 minimum wage, a federal jobs guarantee to provide work to everyone who needs it, universal medical and childcare, decent and affordable housing for everyone, criminal justice reform, and free public universities.

Sanders counterposed this vision to the racism of the Trump administration and the anti-immigrant Right. “Instead of building a wall with Mexico, let’s build housing for all our people,” he said.

But he also made clear that making these proposals a reality required a mass movement to challenge business, the very wealthy, and the political status quo more broadly. As he put it, “it is not a radical idea to say that a country which spends $700 billion a year on the military, which gives a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the one percent and to corporations, to say we’re going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, that we’re going to lower student debt, and that we’re going to adequately fund the historically black colleges in this country.”

Empty Promises

The vision of antiracism running through Sanders’s speech is one that understands racial inequality not as a matter of personal prejudices, but as a social inequality, requiring a major shift in wealth and power. It suggests that redistributive policies, like proposals for a federal jobs guarantee or universal access to decent housing and medical care, are not only class demands, but a means of countering racial inequality as well.

This approach did not originate with Bernie Sanders, of course. Long before him, similar calls were raised by sections of the labor and civil rights movements during the 1960s, and were later adopted by revolutionary groups like the Black Panthers (who included demands like full employment in their famous “Ten Point Program”).

When Sanders’s opponents criticize his focus on “universal” social policies and wealth redistribution, by contrast, it is not because they want to do more to combat racism, but because they want to do less. The difference can be seen in the narrowly targeted policy proposals offered by other Democratic candidates.

In a different way, the gap between the Left and the liberal center can also be seen in the largely empty calls by other Democratic candidates for some form of reparations for slavery. By and large, expressing support for reparations has in practice meant only a general commitment to study the idea, or vague references to the impact of racial discrimination. It has not meant that leading Democratic candidates actually envision giving cash payments to the descendants of slaves (with the partial exception of Marianne Williamson, who wants to distribute reparations funds through programs determined by an “esteemed council of African-American leaders”).

Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro, for instance, have promised to establish committees to make recommendations on providing some form of reparations. Kamala Harris, too, responded to questions about her stance by saying: “I think that the word . . .  reparations . . .  means different things to different people. But what I mean by it is that we need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what can be done.”

When pressed on the practical measures she would take to implement reparations, she has pointed to the “Lift Act,” her proposal for a tax credit for families making less than $100,000. In what way this constitutes reparations is anyone’s guess.

Similarly, Cory Booker has proposed that the government provide savings bonds for all newborn babies in the United States, which they could use to help pay for a home or for college. This, he says, will reduce the enormous wealth gap between the median white and black family, which has only grown larger since the 2007 housing crisis. None of these proposals, incidentally, are explicitly targeted at African Americans (Elizabeth Warren, however, has proposed specific measures to address the historic impact of redlining on black homeownership, as well as the huge disparities in maternal health and infant mortality experienced by black mothers).

What distinguishes most of these candidates from Bernie Sanders is not that they would do more to counter racism, but that they remain wedded to the liberal consensus in American politics. For these candidates, the problem with Sanders isn’t that he’s too focused on class and not enough on race — it’s that his policies are too radical, and too much at odds with the interests of powerful elites.