Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and Why Identity Politics is the Left’s Cancer
by Benjamin Studebaker
A few days ago, Black Lives Matter activists took a microphone from Bernie Sanders at one of his campaign events, called his audience “a bunch of white racists”, and demanded a 4 minute moment of silence for Michael Brown, the black victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri:
Sanders marched in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and has made economic inequality the signature issue of his campaign. By attacking an allied politician in this uncivil way, Black Lives Matter is damaging the cause of racial inequality in America. This is a counterproductive and misguided strategy. I said this on Facebook a few days ago. Most of my Facebook friends agreed with me, but a couple disagreed, and they were quite uncivil about it. I also found their arguments morally and politically disturbing. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this, and I find myself increasingly coming to the conclusion that identity politics as currently practiced does not serve the interests of anyone, even the people it is intended to help.
I want to start by pointing out that racism is real and a very serious problem. The concerns that Black Lives Matters raises are real and important. There are powerful statistics that establish the reality of the problem:
- Blacks are 31% more likely to be pulled over than whites.
- Blacks are more than twice as likely to be searched by police.
- They are nearly twice as likely to not be told why they have been stopped.
- In Baltimore specifically, blacks are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested than whites.
- Blacks are 4.2 times more likely to be killed by police.
- Black teenagers are 21.2 times more likely to be killed than white teenagers.
Obviously, black lives matter. Obviously, this is morally objectionable. But reasonable people can disagree about how racism operates and how we ought to deal with it. There are a lot of people, both in the academic world and in society more generally, who believe that the way these activists are trying to solve this problem is at best ineffective and at worst deeply counterproductive. We don’t hold this view because we don’t care about black lives or because we don’t understand the pain and suffering felt by blacks. And yet, whenever we express this disagreement about tactics and strategy, the knee-jerk response of some people is to immediately assume that we are questioning the methods because we secretly are not fully committed to the goals and do not fully understand the seriousness of the problem. Here are a couple excerpts from the comments I received that illustrate this issue:
Ben, when I read your status I read it as ignorant and incredibly condescending. Another White person talking about the Black Lives Matter Movement like he or she can understand it or can make sense of it through his/her limited perspective…
You argue they are hurting themselves. But you do not understand no one can hurt them anymore, they are past hurt. They are past trusting another politician. They are on a different planet than I think what most non-people of color can comprehend. You have to understand how deep the mistrust, hurt, and anger goes. The people of color who still believe in America will support Bernie. But there are so many, oh so many, people of color who do not believe in America, in any politician because they now believe they have no other choice but to dismantle the structural racism that exists here. Their idea of productive is very different than yours. Their idea of productive is fighting the systematic oppression. And that means creating protests at any possible candidate’s speech, no matter the political party, because all political parties have historically contributed to the system of racism. Yes they want to improve their situation, but they don’t want to do it by following America’s rules anymore. They do not see that as counterproductive – they see this as productive and liberating. Of course you can judge them Ben, it is a radical perspective -BUT I believe to judge and to critique them without understanding it is to seriously misunderstand the people and the BLM movement. And that is why I am posting this because I don’t believe you understand….
This is typical of the identity politics movement today. If you disagree with something these movements do, it is because you don’t understand the pain or suffering that they are in. Because you are not them, and have not felt and experienced what they have felt or experienced, your view is invalidated. Or, as another comment put it:
You and I need to stop talking about what poor people of color should or shouldn’t do because you and I don’t have to deal with the same realities as poor people of color. Different groups of people will always be allowed to express their concerns and the backlash that follows from other, different groups of people.
This kind of thinking is taken for granted by practitioners of identity politics, but it’s really extraordinarily radical. In effect, these people are claiming that if you do not share the experiences of another person, you cannot judge them and anything they do is permitted.
Maybe you don’t agree with me that the Sanders disruption was counterproductive, but if you don’t, you should be able to give me reasons why you think the disruption was constructive. These folks could not do that–all they could do is tell me that I am not fit to morally and politically evaluate the behavior.
If we export this thinking to any other aspect of life, it becomes very clear that this is a deeply flawed argument. If a husband beats his wife because she made him angry, is it adequate to respond with “you and I need to stop talking about what angry husbands should or shouldn’t do because you and I don’t have to deal with the same realities as angry husbands”? If your teenage son starts using heroin because he’s feeling bullied or depressed, is it adequate to respond with “you and I need to stop talking about what bullied or depressed teens should or shouldn’t do because you and I don’t have to deal with the same realities as bullied or depressed teens”? If voters elect a fascist, racist, or xenophobic party because they’re afraid of economic instability and blame minorities or outsiders, we surely can’t just go “you and I need to stop talking about what economically frightened voters should or shouldn’t do because you and I don’t have to deal with the same realities as economically frightened voters”.
This seems obviously wrong on a basic level, and yet there are a number of deeply committed people who seem to believe this, but only when they’re talking about identity politics and in no other context. It may be true that these activists disrupted Sanders because they were really upset, and it may be true that husbands beat their wives because they’re really angry, that teens try heroin because they’re really depressed, that voters elect fascists because they’re very frightened. But these are just explanations–they’re not good reasons for doing anything.
Contemporary identity politics no longer recognizes that our psychological motivations and our moral reasons are very different things. We can have moral reasons to do or not do things that we psychologically don’t recognize. We can have psychological motivations to do things that we have no moral reason to do or strong moral reasons not to do. This is why we can have meaningful discussions about what people should or should not do in the first place–the moral reasons people have for doing or not doing something are independent of what any person believes. If something will make you or society happier or unhappier, better off or worse off this gives you a reason to do it or not to do it whether you think it does or not.
Bernie Sanders has a long and storied record of standing up for the interests of the poor and marginalized:
- He was arrested in 1962 for protesting segregation
- He participated in the March on Washington
- 40 years ago, he called for gay equality
- He opposed Clinton-era welfare reform
- He voted against cutting off prisoners from federal education funds
- The NAACP gave him a 97% rating
- He supported Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988
- He’s continually condemned police violence over and over in the last year
- He’s consistently opposed efforts to disenfranchise black voters
- He wants to end for-profit prisons, decriminalize marijuana, and end the war on drugs
- He has proposed a youth jobs bill that specifically targets blacks and Hispanics
It is counterproductive to oppose a candidate with that record given that all the other candidates have significantly weaker records. It is not an effective or reasonable response to dismiss this claim on the grounds that I’m white or male or affluent. Making this claim does not imply any failure to understand on my part. The presumption that it does only shows how rigid, dogmatic, and closed-minded identity politics has become. One of the core reasons it is so good to oppose racism is that racism causes us to judge people not based on the quality of their ideas but on their skin color. If we can dismiss an otherwise good idea because it comes from a person who occupies a favorable social position, why wouldn’t we be able to dismiss an otherwise good idea because it comes from a person who occupies an unfavorable position? Instead of tearing down group barriers, this kind of political thinking reinforces them.
More interestingly, some instead argue that Sanders’ campaign is too focused on the economic aspects of racism and insufficiently focused on the aspects that identity politics campaigners pay attention to. This highlights another core problem with the identity politics viewpoint. If we think about where racism comes from, there’s a core question that is always at its heart:
“Why am I and the others like me so much more powerful and prosperous than this other group of people? Why do we have higher social standing? Why is it possible for us to exploit them, and is it moral for us to do so?”
Racism is a simple explanation that excuses exploitation and mistreatment. Throughout history, powerful and prosperous groups have always held racist beliefs about weak and poor groups. Many of the Greeks thought the Romans were inferior, many of the Romans thought the Germans were inferior, many of the Germans thought the Jews were inferior, many of the Jews thought the Palestinians were inferior. As soon as the power relationship changes, the oppressive dynamic soon follows. If we want to eliminate racism, it follows that our goal ought to be to ensure that different groups are as equal as possible in power and prosperity. It’s for these reasons that Bernie Sanders makes economic inequality the focal point of his campaign. It also helps that by talking about economic inequality in broad terms, Sanders can attract a lot of support from poor and middle class whites that he might struggle to retain if he broadcast his message in overtly racial terms. It may be true that poor blacks and Hispanics will benefit more from Sanders’ policies than whites, but this is not something that it is tactically useful for Sanders to emphasize.
Sanders’ opponents allege that this isn’t enough. Even if the races enjoy equality of resources, opportunities, and outcomes, people will still be inclined to judge other people based purely on the fact that they look different. But at that point, how is race any different from any of the other arbitrary aesthetic bases we use to put people into groups and decide who to approach or befriend? When you decide who to talk to in a room, you look at that person or listen to that person and quickly size them up based on a lot of factors that are unfair and don’t necessarily paint a particularly accurate portrait. We are drawn to the people we think look attractive and are repelled by those we deem ugly. We are drawn to those with pleasant voices and repulsed by those with unpleasant ones. It can be based on the way we dress or on what TV, movies, or music we like. We think some people are nerds, jocks, emos, metal heads, punks, rednecks, yuppies, preps, dorks, frat boys, geeks, basic, hipsters, toffs, hippies, greasers, gangsters, valley girls, and any number of other things based on very minimal information about what they look and sound like. Perhaps you weren’t familiar with all of those terms, but each one you were familiar with likely conjured some image in your mind, some ideal type. We are drawn to the people who look and sound like ourselves or like the sort of people we’ve been friends with in the past, and we shy away from people who look different.
Dunbar’s number indicates that human beings can only really conceptually wrap our minds around about 150 people as individuals. After that, we start dumping them into groups, forgetting and minimizing them as individuals. In a world with full economic equality among the races, we would still sort people on arbitrary aesthetic bases, and this would still cause a lot of people to feel alienated and sad from time to time. But race would just be another one of those bases–just another identity distinction among dozens, perhaps hundreds. What makes race so politically important is that the racial distinction goes beyond social dynamics–it influences people’s economic opportunities and outcomes, their living standards and quality of life. If we eliminated that economic disparity, we would eliminate the aspects of racism that make it important and special. We would never be rid of it entirely, but we would be rid of the aspects of it that really matter.
The identity politics crowd can’t see this. They have become more concerned with promoting specific language and ways of talking about race over supporting the policies and politicians that will really make a difference to those who are suffering. They say that their critics don’t understand the suffering, but I think it is they who fail to understand it–they trivialize economic hardship by comparing it to the offense people feel when others say things they don’t like.
The left needs to build a solidaristic coalition that bridges all identity groups. Everyone who is poor, working, or middle class, whose share of opportunities and resources is too small, who is trapped in poverty, in some dead-end job, or under the burden of some heavy debt, all of these people have core interests that they can best pursue together, not apart. The left has always sought to show people that they are really more similar to each other than they think, that they have more reason to care about each other than they think. Identity politics is not about that. It is about splitting people into smaller and more insular subgroups and “safe spaces”, about rejecting anyone with different views, about conflating the discomfort we feel when our opinions are challenged with the serious oppression that the genuinely suffering feel everyday. It is not left wing. It is a cult, an intellectual cancer. And because these folks are so aggressive and so hostile, so condescending, patronizing, and demeaning, the rest of us all allow this relatively small number of people to dictate how we talk about race and oppression. Instead of challenging the real systems of oppression that keep people poor and marginalized, we play language games and distract ourselves with petty news stories about the latest “outrageous” un-PC thing some miserable person said that must be “called out”. We are splintering and in-fighting amongst ourselves and allowing the right to have its run of the place, distracting ourselves with the politics of blame and shame. Could the conservatives and republicans have asked for a better gift?
Given all of that, it should be unsurprising that the individuals who disrupted Sanders turned out to be radical Christians and Sarah Palin fans. If I were a right winger, I’d encourage this kind of counterproductive fake-left political activity every chance I had.