Bernie Sanders and the Color-Line

By Do Hyun Byun.

The Color Line

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk

Young people today viscerally feel that the world needs a radical change. Climate change, the growing wealth gap, police brutality– we sense deeply that issues and injustices abound in society. At our core, there is genuine goodwill and hunger for a better future. With this deep yearning, many of us had been enthralled by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign of several months prior. He had mobilized many of us to become politically active, to canvass, to post on social media. We campaigned for universal healthcare, and advocated for a free college education in the hopes that everyone and all children could have the opportunity to grow and thrive. 

Many of us rallied behind Bernie, and were heartbroken when a victory that at first seemed within reach was snatched away when the Democratic primaries went South. It was hard for many to accept how a candidate who appeared the most progressive on so many topics did not win. But the primary results demonstrate that his reach was limited beyond the youth of today. 

W.E.B. Du Bois

The question before us is not why Bernie failed to win the Democratic nomination, but rather what is needed to unite people and bring about the radical change that we feel the world needs?

W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk identifies the color-line as the problem of the twentieth century. Police brutality, our mass incarceration system, poor housing, poverty, our wars and sanctions abroad are all material symptoms of the larger, deeper problem of how we relate to each other, of how one group of people puts another group down to prop themselves up. 

With Du Bois and the Black Radical Tradition he belongs to as our foundation, where does Bernie stand? And if we are committed to change and to the real possibility of world peace, where do we stand?

Bernie and Racism

As the Democratic primaries moved to the South, black Americans decisively voted against Bernie. Across the board, exit polls showed majority black voters, and in particular people over the age of 30 and 40, to have voted in favor of Joe Biden.  

When I hear Bernie supporters lament the end of his campaign, there is an underlying insinuation that black voters didn’t know what was best for them. They think that Bernie had the black community’s interests at heart because his focus on workers by extension addressed black working families too. Had black voters understood this, they would have voted for Bernie, supporters imply. They shift the responsibility of the failures of the campaign to the very people they failed. This reflects an arrogance, an attitude that liberal white voters know what is best for black citizens.

Bernie’s movement focused overwhelmingly on economic changes, calling for policies that would shift wealth from the 1% to the working class. While these changes could have improved the lives of many, they fail to address the color-line and thus fail to truly uplift black Americans and all of humanity. Over a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois made a critique of American “socialists” that help us today for understanding the shortcomings of Bernie. He shares that so-called socialists may have the interests of a large group of people at heart, but advocate for the continued exploitation and second-class citizenry of a minority:  

“The general attitude of thinking members of the party has been this: We must not turn aside from the great objects of Socialism to take up this issue of the American Negro; let the question wait; when the objects of Socialism are achieved, this problem will be settled along with other problems.

… Socialistic as this program may be called, it is not real Social Democracy. The essence of Social Democracy is that there shall be no excluded or exploited classes in the Socialistic state; that there shall be no man or woman so poor, ignorant or black as not to count one. Is this simply a far-off ideal, or is it a possible program?”

In many of our young circles, it has become common and even cool for us to claim to be anti-capitalists, Marxists, socialists, radicals. We put Marx on an altar, and believe in the class struggle that will bring about revolution, a radical change that we feel the world needs. Many of us are so attracted to Bernie because he focuses on the working class. But the ideas that Bernie represents, and the ideas that resonate with us, are based in the same white tradition described by Du Bois a century ago. Our assumption is that policies that benefit working families also benefit the black family. We are effectively advocating for a society that will continue as before: off the backs of black laborers. And Du Bois shows us that the true implication of embracing Bernie’s “democratic socialism” is a society without democracy or socialism. 

We can continue to assume that we know what’s best for black people, or begin to take seriously what they have been saying since before the founding of this country. As Paul Robeson said, “Ask fifteen million American Negroes, if you please, ‘What is the greatest menace in your life?’ and they will answer in a thunderous voice, ‘Jim-Crow Justice! Mob Rule! Segregation! Job Discrimination!’– in short white supremacy and all its vile works.” 

Bernie and Peace

To be committed to resolving the color-line also means committing to peace. In his famous address of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. shows us that poverty is inextricably linked to racism and war:

“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

 

King speaking out against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church

Three weeks after the assassination of her husband, Coretta Scott King shared the same ideas behind the Poor People’s Campaign and Dr. King’s underlying philosophy: 

“My husband always saw the problem of racism and poverty here at home and militarism abroad as two sides of the same coin. In fact, it is even very clear that our policy at home is to try to solve social problems through military means just as we have done abroad.

The interrelatedness of domestic and foreign affairs is no longer questioned. The bombs we drop on the people of Vietnam continue to explode at home with all of their devastating potential. And so I would invite you to join us in Washington in our effort to enable the poor people of this nation to enjoy a fair share of America’s blessing.”

Bernie often touts his vote against the Iraq War to prove his responsible foreign policy and anti-war stance, but his record on peace is mixed at best. Throughout his career, his support of US sanctions on Iran, Libya, Russia, and outright support for NATO “humanitarian” bombings in Kosovo demonstrate a willingness to forgo moral principles for American interests. This is not to negate his vote against the explicit war in Iraq. But we cannot idolize a leader who calls for the uplift of working families at home, yet fails to take a principled stand for people everywhere. 

Recently, Bernie has quoted King to call for a change in national priorities, and a decrease in the national defense budget. Perhaps this is genuine moral principle that has re-entered Bernie’s policies, or perhaps this is opportunism. Whatever the case, it’s true we need a change in America’s priorities, and we do need a new federal budget that axes our military budget in favor of social programs. However, the Civil Rights Movement shows us that the change our nation needs is much deeper than a movement of money.

We need a pragmatic commitment to addressing our military budget that is draining tax dollars away from social programs. But Dr. King and Coretta King also model what it looks like to stand for moral righteousness. Our struggle for justice here in the United States is part of the universal struggle for sovereignty and independence from the hands of American imperialism. Our struggle is for peace everywhere.

Bernie and King’s Revolution of Values

We are young. We have yet to witness a real movement in our lifetime, and we have yet to see ideas that can sustain social transformation beyond a moment of unrest. If we believe in a society without poverty, without racism, without war, it is our responsibility to seek the ideas that can make that true. We are blessed with beautiful American history that can help us begin the search for these ideas. We can look to the great American movement of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Movement. We can learn from the efforts of student activists in Nashville, and the nonviolent campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to guide our efforts. We can study the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. 


Some claim that Martin Luther King Jr. was a democratic socialist like Bernie, pointing to the Poor People’s Campaign. They say that Dr. King became “radical” in the latter part of his life when the focus of the movement shifted towards the plight of the poor and advocating for more jobs and better wages for all working class Americans. Others have even claimed that King looked to Scandinavia for democratic socialism.

Yes, King said that a redistribution of wealth was needed. And today, we do need economic justice to begin to counteract the centuries of exploitation done to black communities. But King also called for a deeper revolution of values that no leader today seems to call for. King was radical because of his moral principles, not a one-dimensional class analysis of the world. 

King preached that the ends of our lives extended far beyond our material needs. In his sermon The Man Who Was a Fool, King shares why Jesus calls a wealthy man in his parable a fool:

“The rich man was a fool because he permitted the ends for which he lived to become confused with the means by which he lived. The economic structure of his life absorbed his destiny. Each of us lives in two realms, the internal and the external… This does not mean that the external in our lives is not important. We have both a privilege and a duty to seek the basic material necessities of life. Only an irrelevant religion fails to be concerned about man’s economic well-being… But Jesus knew that man was more than a dog to be satisfied by a few economic bones. He realized that the internal of a man’s life is as significant as the external. So he added, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ The tragedy of the rich man was that he sought the means first, and in the process the ends were swallowed in the means.”

When King speaks of the kingdom of God, his words have relevance for all of us, Christian or not. He is asking us to commit to a higher law of morality. People are suffering, dying in war, being killed at the hands of racist police or starved by American-led sanctions. But if we love humanity to believe in and fight for a positive vision of society where these injustices do not exist, we must strive to lead lives that stand by these principles. King demands of us a spiritual transformation, pushing us to genuinely take responsibility to make the world a better place. We need to redistribute wealth and we need to end wars, but we need all of these together and more to seek to move society toward an overarching ideal of human brotherhood. We need to undergo an internal change that will go beyond whatever “revolution” the democratic socialists represent, towards what King calls a “revolution of values.”

The non-violent campaigns in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, the stance against the Vietnam War, the Poor People’s Campaign exposed deep contradictions that forced the American conscience to begin to grapple with injustices in society. We must do more than merely call for changes in the system –we must transform ourselves to be principled morally in pursuit of the better world we seek. This is not a call for rigid perfection, but to embrace our humanity. King always emphasized his human-ness, and used his own fears and inner conflicts to preach about the moral choices that we face. 

Of the well-meaning, politicized young people with a yearning to commit to struggle, Bernie represents the white ideas that we cling to. We glorify and look for inspiration from the white Scandinavian nations who made their wealth through subjugating and exploiting darker nations. We seek a Green New Deal that fails to address how humans relate to one another and how we relate to the darker peoples of the world– we’re willing to bend over backwards to protect the earth, but we also have a great moral choice and opportunity to take a stand for humanity.

King represents the strivings of black people who understand the color-line. At the core of his movement is the search for true progress. King continues in his speech on Vietnam: 

“Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

If we young people are committed to a positive vision of society, we have the choice to align with the white values that Bernie’s campaign and American society at large are rooted in, or to look to the black freedom struggle, where King, and Du Bois viewed the color-line as the problem our world has yet to reckon with. If we see ourselves as responsible for the future, we must transform ourselves to become principled, moral agents for peace. 

Further Reading:

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