By Nisha Umesh:
It has been a little over a year since the extra-judicial killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s murder was the spark that unfortunately necessitated chants of “Black Lives Matter” across the United States of America. The phrase brought national attention to the ways in which the United States criminal justice system consistently fails black Americans, and that black lives in fact do not matter to the police and prison system at large. With the 2016 U.S. presidential race picking up speed, activists in the movement have taken to challenging candidates and testing whether they are on the end of seeking justice or siding with the complicity of the American criminal justice system.
The first to be tested is Democratic candidate and Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.
“Bernie says that he’s all about the people and about grassroots…The biggest grassroots movement in this country right now is Black Lives Matter,” said Marissa Johnson, a Black Lives Matter activist as she interrupted Sanders during a rally in Seattle, Washington. Alongside Mara Jacqueline Willaford, she called for a four and a half minute moment of silence from the crowd to honour the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s slain body lay on the streets of Ferguson.
This was met with general discomfort, at best, and virulent racism, at worst, from the primarily white liberal audience. As the audience booed at the protestors and chanted for Sanders to come back on stage, Johnson and Willaford would not relent in demanding the audience to recognize the pervasive nature of institutional racism.
This is not an isolated incident for prior to the Seattle rally, Black Lives Matter activists stormed the stage at Netroots, an online organization of progressive activists, presidential forum while Bernie Sanders was speaking, again calling attention to the alarming rate at which black people are being killed and so easily disposed of in the U.S.
We see the playing out of respectability politics within the white liberal support of Bernie Sanders. As Fredrick C. Harris, professor and director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University says, “The politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.” While many white people can seemingly espouse “progressive” politics, they follow the status quo and refuse to speak out openly and honestly against injustice. Instead, they police black Americans for forcing dialogue around racial injustice, claiming that progress will merely come about via electoral politics, and that they shouldn’t “alienate” Sanders from their cause.
However it is important to note that addition of the racial justice component to Sander’s platform was added merely as a result of the actions at Netroot and Seattle. This is a clear indication that only by allowing black people to enter spaces and make their demands where they are not welcome is how we will be able to progress and go forth with dismantling anti-blackness.
Bernie Sanders politics has the potential and promise to benefit people of colour in the United States. Being South Asian myself, I must be critical of how his politics will affect my own community. Via the racial justice platform proposed by Sanders, there is promise for anti-blackness within my diaspora to be called into question. We are not centrally affected by racism as black folks are, so as they are lifted up, we will be as well following behind them. Structural racism carried out by South Asians can be dismantled as black folks are liberated from the effects of white supremacy.
Many components of Sanders’ political platform will benefit the black and brown working class, such as making higher education more affordable, increasing minimum wage, decreasing taxes for the working class, etc. However his politics still lacks depth in regard to a critical analysis of race and how our systems and institutions need to be reformed to benefit people of colour. There is still much to do with setting an agenda to reform and work against the industrial prison system, police brutality, racial profiling, etc. While this is heavily lacking, Sanders offers the most promising platform for reform that the other candidates do not. Hopefully as the elections near, the focus will be around racial justice as it is time that people of colour be liberated from the grapples of systemic and institutional racism.