Memo to White Liberal Sanders Supporters: Denial Doesn’t Help

It seems like I every time I try to drum up some positive virtual ink for Bernie Sanders himself I feel obligated nevertheless to scold his supporters.  I have repeatedly taken to task the Bernie-or-Busters (Bernie Sanders supporters who have the silly idea that pledging to write in Sanders’s name in the general election if he is not the Democratic nominee is going to do any good for anyone).  Please feel free to explore this blog further to find examples of my doing just this.

Now I feel obliged to respond to this article in the Washington Post which describes the ongoing problem of Bernie Sanders supporters being racist toward black voters they are trying to persuade.

The thing is, the article is correct.  It’s spot on.  And no amount of denial is going to change that.  Sanders supporters need to agree on some fundamental things; otherwise, I predict that white liberal Bernie Sanders supporters will continue to alienate people of color on the campaign trail.

We need to agree on three things.

First, white liberals are capable of being racist.  I know this may come as a shock to some people, but it’s true.  Even staunch Bernie Sanders supporters are capable of being racist.  Don’t believe me?  As much as it pains me to do this, because I used to believe in this man, I used to support his program by word-of-mouth as best as I could, and I used to correspond with him on a regular basis, I say look no further than white liberal Mike Malloy, who is a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter.  Watch this video, especially at 4:22, where Mike Malloy calls Black Lives Matter activists “thugs and punks”.  Malloy obviously has not gotten the memo that “thug” is the new n-word in right-wing code.  Shame on you, Mike.

Second, black people don’t owe it to Sanders to vote for him.  I know Sanders marched with Martin Luther King.  In fact, one white liberal Sanders supporter that I read on-line literally asked “Don’t they know he marched with MLK??”  People of color do know that, white liberal Sanders supporters.  Guess what?  They’re not actually all that impressed.  As one person I was talking to on-line today pointed out, that was fifty years ago.  When you lead with the MLK meme, there is a good chance that it could backfire.  It sounds as though you are suggesting, white liberal Sanders supporters, that this makes Sanders support a requisite for black voters.

Third, there is such a thing as the white savior narrative.  Narratives that work in film and books and theater also happen to work really well in the theater that is politics.  White liberal supporters of Sanders have to be aware of this narrative.  Out on the campaign trail it is very easy for a white liberal, unaware of his or her own racist attitudes and white privilege, to begin to whitesplain to a person of color why Bernie Sanders is the very best candidate that they could possibly support.

Now, I am white.  I do not presume to speak for people of color.  But I am a white guy who is aware of his white privilege and his male privilege.  So I want to use that privilege responsibly and to help be a voice that can level the playing field for marginalized voices.  With that said, here is my advice from one white liberal supporter of Bernie Sanders who is aware of his white privilege to white liberal supporters of Bernie Sanders who may not be.

One.  Please be aware of how you’re coming across to people.  Don’t lecture.  In fact, this is probably good advice across the board, whether you’re talking to people of color or not.  Nobody likes being lectured.  Indeed, I am probably contradicting myself by lecturing here.  But there’s a difference between a blog post you’re choosing to read and a one-on-one interaction on the campaign trail (or the virtual campaign trail).  It is especially imperative one-on-one to be aware of one’s tone.  How one says something is as important as what one says.

Two.  Listen.  Be prepared to do a lot of listening.  A lot of people of color may not be supporting Bernie Sanders, and may be supporting some other candidate, and may have good reasons for that support.  You have to be aware that your candidate— Sanders— is an insurgent running against other people who have been on the national scene longer, and have garnered a certain number of loyalties because of that.  You may not convince every voter to abandon those loyalties and support Sanders.  I think it is better to listen respectfully, agree to disagree if you have to, and move on.  There is always the chance that voter may change his or her mind later and support Sanders down the road.  That voter certainly will not support Sanders down the road if you try to bully or badger him or her into it.

Three.  You might want to point people to Sanders’s own policy statement and just let that speak for itself.  That shows that you respect the other person’s intelligence enough to make up their own mind without being harangued.

People often vote for candidates not on the basis of the candidates themselves, but on the basis of the experiences they have with those candidates’ supporters.  So when the reports come in from the media that Sanders is having trouble connecting to people of color— and the problem may be that he is poorly represented by some of his white liberal supporters— do we just live in denial of that?  Or do we examine ourselves, examine our white privilege, and make adjustments to how we approach people?

White liberals have a great propensity for feeling ashamed when their privilege is pointed out to them.  Don’t be ashamed.  Be aware.

2 thoughts on “Memo to White Liberal Sanders Supporters: Denial Doesn’t Help

  1. It should be pointed out to the author that many African Americans don’t know who Bernie Sanders is, so how could they possibly know he marched with MLK. Yes, once they are informed of this fact and the rest of Sanders record, in an informative, non – condescending manner, you would think they would be convinced.

    The art of politics is being persistent without being annoying and displaying intelligence without condescension.


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