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[Green Comma's Note: This online article is reprinted here with kind permission of JHU Politik copyright 2013.
Full Disclosure: Amit Shah, Green Comma's managing director, has a son at JHU and was struck by the clarity of the article and requested permission to share with a larger community]
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by Corey Payne '17 August 30, 2015
This has been a summer of revolt. From the rise of anti-establishment candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, to the campaigns of labor unions to raise the minimum wage, to the success of #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) in turning a moment into a movement, Americans are saying that they have had enough. These movements can bring positive effects to the country, like ensuring all Americans who work full-time won’t live in poverty, but they can also bring about negative ones (e.g. Donald Trump’s shot-in-the-dark candidacy). But more likely than not, these movements will bring about bittersweet moments: times when we are inspired by the humanity of those involved yet overwhelmed by the reality of what we still need to accomplish.
One of these moments occurred at the intersection of two movements: when white progressives met black progressives. Throughout the summer, BLM protestors have interrupted presidential candidates across the country, demanding to know how they will fight the structural racism that has plagued our economic, social, and justice systems. For the most part, we saw the typical non-responses: Jeb Bush, for example, brushed it off while his supporters began chanting “white lives matter.” The only one who responded was Bernie Sanders. While he was at first dismissive of the interruption, he later introduced the most comprehensive racial justice plan from a candidate in modern memory, emphasizing the need to address physical, political, and economic violence against people of color.
Sanders’ response was the ‘sweet’ part of the moment. The ‘bitter’ came when he was interrupted on stage by BLM protestors. While they stood on stage requesting a moment of silence for Mike Brown a year after he was gunned down and left in the street for four and a half hours, the white ‘progressives’ in the audience heckled, booed, and demanded that the organizers get off the stage.
I am a white progressive—and I am ashamed. I am a participant in the BLM movement—and I am angry. A woman stood up and asked for a moment of silence, and she was booed. I am ashamed and I am angry, but I am not surprised.
This is only the latest manifestation of white supremacy in the progressive movement. Far too often we find ourselves unwilling to accept the racial justice cause into our activism. Too often we see people who are blind to this systemic oppression but get away with their ignorance because they fall under the label ‘progressive.’
We see it in feminism, where intersectionality is ignored and white women do not acknowledge that oppression is experienced in radically different ways. We see it in economic progressivism when we talk about raising the minimum wage and expanding social security benefits while continuing to ignore the massive rates of black youth unemployment. We see it even more clearly in the wake of Sanders’ interruption, when black lives matter less than white liberal feelings do.
Calls of shock and disbelief by white progressives echoed throughout the liberal media, questioning why Bernie Sanders was targeted. It soon became clear to the level-headed progressives as his campaign unveiled his racial justice platform: he was the most accessible candidate. BLM made national headlines for months because of protests and demonstrations, and now they are part of a platform for a candidate for president. Their interruptions worked.
But this development doesn’t change the initial problem: Bernie’s rally was a white space, and the white progressives in the audience didn’t want to talk about ‘black issues.’ Progressivism in this country has always been white-washed. We are quick to condemn the actions of those who do not look like us out of fear that they ‘are bringing the whole movement down’ by not conforming to what mainstream society says social change should look like – the same argument used against men like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s time our movement stopped pretending to be something it is not. Either we are for progressive values, for equity and justice, or we are not. Racial justice cannot be delinked from the movement. It cannot be an afterthought. We will not succeed until we all succeed; we cannot win unless we fight together. As Bernie has said, a political revolution has begun in this country. Now is the time that we decide who it is for.