Privilege and Oppression

How to Talk About Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter


Photo: Tiffany Von Arnim via Flickr (Creative Commons)

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground.” ~ Frederick Douglass

On Saturday, August 8th 2015 two activists with Seattle’s Black Lives Matter activists disrupted a Bernie Sanders speech to call attention to the role of structural racism and to recognize the 1-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown.

Their action has drawn immediate analysis and posts on everything from whether the tactic was “strategic” to the background/”intentions” of the disrupters themselves.

How many of us supporters of Bernie immediately jumped to his defense just because he is our favorite candidate for President? We say “he marched with MLK” and he is proposing policies that will support all lives.

How many of us took offense that the activists focused on Bernie, when “Hillary and especially the Republican field are much worse?”

How many of us “felt bad for Bernie” and looked for any way to discount the disrupters’ actions?

How many of us tried to silence their voices by “booing,” “chanting,” or even “calling for the police to make arrests?”

These and so many other comments are similar to what I’m sure many of us have heard over the past few days, especially (though not exclusively) in predominantly White spaces.

Instead, we should be discussing the best ways we can propel racial justice in this country as our first priority. Once we are sure we are doing everything in our capacity to dismantle unjust systems of Whiteness, then we can consider other dialogues.

Until that day comes, here are a few ways I remind myself of how to engage in critical conversations around race.

1. Be Willing to Accept Criticism (Even When It’s Not On My Schedule)

Discussing race for many is a sensitive topic, so it can be doubly difficult when someone points out how we can do better.

I know for me it’s much easier, though not easy, to receive feedback when I ask for it instead of when someone else brings it up on their own. We need to be understanding and as graciously as we can to accept criticism even when it comes at times when we aren’t expecting it.

2. Act on Feedback

I think Bernie showed this well by releasing a racial justice platform the day after the event. This proved the point of whether the disruption was strategic, since Bernie actually listened and acted (In addition, the Black Lives Matter Netroots disruption of Bernie is what stirred him to start developing the platform).

Now we don’t all have the opportunity to release a policy platform, but we can all lend our support for one and get involved in efforts to bring them about.

3. Amplify Rather than Silence Marginalized Voices

If the worst thing the activists did was prevent Bernie Sanders from making a few speeches, that surely seems justified to bring attention to the death, incarceration, and fundamental injustices faced by Black lives in the United States.

I think this is a needed conversation for all us, and we should be using this time to reflect and take action.

In particular for those who identify as “progressive” we have to support the Black Lives Matter movement and its push for racial justice. We must avoid solely discussing economic issues.

I actually think Bernie Sanders is doing a good job moving in the right direction (after actions focused on him), so we need to follow his example and actually respond to the calls of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Even if we disagree about the Black Lives Matter disrupters’ phrasing and context, we should be recognizing the courage of these women to bring this narrative to the forefront.

Those of us who identify as White often have the privilege to choose when we engage in conversation around race. This often results in fewer deep and challenging reflections on our systems of Whiteness.

The activists on Saturday made sure people at the rally, and those who support Sanders, heard their message for racial justice.

Now we have a choice of whether to listen.

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+