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Where the Bern is Fizzling

By       Message Alfredo Lopez       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   13 comments

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In the recent New York primaries, Bernie Sanders experienced some very cold water thrown in his face. Not only did he lose, and soundly, but he was served a major lesson about one of the primary deficiencies in his campaign.

While the pundits joined his campaign organizers in attributing Hilary Clinton's victory to her past as Senator from the state, most have ignored the problem the this defeat laid bare: Sanders' campaign is weakest among people of color and, among black people, it has virtually no constituent support.

In today's United States, you can't become the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party without that support. Bernie doesn't have it and probably won't get it and so those of us who support his candidacy -- which merits support for his integrity, thinking and progressive commitment -- are left to analyze why and observe with frustration what could have been. Had Bernie Sanders done a few things differently, he could well have been our next President.

Bernie Sanders at Tindley Temple Chapel in Phila
Bernie Sanders at Tindley Temple Chapel in Phila
(Image by rob kall)
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The tale of woe spins on a problem that will plague the Democratic Party from now on if it doesn't make the needed adjustment, an adjustment that movements of struggle all over this country have been trying to make for the last 15 years. It starts by answering a simple question: What exactly is the role of people of color, particularly those of African descent, in American politics and how does a progressive campaign like Bernie's recognize and address that role?

There's an old saying leaders in movements of color use in talking about the white-dominated sections of the U.S. left: "When do we get to sit at the table?" It refers to the ritual among left-wing movements in which white people, mainly men, get together around an issue, formulate the strategy and positions, and then start searching for a "representative" person of color to join their leadership. It has been the norm in some movement politics for almost a century. In fact, it continues today among many movements including those around technology and the protection of Internet rights and, well, Bernie's campaign.

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That "tokenist" approach is a problem on many levels. For one, it ignores the enormous impact of black leadership in so many critical movements -- quite possibly the majority of these movements. It emanates, not from bad faith or purposeful exclusion, but from the fact that the Left of this country, as much as any institution we have, is segregated. Movements led by white people and those led by black people have historically failed to unite. That is tragic because, on those occasions when they had united, they've won.

It's a lesson the Left and progressive mass movements are now learning. During the last 20 years, black leadership and leadership of other peoples of color (abounding as a result of affirmative action education and the rise of the social justice movement) have taken over many of the major struggles in this country. The segregation has continued in some quarters but there is clearly a preponderance of leaderships of color in, to name just a few, the struggles over media control, survival of cities, labor and workers' rights, women's rights, land rights and the rights of people to determine the use of their local environments -- all of these are led by people of the global majority.

Enter Bernie Sanders, a brilliant politician who is so forward-looking in so many places that it's perplexing that his campaign hasn't made that adjustment.

When activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, one of the country's major movements of response and resistance, demonstrated at the Netroots Nation conference in 2015, Sanders took the most progressive line of the candidates confronted but was still clearly flustered. The opportunity to make a statement that would win over those activists and impact the thinking of people of color nationally drifted by him in a cloud of confused embarassment. He tried but nothing he could come up with would work and that's because he just didn't understand what to come up with.

Instead, in a move that actually angered many movement leaders of color, he appointed a black woman to his campaign leadership -- exactly the attitude that has tokenized the dinner table for so many decades.

Voting results show it hasn't worked and the many activists of color who support his candidacy have been left frustrated. Clearly most left-wing activists of color support him because, as he points out, the program he espouses would positively affect all lives, including the lives of their communities. Supporting the most progressive Presidential campaign in modern history just plain makes sense for an activist.

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But the key here is not to win activists' and leaders' support but to arm these activists with a program to mobilize the millions of people they work with, organize and, in the unstructured process that makes movements successful, influence. They need the ammunition and Bernie has left their gun barrels empty.

What, then, should he have done? The "quiet conversation" among movements of color is that he should have eschewed the "join our table" tendency and consulted these people early in his campaign: called them together to develop the relevant planks of his electoral platform. And what would they have told him? To avoid the "trickle down" politics he has espoused and speak on the "particular issues" that affect their peoples. There are many of them but, to illustrate, let's take three.

Reparations -- This is controversial because most people in this country don't understand it. No one is asking the government to send a check to every black family or to "pay them off" for what racism has done. This is about building a program of vitalization of black lives because people of African descent have played a decisive role in the economy and social success of the United States and they have gotten nothing but inequality and pain in exchange.

In the murky debates around race and racism, what is often lost or not even broached, is the role people of African descent played in building this country's economy through the production of its principal and most lucrative crops to the development of a sophisticated banking system in which black people themselves were the collateral.

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.

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