The Bernie Sanders Kerfuffle, #blacklivesmatter, and White Progressive Colorblindness

Bernie-Sanders-Black-Lives-Matter-2869-700x467I lived for nearly 25 years in Portland, Oregon. There I staffed an organization dedicated to fighting vigilante white supremacists. In order to fight the white right, we built a base that was made up almost entirely of white progressives. I also served as the Executive Director of the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, a financial resource for progressive causes in Oregon. The foundation is supported almost entirely by wealthy white progressives. During my years in Portland, I also worked to end the prison build-up through a group made up of incarcerated people and their loved ones. The prison population in Oregon is disproportionately Black, but majority white.

Portland is not far from Seattle, a city I lived and worked in while I served as a program officer, and eventually the director, of Social Justice Fund Northwest, a five-state regional public foundation dedicated to progressive causes, especially the cause of racial justice. That group also had a base of donors that was primarily white and progressive.

The Pacific Northwest is so overwhelmingly white that some jokingly refer to it as the Great White North. In a region where white people are so overwhelmingly the majority, racism becomes all the more difficult for the white majority to see. Even when it becomes visible, it’s all to easy to ignore.

In my years in the Northwest, I found that pointing out racism can result in retaliation, even from left-leaning whites. I was sometimes labeled a provocateur, or, worse, accused of creating fictions in order to use innocent people I was falsely accusing of racism as whipping boys on whom to vent my anger over something else.

I say this to make a point: I know something about white progressives. I may even be something of an expert on the subject, though I can’t claim objectivity because, over the years, many of them have become close friends. More than anything, what I’ve learned is that we’re all just human after all.

It was these years of experience that made the much discussed disruption of a mostly white rally in Seattle featuring Bernie Sanders by #blacklivesmatter activists last Saturday of such interest to me. The disruption catalyzed an exaggerated version of the same racial dynamics that loomed large in nearly every struggle I have been involved in in the Northwest. And, as usual, to no good end.

Moreover, the discussion following that incident feels like it’s turned into a referendum on a whole movement, bordering even on a contest over the primacy of race or class in progressive politics; a contest that has been waged since, well, forever in terms relevant to this moment. All that incited by two Black women, just two, saying something that we should be listening to if we really do believe that Black lives matter, no matter how or to whom they said it, and maybe especially for just those reasons.

We should be listening if we are concerned about the crisis of racism in America because acting on that concern must begin with consideration of our own racism. And isn’t that the demand that angered folks the most?

If we don’t begin there, we are misunderstanding how deeply rooted and ubiquitous racism is in America. We are a profoundly racist state, founded upon native genocide and race slavery, divided by a civil war fought over the simple proposition that Black people are human beings, and today, still, a country deeply divided over issues that disproportionately affect people of color – issues like immigration, mass incarceration, drug criminalization, Islamophobia, the so-called war on terror, welfare, food stamps, educational equity, Obamacare (on which the deepest divisions are in the blackest states of the South). And the list goes on.

In such a state, do we really suppose that racism is only a problem of other people?

Many white progressives sincerely long for racial reconciliation and justice. I think I’ve had intimate friendships with enough of them over years of nurturing the activist aspirations of white progressives, and assuaging the fears of white mothers with children in prison to know that well enough. Their ideas about race are often muddled, but their confusion makes them no less sincere.

The trouble with white progressives, and I mean as an aggregate and not individually, was demonstrated by what went down at that rally. Racist diatribes, booing, counter-chants of “All Lives Matter!” In fact, enough commotion among the mostly white crowd to make two little Black girls backstage fall into the arms of State Senator, Pramila Jayapal, crying in fear.  The trouble is, too many whites can’t seem to see that white progressive politics is identity politics, which means it is rooted in the white experience, just as much as is Black movement politics, Asian movement politics…all politics. The personal really is political, not just for women and people of color, but for everyone. And white is an identity forged of fear of the other and entitlement to race privilege.

If you agree, then consider this. Maybe when white progressives see a man like Bernie Sanders, a courageous leftist undertaking the bodacious act of running for president as a self-proclaimed socialist, they identify with him not just as a progressive, but as a white man – as representative of them. Sanders, in this scenario, serves as a redeemer of white identity, lifting it above racist, reactionary, angry white conservatives who have so dominated our political culture.

By doing so, maybe Sanders is feeding not just a desire for vindication, but a sense of entitlement to recognition and respect that can’t be separated from whiteness without some winnowing. Maybe.

But that’s just a theory. What I will venture to say is concretely true is that regardless of what drove the vitriolic reaction on that day, it was a mistake, and those who are criticizing the movement for Black lives as lacking in political savvy and organization in the wake of that incident are holding those women to a double standard. Those white progressives did just what I’ve heard many white progressives accuse those women of. They let their emotions overtake them, and made the confrontation all about them, and not the greater good.

Reacting as many in that white majority rally crowd did polarizes things with too few people on either side of a two-sided fight between two as yet minority (that we dream will become majority) interests, making enemies of natural allies while allowing the conservative opponents of both sides to position themselves as the reasonable majority. That’s a lose-lose proposition.

We progressives may be growing as a portion of the electorate, but we are still underdogs in an uphill fight. We can’t afford to alienate our natural allies, and, have no doubt, people of color whose interests have been forged in the fires of racial injustice are natural allies of the progressive cause. We understand justice and have less to lose and more to win by laying it all on the line for progressive change.

You want to be our friends, not our enemies. Sometimes, that means you gotta lose to win. And have no doubt, you’re not going to win us over by simply trying to envelope us in a race-blind progressive agenda.

For many white progressives, getting right with this reality will mean having to figure out how to address race and class at the same time. I know  a lot of folk find that a rough road to walk, but it might help to consider this: race is a form of class.

American white supremacy was invented as a system of labor exploitation. It is rooted in slavery, which classed blacks as chattels. But, slavery was the means, not the end, where white supremacy was concerned. Racism justified and greased that race-based labor exploitation system, but was not it’s primary intended product. White supremacy was created to produce profit.

Under white supremacy, all are classed by race, not just those who are most exploited, but their exploiters as well. And within each class, all are equal by virtue of culture and biology, or at least that’s the original idea.

So, that means that a poor white person is equal by race to Donald Trump, even if the gap in power and wealth between poor and even middle class white people and Mr. Trump is as wide as the wealth gaps of some whole countries. Relying on people to lean on white rather than push back against that inequity within the white class is the gambit of the elites who most benefit from white supremacy, and that makes the cause of ending racism an issue of economic justice for everyone, including white people.

If white progressives can’t get with this idea, that gigantic, gaping hole of inequity, a hole leveraged in no small part by racism, will be next to impossible to close. In fact, believing that class trumps race limits our ability to close that gap. It is a form of blindness, of color blindness in fact, that is against the interests of white working people as much as it is against the interests of people of color.

So, if you want to come good on this issue, listen up. Rather than sit paralyzed over the perception that the movement for Black lives isn’t making demands, isn’t organized in the way you’d like it to be, is, in fact, what all movements are, especially at this early stage, which is a cultural phenomena, not a single political organization, here is another way of understanding what went down in Seattle and is going down and will continue to go down all over the country.

The movement for Black lives is a call for justice beginning with an end to state violence against Black people. That means police accountability among a wide array of other issues.

Those issues have been around for generations. Black leaders have been fighting to end racial profiling, harassment, violence, and mass incarceration for decades. In fact, these demands have been made in explicit, detailed terms again and again at every level of government for as long as there has been an NAACP, the Urban League, and numerous other Black-led national policy advocates, and hundreds of local Black-led organizations active at the city and state level. Specific proposals have been presented, specific demands put on the policy making table and presented to the general public, repeatedly, and largely to no avail.

That Black leaders have been willing to rise above the humiliation of being patronized and tokenized while their issues have been ignored – that so many have stayed in the fight in the face of this – is nothing short of amazing. It is a demonstration of political maturity and determination from which all of us can take a lesson.

Black voters are so vital to the Democratic Party that even here in supposedly liberal California, Senator and liberal icon Barbara Boxer owes her seat to Black voters, and Black women voters in particular. Without Black voters, she can’t win, nor can a Democrat hope to win the presidency in 2016. Yet, as a Party, Democrats have done next to nothing to earn those votes except make the Party out to be the lesser of two evils.

What this amounts to is exploiting Black oppression. Yes, I know it’s not the intention, but the road to rally disruptions is paved with good intentions.

Now, at last, the movement for Black lives has created the context within which those who have been advancing policy solutions to end the incredible police violence and over-criminalization and incarceration faced by Black people are now just beginning to get a real hearing. This after decades of struggle, including the fifty year long conservative rollback of Black civil rights, and the decades of exploitation of anti-Black racism on the part of both Republicans, especially in service to the Southern Strategy, and Democrats (remember Bill Clinton, anyone?).

If folks don’t know what the issues are behind the movement for Black lives, they haven’t been paying attention. In fact, by asking, they are making the case that saying All Lives Matter rather than Black Lives Matter just doesn’t cut it. It shows us that we’ve talked about “all” people as though there are no Black people for too damn long.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

19 replies on “The Bernie Sanders Kerfuffle, #blacklivesmatter, and White Progressive Colorblindness”

Scott, well written. This is the struggle, for whites to own racism as a “white problem. I didn’t ask to be born into white privilege or an alcoholic family but I need to accept both be for I can move on. I can easily get stuck in angry, hurt resentment ; “Where’s my white privilege?” or “Why do I have to clean up this mess? I’m not the alcoholic.” Yet I have a responsibility to clean up the mess and hurt of both mainly by owning, learning from and sharing my experience.
Racism is not about race in the same manner that rape is not about sex. Both are about power and its abuse. Power abuse shares many features with drug and alcohol abuse. Threaten an abuser’s supply of power or drugs and they will react with angry denial and violence to maintain their supply. My “qualifier” spent 5 years at OCI and is on parole for attempted manslaughter of a woman who got between him and his drugs. The Seattle crowd response to the BLM take over was angry and aggressive. These two situations are same-same, differing in degree and not in kind.
I share this as an older white male to my people as truly the crisis we need to face.


I enjoyed your article. The topic is so serious and real for many people, including me. I am aware that pointing out racism can lead to defensiveness from some liberals (not all), or anyone who thinks she/he isn’t racist. Anyone who challenges the “norm”, for example, could receive vengeful consequences. I know because I experienced unpleasant words from some liberal college classmates (of diverse races) when I openly discussed the prejudice found in the reading assignment.

Whenever someone feels threatened by reality, they don’t want to hear about the racism because they refuse to believe that people actually experience prejudice today. It’s too bad, though. It does happen to people. By ignoring issues, it makes it so much easier for people to pretend that their own prejudice doesn’t exist. I think that is the real problem. As long as people refuse to believe that their own biases exist, the more the issue will exist. Also, having that sort of attitude contributes to the problem. As human beings, though, we all need to self-refect and to understand others. In this way, we will take off the blinders and connect better with people.

The behavior of white people does not support the idea that their ideas about race are often muddled, that they have some confusion, or that they are sincere about working toward justice. White people often promote those ideas among non-white people to promote confusion — in order to prevent non-white people from adequately understanding racism (white supremacy) and what it means to be/function as “white”. The defensiveness, aggression, deflection, denial, white terrorist acts, the reaction like the one at Sanders’ rally, and so on are all *deliberate* ways white people practice racism.

I agree that those white “progressives” (their behavior says they are racists/white supremacists) identify with Sanders as a white man (but not as a “progressive”), as a promoter of confusion and promoter of the behavior they displayed, otherwise they probably wouldn’t be there to show their support.

If anyone is confused it is non-white people (victims of racism/white supremacy), not white people.

White people today don’t believe or show with their behavior that All Lives Matter anymore than their “Founding Fathers” (“Founding Racists/white supremacists”) believed that “all men are created equal”.

All liberation movements begin with entitlement — the realization that one is entitled to full participation in the political process. The “hijack” is a longstanding tactic (used by activists of all persuasions) to force open the dominant political discourse (in this case white progressive) to include voices in the margins. It is generally the result of repeated attempts to achieve political representation via less disruptive methods that meet with resistance and dismissal.

Really great article!!

The theory that Bernie is seen as a great white hope, a redeeming figure to us white progressives is spot on I think. Especially in light of blatant racism happening with the republicans.

White progressives have a long way to go in terms of coming to terms with the privilege our skin has afforded us. The scars of slavery and Jim Crow will always be present but if we can really be honest and unafraid to be uncomfortable maybe the sting can lessen. That’s my hope anyways.

Thank you!!

So you provide still another opportunity for white progressives to feel guilty and yet another opportunity for the left to gaze unhappily in the mirror. And as Black Lives Matter raises consciousness among the tiny choir of enlightened pink-skinned sympathizers, time, effort, and goodwill go swirling down the drain of real-politik. Yesyesyesyes: Black Lives Matter is right. Their message is important. But, like Donald Trump, they have it within their power to sink their allies and promote their enemies. And they’ve made a good start toward doing just that.

Sorry but white progressives don’t get to decide that they are the allies of POC. Alliances can only happen when both (all) sides agree to it. The Seattle disruption was an act of civil disobedience designed to negotiate the terms of that agreement.

Guilt breeds resentment. Try insight instead.

What is sinking progressive prospects is embracing the idea that a white-skinned white-haired male progressive candidate is being put upon when asked to listen to women of color or indeed anyone who differs in any respect from himself: that he’s doing great when he asks his people if he “has to” state that black lives matter or claims to be so with it that he tweets, when he clearly has a staff taking dictation. And by the way those women were not at all like Donald Trump. Yes, they can sink a pompous Bernie, blown up with his own sense of entitlement. His love for his own voice. But such a Bernie — a progressive in analysis only — should be sunk. He needs to wake up and realize it’s essential to back up the language of equity with a genuine respect for the people he wants to elect him: for their issues, for their suffering, for their history, for the fact that they don’t need a mouthpiece. They have the power of speech. They need a place at the mike.

Would you have said the same things if the young women had protested at a Donald Trump speech? If they had interrupted a Hillary Clinton $2700 a plate fund raiser dinner? It’s difficult to see why blaming Bernie Sanders for being invited to a rally in a public park in down town Seattle (freely accessible to all people) was a bad thing in the long run. The young women said their piece. Bernie stood back and allowed them to speak and he didn’t. They accomplished what they set out to do. Why continue to berate Bernie Sanders and his supporters then? Do you really want Trump and his ilk in the White House? How will that help Blacks, Whites, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Undocumented Workers or anyone?

I don’t normally engage in arguments on this comment thread, but your response here is just way, way, way off the mark. First of all, in answer to your question, yes, of course I would be very happy to see activists of the Black Lives Matter movement disrupt Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Why do you think that would be a bad thing? That’s what you suggest here.

Second, I didn’t blame Bernie Sanders for anything. I happen to know some of the rally organizers. They’re friends of mine. I also support Bernie Sanders among the current Democratic candidates. If the primary election were to happen tomorrow, he’d get my vote. That’s why I referred to him as “bodacious” and “courageous.” I consider him to be a rarity in our politics: a person of principle and conviction, even if I sometimes disagree with him. I’m not berating Bernie, but I am trying to point to a dynamic that repeats itself over and over again among progressives – that is that the dominant progressive agenda in the U.S. is race-blind when it comes to Black lives, which is something Bernie himself has acknowledged.

But what I truly object to in your response is this: you seem to be suggesting that criticizing Sanders or his supporters (in this case, who knows if they were or not since the rally was a celebration of social security and Medicare, not Bernie Sanders) is giving the election to Trump. That’s just inflammatory. It says, if you criticize the least of all evils (from the perspective of those who feel that our issues aren’t being addressed adequately at all and stand at risk of police violence, deportation, etc.), then you are for the most of all evils. That, my friend, is a silencing tactic. Anyone running for president should welcome criticism. Criticism is the basis of accountability. Similarly all of us as individuals should be open to criticism, and I welcome that criticism, but not if it’s telling me I can’t be critical or I’m a Trump supporter. That’s just bullying.

Though, that said, thanks for making my point. Your response absolutely typifies the knee-jerk response to anti-racist criticism of many of the left.

I appreciate your article, Scott. What you write is always thoughtful and balanced.

I leave you with a question as a friend to a friend: Might you also have a blind spot? Is it possible there are progressives who do not especially identify with Bernie Sanders; who understand the many ways racism and white privilege manifest themselves; who are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement; who understand the tactic of disruption; and who feel joy at the emergence of new leaders of color — but who nevertheless disagree that disrupting Sanders’s speech was the right thing to do?

I’m one of those progressives. Can we simply agree to disagree? Do all of us who were appalled by the actions of Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford need to be marched to re-education camps? Unfortunately, so much of what I’ve read on both sides of this controversy has struck me as arrogant or dehumanizing, your article being a welcome exception.

One of the great ironies of this particular political train wreck is that Sanders was about to deliver a speech on Social Security, a program under constant attack by the right. This program provides essential income to 4.5 million African American seniors. I know that in my hometown there’s a predominantly African American zip code where the average life expectancy is 55 years — an obscenely low number. I leave it to greater minds to estimate the number of elderly black lives we lose each day to the effects of poverty, an issue on which Bernie Sanders has few equals.

A good analysis. No doubt some in the crowd felt that the black women were stealing away precious media time for an already marginal candidate needing some badly-a fair complaint. But it’s the reaction based on race that’s interesting coming from many “progressives.” White progressives in some ways are not as far from white conservatives on matters of race. I discuss the limitations of antiracist education on my own blog and offer some solutions. Defensiveness, deflection, and denial, for example are common responses even among today’s supposedly more liberal white youth. Antiracism has definite limits as a viable strategy for real change. One key question is how does it translate into practical, concrete benefits for the very same minorities that are at issue..

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