To liberal white Americans, Bernie Sanders represents the salvation of the American Dream. In a time of staggering inequality, the only independent Senator in America — and quite possibly the only self-identified socialist — feels like a dream candidate.
His pedigree standing up to powerful interests is perhaps the most impressive of any American politician, and his history of support for protecting the middle class is —in contrast to the biteless bark of many politicians — entirely refreshing.
So when Black Lives Matter protestors disrupted several recent events of his, Bernie Sanders supporters criticized them in droves. In their minds, the protests represent exactly the sort of in-fighting that has earned liberals the reputation of not uniting as well as conservatives, and losing out as a result.
On top of that, Bernie Sanders supporters seem baffled why protestors would come after such a liberal politician, rather than more corporatist candidates like Hillary Clinton, or the party of apparent racism, Republicans.
By asking these questions, they reveal the massive disconnect between black and white voters, and black and white America.
Bernie Sanders is — in one sense — a progressive, inasmuch as he envisions a world where politics is less dominated by the “ruling class” that corporations and the 1% have set themselves up to be. He is certainly a progressive for his vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, and for presiding over one of the first states to legalize gay marriage. He is a progressive for his support of paid leave for childcare, illness, or even — *gasp* — vacation. He is a progressive for his focus on the survival of the American middle class and — cheesy though it may sound — The American Dream.
And for all that and more, he has earned my vote. Bernie Sanders could be caught on camera calling Obama “a dirty nigger”, and I’d probably still vote for him. Why? Because he represents economic and social ideals I don’t see anywhere in the face of American politics. Because if it’s him or Hillary Clinton, I’ll take the candidate without Fortune 500 puppetmasters any day. Because if it’s him — if it’s any Democrat — vs the circus car of Republicans…
And it is precisely his progressivism that makes him a good target for such protests. Bernie gets it, gets the struggle in a way most politicians don’t. Motivated by recent critiques of his campaign’s silence on race, his recent speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference touches on many issues of race both explicitly and repeatedly. He critiques the criminal justice system for over-policing. He critiques the educational system for failing young Americans.
It is Bernie who hears from these protestors because it is Bernie among the frontrunners who might actually welcome black Americans into the political fold. It is Bernie who is so close to understanding the root of structural and cultural racism and yet so far.
Does anybody believe Hillary Clinton — with all of her political clout — is going to be swayed by a few protestors? Does anybody believe that any Republican candidate might stop for even a moment to consider catering to a radical black movement?
It is not despite Bernie’s liberal nature, but due to it that he is the cracked door which black America can shove its foot into and demand to be let in. And the success of these protests has already been seen, with Bernie Sanders hiring a black activist to his campaign and adding a section on racial justice to the platform on his website only yesterday.
But — despite all of the praise I have just heaped on him, I hope it was quite clear that a massive “but” was coming — his take is far from perfect. He does all of this with the veneer of “this is an American problem which happens to fall disproportionately on black Americans”, and by doing so, he misses the deliberate history of racial neighborhood segregation, or the fact that social programs were consistently attacked by evoking images of minorities taking advantage of white society, or the fact that the War of Drugs is largely a war on brown and black people.
He is a regressive for the same reason I called him a progressive for: his focus on the American Dream.
Bernie Sanders represents a movement that sees the American Dream as broken. In words alone, this aligns him with the words of many black activists, not to mention Kanye West:
The system broken, the schools is closed, the prison’s open.
We ain’t got nothin’ to lose, motherfucker we rollin’
However, Bernie Sanders sees the American Dream as incidentally broken, but rests on its successes over the last several hundred years. This differs from how movements like Black Lives Matter see the American Dream, as being fundamentally broken due to its reliance on exploitation of blacks.
What the American Dream represents is a sort of violent assimilation that focuses on the issues of white, nuclear, homeowning families.
Housing segregation, redlining, and race riots kept blacks away from home ownership by force, confining them to devalued ghettos and systemically excluding them from the American Dream.
Bernie Sanders wants to revitalize the American Dream, to restore it to its past glory. He wants to re-paint the white picket fence, bring home a new dog, and have money at the end of the day to spring for curtains and a guest room.
Noble a goal though it may be, the American Dream has always left black Americans outside the fence looking in. By protesting his speeches and criticizing his often race-blind platform, they aren’t critiquing his dream. They’re asking to be included in it.