Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem

Bernie Sanders’ recent decision to express his opposition against reparations for African people is yet another example of why he has struggled to appeal to African voters. That Sanders is against reparations isn’t surprising. Sanders expressed opposition to reparations the last time he ran for president as well.

In the interview above Sanders did speak of some of the things that should be done to address racial inequality in America. He is not as blind to this issue as many politicians are. In 2015, Bernie Sanders visited Baltimore and spoke about how the conditions in Baltimore resembled Third World countries. I felt that this was profound given that after two terms of a black president conditions in inner cities around the country could still be described as resembling conditions in Third World countries. This was a reality that Hillary Clinton and the others in the Democratic establishment did not seem to want to confront, but the fact is that after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency African people around the country are still struggling and still suffering.

On the campaign trail Obama gave impassioned speeches to encourage African people to vote, but then what? That has been the problem with the Democratic Party. African people have been supporting Democrats for a long time and have gotten relatively little in return for this consistent support.

This problem has been going on so long that in the 1960s Malcolm X was criticizing African Americans who continue to blindly support the Democratic Party. Everything Malcolm said could be applied to politics today.

The African masses are looking for a candidate who will address their concerns. On a superficial level Sanders does appear to be that candidate. He’s an independent and a democratic socialist who has consistently spoken out against wealth inequality. This is part of the problem. Sanders is in many ways the typical white leftist who speaks of issues such as wealth inequality and class, but operates from a very Eurocentric world view which neglects the particular challenges that African people face. This is not a new problem. C.L.R. James and George Padmore ran into similar problems with the white left. Padmore’s problems with the white left caused him to abandon communism altogether in favor of Pan-Africanism. Anton Lembede had little use for the working class theories of the white left in South Africa because “Africans are not primarily oppressed as workers but are oppressed on the ground of colour or race.” Lembede also asked: “Supposing a labour government came into power today, would the African trade unions be recognised tomorrow?”

The white left only saw issues in terms of class, but often failed to realize that Africans are oppressed on the basis of race. Collectively there is no African bourgeois anywhere in the world which dominates the means of production at the expense of the white working class. Even those dictators in Africa like Paul Biya and Faure Gnassingbé maintain their position through the aid of Western nations. African people do not have the luxury to discuss class issues independently from racial issues because both class and race are important factors in our struggle for liberation.

African leaders have always had the confront the reality that the white leftists who speak of class and wealth inequality have never really be interested in the liberation of African masses. We have always been a secondary concern for the white left and Sanders is another example of this.

Sanders was involved in the civil rights movement and this is sometimes used to demonstrate how progressive Sanders was on racial issues in the 1960s. Sanders attended the famous march in Washington D.C. where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Sanders was also a member of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Therein lies one issue with Sanders’ position of race. Sanders was involved in the civil rights movement to the extent that the movement was preaching a message of integration, but as the 1960s went on the movement moved in a more radical direction. King was having a dream, but as Malcolm X explained, the African masses in America were living a nightmare. This nightmare caused many to move in a more militant and uncompromising direction. The focus of the movement changed from a demand for civil rights to a demand for Black Power. Even Martin Luther King himself began moving in a more radical direction, which including denouncing the Vietnam War, denouncing America’s capitalistic system, and calling for reparations. Civil rights was no longer enough. The entire system had to be altered, either through revolutionary reforms (as King advocated) or through an outright revolutionary overthrow of the entire system (as the Black Panther Party advocated).

Was Sanders involved in this more radical aspect of the movement? I have not seen any evidence to suggest that he was and this was precisely why SNCC decided to expel its white members. It became apparent in the 1960s that white liberals would support the civil rights movement to the extent that the movement was not threatening to empower the African masses. This is why King and other civil rights leaders were more acceptable to the American power structure than Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Stokely Carmichael, and other more radical voices were. This matters because to this day Sanders remains comfortable with civil rights, but uncomfortable with Black Power, which is why he justifies his opposition towards reparations by explaining that reparations is too divisive.

On an international level Sanders denounced apartheid in South Africa, but what are Sanders’ views on what the Economic Freedom Fighters are doing in South Africa? Will Sanders oppose the attempts to retake the stolen land in South Africa in the same way that the Democratic Party opposed Zimbabwe’s land reforms? Sanders’ opposition to apartheid was a matter of opposing racism and segregation, but will Sanders be as comfortable supporting initiatives and programs that are meant to empower African people? This is not just a question of domestic policy, but a question of foreign policy as well.

I mentioned earlier that many notable leaders in the African struggle have had problems with the white left. This includes King himself. In his famous letter from Birmingham Jail, King wrote:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

It’s not enough for Sanders to speak to African voters about jobs and wealth inequality. We need radical systematic change, and Sanders is not speaking to that because he does not recognize how corrupt and racist this system has been. Think about the fact that Sanders named Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as his influences. Roosevelt was a segregationist who refused to support anti-lynching legislation. Roosevelt also appointed Hugo Black, a former member of the KKK, to the Supreme Court. Black wrote the majority opinion for Korematsu v. United States which was a Supreme Court case that upheld Roosevelt’s order to intern over 100,000 Japanese for no other reason than the fact that they were Japanese at a time when America was at war with Japan.

Churchill’s legacy was even worse. Churchill was responsible for the starvation of millions in India. Then there’s the fact that Churchill overthrew the democratically elected government in British Guiana. Sanders’ political influences are men who were apologetically racist and imperialistic. This demonstrates that Sanders doesn’t see the world in through the same lens of the victims of American and Western racism see the world.

Sanders also attempted to defend white people who were uncomfortable with voting for Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams. Sanders stated:

I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American.

Isn’t feeling uncomfortable with voting for someone because of their race exactly what being a racist is? Even Nina Turner, who is the national co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, had to call Sanders to correct him on this point. Simply put, Sanders is out of touch with the African experience in the United States. Sanders has learned from his mistakes and appears to be trying a new approach to win over African voters, but that is part of the problem. Sanders’ outreach to African voters is not organic. What is organic and natural about Sanders are his views on wealth inequality in America because he’s been preaching the same message for decades. Sanders has never preached a message of black empowerment, even in the 1960s when he attending King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Cornel West claimed that Bernie Sanders represents the legacy of Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer, but what does that mean in real politics? You can’t simply attach Sanders’ name to famous activists from the 1960s and expect that to appeal to voters. Sanders himself isn’t even attempting to represent the legacy of the activists of the 1960s. He partook in demonstrations against segregation and I am not trying to downplay or dismiss his activism, that appears to be Sanders’ only link to the struggles that were being waged by Africans in the 1960s.

I will give Sanders credit for his consistency. Unlike most in the Democratic establishment, I think Sanders is sincere when he speaks about wealth inequality in America. I also think that Sanders’ stumbles regarding racial matters also come from a place of sincerity. Like many on the left, Sanders simply does not understand the African struggle. He understands class, wealth inequality and socialism, but he does not understand that historically when the white left has engaged in the type of rhetoric that Sanders engages in, such rhetoric was not meant to include African people. The white working class in America got a New Deal under Roosevelt, but the African masses got a raw deal. We are legitimately concerned that Sanders’ democratic socialist vision will just be more of the same.


Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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