Sanders and Systemic Racism: Did he Answer the Critics?
In the CNN Town Hall, Bernie Sanders acknowledged he could have been stronger in his approach to racial inequities; he was asked if he supported reparations for descendants of African slaves – a discussion with Jacqueline Luqman, Eugene Puryear, Norman Solomon, hosted by Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
On Monday night, Bernie Sanders had a town hall; a CNN town hall. And we’re going to be discussing various segments of that. And if you’ve joined us previously, you’ve probably seen some of these segments. But we’re going to deal now with Bernie and the African-American vote. And here’s a clip from the town hall.
SPEAKER: There’s a deep sense of mistrust for you by some within the African-American community. Many feel you undermined Secretary Clinton after her nomination by not showing enough support, which contributed to President Trump being elected. Along with that, many also feel that you are at times racially insensitive, and by virtue of your background don’t reflect their experience enough. How do you address these concerns, and what’s your approach to winning their votes?
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, first of all, I reject the first premise that you made. I knocked my brains out—in fact, I just saw a letter today from Hillary Clinton which said thank you, Bernie, for working so hard in my election. We ended up winning among younger people more votes from young African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, than Clinton and Trump combined. Furthermore, if you look at the polling out there, we’re doing quite well with the African American community.
But let me just raise an issue here. Maybe I haven’t been as strong on this issue as I should be. I talk about the fact that we have a nation of massive inequality. OK? And I believe that. I think that’s the most important issue we can talk about. But within that inequality we have another inequality, and that is racial disparity. And it’s important that everybody understands that. That means that the wealth gap between a white family and a black family is 10:1. If you are a black mother, the likelihood is that you are—you will have a baby that will die. Your infant mortality rate, 2.5 times higher than a white mother. And I will work as hard as I can, number one, to have a cabinet that reflects what America is, and number two, to do everything that I can in every way to end all forms of racism in this country.
SPEAKER: Part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in the U.S. is the legacy of income inequality in the U.S. What is your position on reparations to the descendants of slaves?
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, as I just indicated, there are massive disparities that must be addressed. There is legislation that I like, introduced by Congressman Jim Clyburn, it’s called the 10-20-30 legislation, which focuses federal resources in a very significant way on distressed communities, communities that have high levels of poverty. So as I just indicated, I think we have to do everything that we can to end institutional racism in this country.
WOLF BLITZER: So what is your position specifically on reparations? I ask the question because Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, they’ve indicated they want to support-
BERNIE SANDERS: What does that mean? What do they mean? I’m not sure anyone’s very clear. What I’ve just said is that I think we must do everything that we can to address the massive level of disparity that exists in this country.
WOLF BLITZER: I’ll tell you what they mean, because Elizabeth Warren has said black families have had a much steeper hill to climb. We need systematic, structural changes to address that. Julian Castro has said, “I have long thought that this country would be better off if we did find a way to do that,” reparations.
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I just—I would agree with what Elizabeth said.
WOLF BLITZER: So you would—you would support reparations?
BERNIE SANDERS: But read what she said. What does that mean? She means—I think, I don’t want to put words into her mouth–is what I said. In other words, as a result of the legacy of slavery, you have massive levels of inequality. It has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed now.
WOLF BLITZER: In 2016 you said it would be divisive, reparations.
BERNIE SANDERS: Well, again, it depends on what the word means. And I know you don’t want to be divisive.
PAUL JAY: So now joining us to continue our discussion about the Sanders town hall, first of all, is Jacqueline Luqman. She’s editor in chief of Luqman Nation. She’s coming in by phone. Also Eugene Puryear. He’s a journalist, author, activist, co-founder of Stop Police Terror Project in D.C. And Norman Solomon is the co-founder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org, and a national coordinator of the Bernie delegates network. Thank you all for joining us.
Jacqueline, why don’t you kick off? What do you make of Bernie’s answer to the question, first of all, that there’s been critique of the way, previously, he’s been addressing the issue of systemic racism, or in some people’s minds not addressing it properly, and the question of reparations?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, I’m glad that he was honest in the fact that he has not responded to the issue of systemic racism well enough, deeply enough, and pointedly enough. And I’m glad he explained the way he did that yes, there is inequality and persistent poverty in this country, but within that issue, embedded in the issue of poverty, there is also systemic racism that creates a wealth gap that is absolutely racialized between even black people and poor white people. Where–he couldn’t have possibly cited all of the data, but the data that he did cite was really good. But I think one data point that would help people understand the difference between the racial wealth gap and just the general inequality is that even poor white people who own homes, their homes are valued at–they’re valued higher by the real estate market than black people with the same level of income in comparable neighborhoods. That’s how racialized poverty is in this country.
So I’m glad he was honest in acknowledging that he hasn’t always answered this question as well as he could, in addressing the issue of racialized quality. I still wasn’t happy with his response to reparations.
PAUL JAY: Why?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: He’s been in Congress for as long as HR 40, which is the bill that Representative John Conyers has introduced every year for the past 30, 40 years to study reparations, and to come up with recommendations for implementing reparations. That bill, HR 40, has been introduced in Congress every single year since 1989, or something like that. So Sanders is not unaware of that legislation. So for him to say, you know, to continue with what would reparations look like, I think he’s playing politics. He doesn’t want to upset liberal–potential liberal white voters, certainly white progressive voters who are still uncomfortable with the idea of reparations being just a check to black people. But black people have done the work of what reparations can look like, should look like. HR 40 is that step that that makes it “official” in the legislative [sense].
PAUL JAY: As quickly as you can, what’s the headline of that legislation? What does it, what does that reparations look like?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: HR 40 is called, I think it’s called the convening a commission to study reparations for African Americans and, you know, the effects of slavery, and how to implement reparations. It literally pretty much does that. So the legislation that Sanders referenced, which is 10-20-30, is actually a provision of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act that was focused toward providing relief to depressed rural areas. It’s not the same thing at all. So I was really kind of confused why he would think that 10-20-30 has anything to do with reparations, and why he didn’t bring up HR 40 at all.
PAUL JAY: Eugene, I hear the argument on the legislation, and that’s–it’s interesting, and I don’t know why he didn’t, either. But his main argument seems to be–because he was uncomfortable with the way Blitzer was pushing him on reparations–is that as long as a bill does focus on what he called distressed communities, which we’re talking about deep poverty, places like where I’m sitting, in Baltimore, then if money also goes to poor white communities, then what’s wrong with that? Is reading between the lines of what Sanders is saying. Because he says it would be divisive if you only dealt with deep poverty amongst African Americans, but you don’t deal with it amongst whites. I’m saying stuff trying to read between the lines of what he’s saying, but I think that’s what he’s getting at. And what’s wrong with that, Sanders would argue, as long as the deep poverty is–black deep poverty–is dealt with, why not also deal with white deep poverty? Are you satisfied with his answer on the reparations?
EUGENE PURYEAR: I mean, I don’t know if I’m 100 percent satisfied. But I did think the way that Wolf Blitzer pushed the question was a bit of a canard. And I think, quite frankly, you know, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro have been, you know, not very expansive on what they meant by that, and are really using the phrase ‘reparations’ as a political tool to try to get black votes.
I think what Sanders hit on and kept saying–well, what’s the definition?–has actually been a longtime conversation, and Jackie was alluding to this, within the black community and within the reparations movement itself, which is why people unified around HR 40; rather than have a lot of these arguments, let’s have a deep, comprehensive study, and then talk about it again. But I think what Sanders hit on is something that many, many African Americans have argued over the years, that the way reparations should play itself out is with these very specific strategies that could be broad social programs that touch all people, but aren’t just broad brush. And I think that distinction is absolutely critical.
I think with a critique of people who are saying “Well, you can’t just say universal healthcare” isn’t that universal healthcare won’t help African Americans, but there are specific health challenges that need to be baked into the conception of how universal healthcare is provisioned in order to make sure we’re dealing with consistent inequalities. I think the same with housing, and the same with any other issue, really.
So I think to some degree that’s what Sanders is trying to articulate. But I think his inability to articulate that shows that he still is uncomfortable with making the intrinsic connection between the interactions between racism and capitalism in America. And I think he’s trying to work backwards now and integrate that a little bit more. His answers are a little clumsy. But I did think that the way Blitzer was continually pushing him to say ‘reparations’ is also very dangerous because we could get into a point here where people say “Well, you know, we don’t see broad social programs, we need reparations. But no one is talking about it.” The only actual plan I’ve seen is Marianne Williamson, Oprah’s spiritual adviser, who is suggesting $100 billion over 10 years provisioned by an eminent panel of black individuals, which I think also is problematic.
PAUL JAY: So, Jacqueline, if I’m reading what you’re saying correctly, the other candidates are perhaps just pandering to a black vote by using their support for reparations without putting any real meat on the bones. They’re certainly not talking about HR 40, either. Do you agree with Eugene?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: He’s absolutely right. He’s absolutely right about that. These are people who before, just in the previous election cycles, did not talk about reparations at all, with the exception of to say “Look, Sanders doesn’t support it.” But the only reason they are even mentioning it now is because of what Sanders said in the last primary cycle, and that’s why they don’t have any type of substance to their so-called support of reparations, because they think that all they have to do is say “Well, I support reparations” and black people will vote for them. So it’s definitely a complex situation.
PAUL JAY: Right. Norman, why is–we’re now in 2019. Why couldn’t Bernie have said all the same stuff in 2016? I mean, this is not–the way he’s phrasing it and talking about it, there’s nothing new to anybody who’s progressive in this country. What took him so long to talk like this?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, it’s a learning curve, or however you want to describe it. He acknowledged at the CNN forum that he was remiss. He acknowledged that he should have been more on this issue sooner, and better. And I think he’s been on a number of curves, from having been a senator in Vermont to running a national campaign, whether on foreign policy or racism.
I think when you look in real time at what he’s saying now, as he launches this 2020 campaign, his emphasis on institutional racism is so important. And it’s a phrase that he used during the CNN town hall. There are a lot of Democrats who would like to focus on racism as an individual problem. And of course, Bernie is correct in saying that Trump is not only a liar but a racist. Yes, that’s true. What’s most profoundly important is that the corporate capitalist system and how the U.S. government functions is to reinforce and strengthen institutional racism. And so when Bernie talks about institutionalized racism, he’s moving, I think, the conversation forward, especially when he puts it in the context of the vicious, deadly economic inequality that is bad for people of all races, unless they’re affluent, but particularly toxic for people of color, particularly toxic for African Americans. And you can trace back the progression of history from slavery to the present day.
So just to sort of sum up, I think that the crosshatch of institutionalized as well as individual racism, and an economic system which is vicious and predatory, has to be addressed. And I think Bernie Sanders is doing that more than ever. And I think that’s a very important trend.
PAUL JAY: OK. Jacqueline has to leave us. Any quick last word, Jacqueline?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah. I just want to say that the my focus on H.R. 40 is not just mine. It’s the focus of a lot of black people who have this legacy and history of fighting for reparations. That legislation is personal to us. And we don’t want to see that, all of that work, not just with that piece of legislation, but all of the work we’ve been doing, and our parents and grandparents have been doing over the past 50 years to advance this discussion and actually create solutions that people have presented, we don’t want that to be ignored.
PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks, Jacqueline, for joining us. But we’re going to carry on with Eugene and Norman. Eugene, it seems to me that Bernie has been walking this kind of fine line on this issue, and he’s got to deal with a set of problems that those of us who are not running for president don’t. He wants to win votes in Trump country. He wants to go in sections of the white working class, you know, poor sections of the white working class. And he needs–you know, he’s trying to find ground where he can say “We’re not just going to cater to poor blacks; we’re also concerned about poor whites, and the opioid crisis” and such. And so the way he’s positioning it is keeping in mind down the road, fighting with the right wing, not just the discourse on the left or the progressive side, the liberal side. What do you make of that?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a very tricky line to walk. I mean, I think given the racially inflected lens that so many of us are either forced to or by circumstance look through all sort of look through every issue through that prism. You know, it can be difficult to find that unifying ground. I mean, I think it makes sense. I mean, it’s worth noting that was, in fact, actually Barack Obama’s strategy in 2008.
And I think that he was relatively skillful in raising that last night, saying that obviously there are racists within the Trump camp. Obviously Trump himself is one. But that many people–and I’m sure he was alluding, perhaps, to some of the people who voted for Obama and voted for Trump–are really just looking for a lifeline. They’re looking for hope. And I think that’s really the message. I think the message in the institutional racism issue is this isn’t just about singling people out. And I think any of us who really want to fight against entrenched racism is not just singling people out and labeling them as racist, as important as that may be in individual circumstances, but really addressing the structural issues that continue to drive and compound that, and combine that.
And I think this is where Bernie is somewhat weak, quite frankly, when he’s talking about bringing all our people together. I think he actually then goes backwards by making it seem as if the original point, which was we have to take these things seriously individually, is now, well, but that’s actually less important than coming together. I think where Bernie–the danger, and where he could fall on either side of this, is not synthetically bringing together to people that say look, there are some problems that all working class people have. There are some problems that only exist because of what race or what gender you are. Those things are certainly relevant and need to be dealt with particularly. Those differences should not be whitewashed. But at the end of the day, we also shouldn’t allow it for us to not be able to come together on the issues where there is common ground against corporate greed, for the rights to healthcare, the rights to housing, and things where we’ve seen from polling there is a lot of unanimity. I think that’s part of the challenge, is it’s sort of a new add-on to the way he has traditionally viewed the way that capitalist [inaudible] works.
PAUL JAY: I thought he could have taken one more step on reparations, which would not have been inconsistent with his basic take on it, which is to say we need to deal with deep poverty amongst all the people, regardless of color, or gender, or nationality. But there is a specific responsibility to the descendants of slaves and deep poverty in cities like Baltimore. And there needs to be specific programs to address that. I think he could have–just one little more step. And I don’t think you would have been left with sort of a question mark, well, is he for reparations or not?
EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah. I mean, I agree with you totally.
PAUL JAY: And it’s not inconsistent with his basic message. OK. We’re going to take a quick break, and then we’re going to come back with how Bernie plans to win over Trump voters, which is sort of a continuation of what we’re talking about. So thanks for joining us on The Real News, and watch our next segment.