Something amazing is happening. We are finally talking about racism. And I mean really talking about it. We are asking why it is, that in the US, black people are targeted significantly more than white people in terms of police violence. We are talking about institutional racism, wherein every single year we see little to no racial diversity in the academy award nominations. We are talking about symbolic racism, in which academic institutions seem to see nothing wrong with commemorating racist historical figures. It is not a coincidence that these conversations are taking place at the same time because we are in the midst of a powerful international movement called Black Lives Matter, which is taking a battering ram to every single racist barrier you can think of. But it is also going for the ones you might not have thought of, because now it is forcing us to introspect as we examine the places we thought were free and open spaces.
Senator Bernie Sanders is undoubtedly a symbol of progressive change in American politics today. He is staunchly against fracking and seeks a radical climate policy. He is concerned about income inequality and an advocate of universal healthcare. He is strongly pro-choice, sticks up for LGBTQ rights and supports free education. And he is of course in favour of racial equality having been involved in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Yet, despite this, he has been targeted by Black Lives Matter activists. And now it seems black voters are overwhelmingly rejecting his progressive message and are instead supporting the establishment’s candidate, Hillary Clinton.
We are finally talking about racism. And I mean really talking about it.
In the spirit of the movement, it is important to ask why. And I don’t mean asking why black voters see Hillary Clinton as a better option—the answer to that has been covered a few times. I am asking why black voters don’t think that Sanders’ cause speaks to them.
Maybe it’s because it doesn’t.
Of course many of Sanders’ policies have the potential to benefit Black Americans. For example, he talks about tackling income inequality, which he has recognised is an issue that disproportionately affects black people. But blanket policies, such as tackling youth employment and raising minimum wage, fail to target the thing that makes it disproportionate. That thing is racism. Which manifests in the process of moving up the economic ladder, when people are looking for jobs or trying to find a good education. And this is something that all black people experience, not just those who are impoverished. To Sanders’ credit though, he has turned his attentions to the problem of racial discrimination in police brutality but his tactics for dealing with it do not go far enough.
The other problem is not so much with Sanders as it is with the wider movements he supports. If you think about climate change, it is often portrayed as a race-neutral issue. It evokes images of polar bears, rising sea levels and wind farms. But the fact is, the problems of climate change are very intertwined with those of racial inequality. Studies have shown that Black Americans will be disproportionately more affected by climate change as they are more likely to be living in areas which are susceptible to pollution, heat-waves and other extreme climatic events. And what’s troubling still, is that racial discrimination may play a role in disaster response. We know this from when hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans—a city that has a predominantly black population, when we saw heart-wrenching accounts of black lives being ignored during the relief process. We see from this that racial inequality is not a relic from a more intolerant time but is a product of racism that still prevails today.
Racial discrimination manifests in the climate crisis in the world arena. Many countries in the Global South will be affected (and are already being affected) by climate change. This is because people’s livelihoods in these places are more likely to be based on resources that are sensitive to climatic shifts.
Failure to include these stories result in people of colour feeling alienated from the cause which means these voices are left unheard. Furthermore, it can make it appear as if their stories don’t matter within these movements, with many still seeing climate change as a separate issue from racism. During London’s climate march in December, the Wretched of the Earth bloc—representing communities from the Global South, had to go through a gruelling process to be allowed to march at the front, only to be told last minute that they couldn’t (thankfully, they did it anyway and their empowering account of what happened on the day can be found here).
When our movements do not encompass cultural differences then people from different backgrounds cannot relate to them, cannot endorse them and are alienated from them.
This problem can go further still, when white voices are the only ones channelling these movements, it means when social progress does eventually occur, it leaves people of colour behind. For example, whilst gay rights have improved dramatically over the past few years, racism within the issue has not. Last year the charity GMFA surveyed gay men in London and found that 80% of the black men surveyed had experienced racism on the scene.
When our movements do not encompass cultural differences then people from different backgrounds cannot relate to them, cannot endorse them and are alienated from them. This is why Bernie Sanders has only been able to champion white progressive values, whether he means to or not. And although it might be too late for him to address this, it is not too late for everyone else. Appreciating that black lives matter goes beyond condemning racism but rooting it out, even if it means having to confront our own prejudices. We need our white-washed movements to start nurturing some colour, by inviting people from all backgrounds into the space, so that each person has ownership over the parts of it that are rightfully theirs.
Featured image: Elaine Thompson / AP