Magazine | September 7, 2015, Issue

Bernie and Black Lives

Why a faction of the Left has turned on the Vermont socialist

Black Lives Matter, the loosely organized radical group that sprang up to protest police violence after the Michael Brown killing and similar incidents, is giving the Bernie Sanders campaign fits, interrupting his speeches and accusing the impeccably progressive crowds gathered to hear them of racism.

Senator Sanders, who is challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton from a political stance so far to the left that he remains technically outside the Democratic party — he is an independent and a socialist — has an agenda and a history that should be attractive to the racial-grievance Left: He was active in the civil-rights movement, and, as mayor of Burlington, Vt., he endorsed Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign while the Clinton gang was backing Michael Dukakis and the unions were lined up behind Dick Gephardt. Sanders buys into all the usual left-wing conspiracy theories — e.g., that black Americans are incarcerated at relatively high rates because of the machinations of prison-management companies — and he makes all the familiar noises about “institutional racism.”

Yet in Seattle, Senator Sanders was driven from the stage as activists seized the microphone and demanded that the crowd “join us now in holding Bernie Sanders accountable.”


There is an element of realpolitik here: For black activists on the left, the potential costs of attacking a Clinton are very high, while the costs of attacking an elderly progressive northeastern Jew who represents the whitest state in the union and who is never going to be president are relatively low. And the Clinton people are better at politics than the Sanders people are, and have proffered such sops as private meetings with the candidate to head off any public confrontation.

Part of the trouble in Seattle had to do with conditions on the ground. As in places as different as Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, African Americans in Seattle have helped ensure decades of virtually uninterrupted progressive government under effectively unchallengeable Democrats (Washington hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1981; Seattle hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the 1960s), but life has not improved very much for the city’s small black population. As in progressive San Francisco, in Seattle blacks are much poorer than average and are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites. And even considering their 7.9 percent share of the population, they are notably rare among progressive officeholders: The Democrat who boasts of being “the only woman of color in the state senate,” like the celebrated socialist recently elected to the Seattle city council, is a well-off immigrant from India.

State senator Pramila Jayapal, who was one of the speakers at the interrupted Sanders rally, noted in the pages of the Stranger, a Seattle newspaper, that Sanders “knows he comes from a very white state, and he’s a 70-plus-year-old white guy.” She perceptively explained that Senator Sanders’s problem is that he is offering an economic analysis where something else is wanted. “His primary lens for all of his work . . . is economic. . . . But the deeper comfort with talking about race and racism is harder.”

This is in no small part a contest over control of the Democratic party’s internal levers of power. Van Jones, the self-described Communist and “rowdy black nationalist” who was momentarily a controversial figure in the Obama administration, explains that the two traditional competing Democratic factions — the purportedly moderate and business-friendly Clinton wing and the class-warfare wing represented by Senator Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren — are seeing their duopoly challenged by a “racial-justice wing” led by Black Lives Matter and activists supporting young illegal immigrants. In a CNN commentary, Jones argued that the emerging racial-justice wing is “highly suspicious of both” the Clinton camp and the Sanders-Warren economic populists “and finds the clueless hypocrisy of the second to be particularly grating.” It is interesting that the Sanders approach rather than the Clinton approach is considered especially offensive, given that Sanders has had so little in the way of real power compared with the Clintonites. “It is fair to hold Sanders to a higher standard,” Jones writes, because “unlike Hillary Clinton or Martin O’Malley, the central conceit of Sanders’s campaign is that he represents a voice of moral clarity against skyrocketing inequality. Any fair discussion of ‘income inequality’ must necessarily include a denunciation of our racially biased criminal justice system. Always.” Jones is here being polite: Mrs. Clinton does in fact share Senator Sanders’s conceits about economic inequality, it’s just that nobody believes her to be sincere in anything besides her desire to win the election.

One of the problems with Senator Sanders’s economics-centered view is that economic propositions are to some extent verifiable. Senator Sanders’s economic thinking is daft, but there are at least some real data documenting the foundation of his complaint that there is an increasingly wide gap in wealth and income between the very well-off and the average American household, and an even more dramatic separation between the affluent and the poor. Senator Sanders remains somewhat oblivious to the fact that this is a global reality, in the Scandinavian welfare states he so admires as elsewhere. (Sweden’s wealth distribution is about as tilted toward the top 1 percent as the United States’, or slightly more so, depending on how you do the math. It also has a more hereditary character.) Senator Sanders’s analysis may be cracked, but it is a fact that incomes at the top have been pulling away from the middle for some time.

Conversely, it is not clear that there is an actual fact at the root of Black Lives Matter’s complaint. That black Americans are mistreated by the police as a result of racial bias is held as received wisdom, but there are not that many compelling data to support it. “I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back,” declared Toni Morrison, displaying the humaneness for which leftist protest movements are famous. As it turns out, the evidence suggests that she is getting her wish. Peter Moskos, a scholar at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, ran the data from May 2013 to April 2015 and found that, in terms of gross numbers, whites were killed by police far more often than were blacks. A study by the left-leaning ProPublica found much the same thing. Adjusted for population size, blacks appear to be killed at higher rates than whites; adjusted for rates of violent crime, blacks appear to be killed at lower rates than whites. Writing at RealClearPolicy, Robert VerBruggen considers the intriguing possibility that this is partly a reflection of slightly higher rates of mental illness (and hence suicide-by-cop) among whites; as he notes, the Washington Post has been tracking every police killing in the country and has found that one-third of whites killed by police had a history of mental illness, as opposed to one-sixth of blacks.

But as in the case of the fictitious campus-rape epidemic (women on college campuses are in fact statistically less likely to be raped than are women in other contexts), the (probably) fictitious story of black Americans’ being disproportionately victimized — and outright murdered — by racist police officers isn’t about facts and figures: It is an invitation to affiliation and a demand for fealty. In the same way that the fictitious campus-rape epidemic has been used to shift the conversation away from rape to the chimera of “rape culture,” reaction to the killings of Michael Brown et al. is part of an effort to move the conversation away from identifiable episodes of racial discrimination, which are today relatively rare, toward investigations of amorphous and faceless “white supremacy” and “white privilege.” What Black Lives Matter wants isn’t a rigorous analysis but a morality play, and in this case it is essential to the conventions of the genre that evil take the form of a white man such as Senator Sanders.

Senator Sanders has been trying to assuage the critics. He put a young black activist from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice on his payroll and rolled out a “racial-justice platform” incorporating the familiar wish list: racial quotas in police hiring, putting local institutions under political discipline via the Justice Department, etc. He goes right to the point, which is that if Black Lives Matter wants something, and if they are willing to give him grief, then it should be a national priority to give them what they want: “At the federal level we need to establish a new model police-training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country. With input from a broad segment of the community, including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter, we will reinvent how we police America.” Senator Sanders would bring an interesting perspective to that project: Vermont is 95 percent white and just over 1 percent black, and its rates of violent crime, by most measures, place it among the lowest three states in the nation.

But no matter what he says or does, Senator Sanders is a white man offering himself as a leader to a movement that does not wish to be led by white men. The American Left long ago inverted the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous standard and began to judge friend and foe at least as much by skin color as by character content. Compounding that, Sanders is an economic populist offering himself to a movement that spurns economic analysis in favor of identity politics and fears definable solutions so intensely that it refuses to consider definable problems, in part because the definable problems suggest definable solutions unamenable to the movement’s political interests: Who is the mayor of Baltimore, anyway? Of Cleveland?

As Dara Lind put it at Vox: “Identity-based progressivism is ascendant in American culture, but economics are still the heart of progressive politics.” The Left was destructive enough when economics was at the heart of its social analysis, and its current obsessions — sure, Caitlyn Jenner is a prominent transsexual, but a white, privileged transsexual! — suggest that things are going to get much worse. Mrs. Clinton probably thinks that this is good for her, which it may be, if she is not looking beyond Election Day.

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