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Friday, February 26, 2016

White Male Privilege in the Democratic Primary

A lot of the Bernie-Hillary debate has recently centered on issues about racism and feminism. The election cycle began with Clinton expecting to win the majority of women and non-white votes.  Bernie's appeal was originally seen to be strongly limited to white males.  Now Bernie's supporters argue that he is more of a feminist and less of a racist than Hillary, hoping he will attract more non-white and non-male voters. The facts paint a different picture, however.  Bernie's supporters are willfully ignoring how white male privilege has supported him in the present campaign and throughout his career.

If you have a few minutes, please peruse this penetrating look into Bernie's career in Congress.  It doesn't shy away from praising Bernie where appropriate, but it exposes several reasons to question the new, pro-Bernie narrative about race and gender. (The section on marriage equality is particularly enlightening.)  The following commentary is meant to complement what is written there.

First up: feminism.

Hillary has suggested that voting for her would be a vote for change, because she is a woman.  Many of her supporters (including myself) see her womanhood as a good reason to vote for her--not the only reason, mind you, but a significant one.  When Bernie was asked about this, he showed a profound inability to understand sexual politics. He said
"No one has ever heard me say, ‘Hey guys, let’s stand together, vote for a man.’ I would never do that, never have. I think in a presidential race, we look at what a candidate stands for and we vote for the candidate we think can best serve our country."
Bernie does not understand that women need to stand together in a way that men don't.  Bernie doesn't understand that he is privileged.  Bernie does not understand feminism.  Yet, despite this, and despite the fact that Hillary has a long and distinguished record of standing up for women's rights all over the world, Bernie's supporters think that he is more of a feminist.  That is depressing.

(I have a lot more comments on feminism and the role of gender in the present campaign here.)  

And what about racism?

Yes, Hillary referenced the "super-predator" theory to promote anti-crime measures against gang violence in 1996. The phrase "super-predator" was a new term for young, violent sociopaths.  Hillary was implying that the surge of gang-related crimes involved severe sociopathic tendencies among black youths. And she was clear that she was more interested in enforcing law and order than she was in addressing the systemic causes of that behavior, though she acknowledged that the causes did need to be addressed.

Hillary's critics are absolutely right to point out that there is racism inherent in her comments.  However, let's be clear about what kind of racism this is.  It is systemic racism.  It is the racism that does not recognize when double standards are being applied.  It is the racism that does not recognize when systemic inequality is at play.  And it is the racism that Hillary acknowledged at the start of her current Presidential campaign, and which she wants to overcome.

Her critics still want an explanation for that fifteen-second soundbite from 1996.  That's fair enough, but it's not like there's a great mystery here.  The explanation is obvious:  Hillary was responding to a perceived need for a tough-on-crime position with respect to gang violence.  This perception was widespread in African-American communities, and it was based on well-documented increases in gang activity.  And, you know, Bernie did the same thing.

Yes, in 1994, speaking in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bernie Sanders praised the same bill, acknowledging the need to crack down on the severe problem of gang violence.  Of course Bernie had strong concerns about it, and spoke passionately about them in April of the same year.  He saw the bill as overly punitive and was rightly concerned about the death penalty and mass incarceration, but that didn't stop him from voting for it.  And even when he was criticizing the bill, he acknowledged the need to lock up those who are "deeply sick and sociopathic."  He didn't use the phrase "super-predator," but that could just be because the phrase hadn't been coined yet.

Hill and Bern both supported the same bill.  They both advocated punitive measures for violent sociopaths.  Hillary used a hip, new word for it which has since become a red flag for systemic racism, but they both sympathized with the African-American communities that wanted a tough response to gang violence.  Hillary emphasized the need to be tough on crime while Bernie emphasized the need to look at the broader socioeconomic causes of crime, but that is a difference of emphasis, not ideology. So what difference matters here?   

Here's one.  When we look at Bernie's views on socio-economics, we do see ideology come into play, and it reveals one way systemic racism and white privilege have informed his own political views.  Immediately after praising the 1994 anti-crime bill in front of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bernie went on to claim that the real cause of crime--the real reason African-American youths were in violent gangs and dealing drugs--was because there weren't enough jobs.  He said, and I quote, that black youths need to "get back to work."  He explicitly said that there is no difference at all between poverty in poor African-American communities and poverty in 98-percent-white Vermont.  This is the "class first" ideology that erases the difference between white and black poverty, and which Ta-Nehisi Coates criticized not so long ago, winning him severe criticism from Sanders' supporters.  Well, Coates was right.  When it comes to race issues, Sanders comes off as severely tone-deaf, at best.  His appeal to class differences has consistently led to a failure to squarely address salient racial issues.  Case in point:  Two years ago, when Ferguson was in flames and the country was reeling over the murder of Mike Brown, Bernie responded by saying that black youths need to get jobs!  

When class is privileged, white males are privileged.

I've been told--by esteemed university professors, no less--that the "class first" approach has a long, reputable history in the labor movement.  True enough, Bernie is an ideological child of the labor movement, and he has inherited its racism, too.  

Here's a little historical context:  In 1892, the Democrats won back the White House, solidifying the racial injustice that defined the Jim Crow era.  In that election, the Populist Party (aka "the People's Party") made an unprecedented (and yet to be equaled) showing.  They were riding heavily on the waves of the growing labor movement.  However, Frederick Douglass had strongly urged Black Americans to stick with the Republican party, to maintain their political unity under the party that had led them out of slavery.  Yet, the Republican party became lily-white and could no longer be trusted to represent racial justice. Black America was divided and without strong political representation.  Some even flocked to the Democrats who had violently opposed Reconstruction, thinking that there was no way out but to make friends with the enemy.  The populist movement was also racist, though.  Major unions were excluding non-whites.  Outspoken leaders in the movement, such as Frances Willard (who chaired the People's Party national convention in 1892), were more interested in women's suffrage and prohibition than in racial justice, arguing that the rapid increase in lynchings against African-Americans was the understandable result of increasing "outrages" against white women by black men. (More African-Americans were lynched in 1892 than in any other year, before or since.) Ida B. Wells came to national prominence that year for challenging the "white purity" myth, and went on to greater notoriety for standing up against Willard's racism.  Yet, the Populist Party and the labor movement refused to take up the banner of racial justice.  Indeed, the labor movement did not challenge the single most dastardly labor issue facing Black Americans:  the convict lease system. Far too few Americans were listening when Wells and Douglass lambasted the convict lease system, widespread lynching and other forms of systemic racism in protest of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.  By the end of the 1890s, Plessy v. Ferguson had been decided and the Populist Party had joined forces with the Democrats.  The labor movement helped ensure a Democratic victory in 1892, the establishment of Jim Crow segregation, and the demise of a national political party for racial justice.  Racial justice would not again be identifiable with a national political party until the Democrats took up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's.  When Bernie was coming of age in the mid 1950's, labor unions were still resisting systematic attempts to make them more racially inclusive, and the struggle continues today.

I'm not knocking Bernie's civil rights record.  However, when it comes to race issues, Hillary and Bernie have decidedly different approaches. Hillary emphasizes humility and the need to listen to minority communities.  This was a big part of her discussion with members of the Black Lives Matter movement back in August:  After being asked how she, as a person, has changed since she supported mass incarceration in the 90's, she responded with two main points: First, she is and has long been committed to helping the disadvantaged, especially minorities and children; second, she thinks the community activists need to tell the politicians what needs to be done.  She does not want to impose her own point of view on the Black Lives Matter movement.  She fully supported what they were doing and saying, but implicitly criticized her interlocutor for asking her to sell "lip service."  Hillary wants to listen, learn and grow, and that is one of the ways she excels.  She does not have the answers for Black America, and doesn't claim to.  She does not offer a "one size fits all" approach to progressive change.  In contrast, Bernie thinks jobs are the answer for everything.  We can thank the labor movement and white male privilege for that.  Bernie does not show humility, patience or a desire to learn from the underprivileged. As a white male representing Vermont, he has not had to.

Bernie's privilege has not only influenced his position on black poverty in America.  It has also influenced his attitude towards immigration and trade as well.  He is not interested in establishing trade partnerships with other countries that could help improve the working conditions of poor laborers all over the world.  He cares only about American jobs.  Bernie is happy to open the door to immigrants, so long as they don't compete for jobs with Americans.  Bernie does not have a vision for global inequality.  He only sees the world that sustains his privilege.  Whatever happened to "workers of the world unite"?

White male privilege serves Bernie well as a representative from Vermont, but it is a liability for one who wants to represent the United States of America.  Yet, as a national candidate reviving the waves of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Bernie's impatience and stubborn-mindedness excite millions of progressives.  Some of his most outspoken supporters share his intransigence, which may be part of the reason they like him so much, and why they don't notice (or don't mind) the double standards Hillary Clinton has faced--not only in the present campaign, but throughout her career.  It disgusts me the way that Hillary's reputation and integrity are casually smeared, and yet so many of Bernie's supporters seem blind to his own limitations.  Many people act like it is safe to assume that Hillary is lying, like Hillary is guilty until proven innocent (a la the email scandal, and now the speech transcript scandal), and that Bernie is innocent no matter what.  They impugn the motives of anyone who questions Bernie's integrity or principles.  I am sure I am not the only one who has been ridiculed on Facebook for merely presenting a critical point of view about Bernie.  I am not the only one who has had friendly comments deleted because they question Bernie's ability to save America from doom.  It makes hope hard for democracy.