Interrupting Bernie: Exposing the White Supremacy of the American Left #BlackLivesMatter
You know, I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. I appreciate that as a U.S. Senator, he has been willing to speak the truth about many important social issues, but he’s also a U.S. Senator, which means that he is only going to be as progressive as his electorate allows him to be.
That said, I’d generally been pretty disappointed with the lack of racial justice analysis in his economic inequality platform as a candidate for president. That is, until a few weeks ago when some phenomenal Black activists at the Netroots Nation Presidential Town Hall forced his hand.
For all of the “this is not the way” sentiment we’re hearing from White progressives, it was the interruption at Netroots (alongside other direct pressure) that led to Bernie’s explicit platform on racial justice.
Notably, Black Lives Matter activists haven’t been successful (though I am sure not for lack of trying) in interrupting Hillary Clinton in the same way (that secret service protection and massive campaign budget for private security sure is handy), but even she has had little choice but to pay attention to Black Lives Matter as a movement.
And there is a great deal of disagreement within Black communities (we as White folks would do well to remember that people and Black organizations aren’t monoliths) about whether the action was strategic and whether targeting Bernie was the right move. And that dialogue should continue to take place within Black liberation spaces, but White folks – that’s not our business.
Because here’s the thing – what’s powerful about these interruptions from Black women is less how it has changed the tone of the Democratic campaigns and more about what they have exposed in the White left.
I see these protests as less about the individual candidates themselves and more about how their White base refuses to center Black lives and Black issues. It’s notable that White Bernie supporters, who consider themselves the most progressive of us all, shouted down and booed Black women who dared to force Blackness into the center of White space.
Because let’s be honest, every Bernie rally is White space.
In watching the over-the-top angry response from White liberals about Bernie being interrupted in Seattle, I can’t help but think of the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on White moderates:
What was true in King’s time is true in ours: the greatest stumbling block to racial justice is not the KKK; it’s well-meaning White people who would rather maintain injustice than risk the decentering of our Whiteness and White comfort.
And when I watch and hear the reaction of a mostly White Seattle crowd to a Black woman naming that the event is taking place in the context of Indigenous genocide, the new Jim Crow, and the everyday violence that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people face in Seattle, I’m ashamed.
Two Black women called for a moment of silence for Mike Brown a year after he was gunned down, left bleeding in the street for 4.5 hours, and White “progressives” shouted, booed, and chanted the name of a White man throughout that moment.
How much more committed to a “negative peace” can we get than literally shouting down the memory of a Black youth whose murder helped to spark this movement?
And how much more “devoted to ‘order’” can we be than to lecture Black people about what direct actions are and are not “hurting your cause”? (Notably, this language I’ve seen from countless White folks shows that we do not see the cause of racial justice as OUR cause – it’s that cause over there that we will tolerate so long as it doesn’t disrupt our Bernie rally.)
And how much more of a “stumbling block” can our self-proclaimed “allyship” be to racial justice when it’s so feeble as to proclaim, “I am a strong ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, but I’m not sure how to be an ally when they are this disrespectful to the only candidate that has actually done anything for minorities” (actual quote from one of the 15 or so social media threads I’m following as I write this article)?
Notably, it wasn’t two Black women who kept Bernie from speaking in Seattle. It was a White man, a Bernie supporter, who organized the event who shut it down, said the event was over, and informed the crowd that Sanders would not be speaking because he couldn’t agree with the “methods of direct action” of the Black women in front of him.
We are so resistant to the decentering of Whiteness and the centering of Blackness that we cut off our own nose to spite our face.
White solidarity toward racial justice must look like more than pointing to the fact that Bernie Sanders was a supporter of Civil Rights in the 60s. White solidarity toward racial justice must look like more than a Facebook share of a Ta-Nehisi Coates article (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Coates). White solidarity toward racial justice must even look like more than showing up to the occasional rally that is organized and led by people of Color (though this is a good start – please show up).
White solidarity begins with our willingness to decenter ourselves and to divest from Whiteness, our privileges and power, and to support the centering of progressive leadership of Color.
White solidarity continues when we work with our own people to dismantle the deep-seated White supremacy that would cause us to boo during a moment of silence for a Black boy murdered by a White police officer.
Malik Brown: You know, I didn’t realize how powerful this was until someone shared the photo. Over 100 black men/fathers welcomed the students of Discovery Charter to their first day of school, yesterday. It was an amazing experience but I bet that it’ll never get coverage on Fox News or CNN.
How mass incarceration creates ‘million dollar blocks’ in poor neighborhoods
There are neighborhoods on the West Side of Chicago where nearly every block has been painted red — a sign, on the above map, that someone there was sentenced to time in an Illinois state prison between 2005 and 2009 for a nonviolent drug offense.
On several dark-red blocks, the missing residents are so many — or their sentences so long — that taxpayers have effectively committed more than a million dollars to incarcerate people who once lived there.
This is the perverse form that public investment takes in many poor, minority neighborhoods: “million dollar blocks,” to use a bleak term first coined in New York by Laura Kurgan at Columbia University and Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center. Our penchant for incarcerating people has grown so strong that, in many cities, taxpayers frequently spend more than a million dollars locking away residents of a single city block.
In Chicago, Daniel Cooper, Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, Matt Barrington and the civic technology company DataMade have reprised the concept for one of the most divided cities in America. By their count, there are 851 blocks in Chicago where the public has committed more than a million dollars to sentencing residents to state prison for all kinds of crime. The total tops a million dollars for nonviolent drug offenses alone in 121 of those blocks.
Those places, tracing the city’s segregated history, are clustered in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. These patterns, the project points out, mean that most of Chicago’s incarcerated residents come from and return to a small number of places. And in those places, the consequences of incarceration on everyone else — children who are missing their parents, households that are missing their breadwinners, families who must support returning offenders who are now much harder to employ — are concentrated, too. This map shows where those communities are clustered on the West Side, relative to the North Side of Chicago:
The North and West Sides of Chicago.
These numbers refer not to yearly expenses but total investments. The Illinois Department of Corrections spends about $22,000 a year per inmate. This project multiplied that figure by the minimum sentences given to each offender sentenced between 2005 and 2009.
So these totals are likely an underestimate. They don’t reflect the public money spent to incarcerate people sentenced to state prison from these same neighborhoods before 2005 or after 2009. And they don’t reflect public money spent sending people to federal prison, or locking them up in local jails while they await trial.
Million-dollar blocks exist too in New York and New Orleans and many big cities. From the original Spatial Information Design Lab project in New York that pioneered the concept:
Spatial Information Design Lab
When the spatial concentration of all this money is mapped so starkly, the picture poses a critical question: What would happen if we poured the same resources into these same struggling parts of any city in very different ways?
What if we spent $2.2 million dollars not removing residents from the corner of West Madison and Cicero but investing in the people who live there? What if we spent that money on preschool and summer jobs programs and addiction treatment? Evidence suggests that such investments could do more to deter crime than locking people away.
“People hear that there’s a very big violence problem in Chicago, but nobody’s really talking about the drivers of it,” says Cooper, the co-executive director of the Institute for Social Exclusion at Adler University in Chicago. “They’re talking about the individuals who take part in shootings. But nobody’s asking the question, ‘why are there shootings in the first place?’ What’s further upstream? What are the bigger determinants of this problem?”
Why do we willingly spend so much money imprisoning people, while we have bitter political fights over smaller sums that would educate children or feed their families or help people stay out of prison?
“Incarceration is held to a completely different standard,” Cooper says. “The evidence base doesn’t support its use. But the notion that people need to be punished and removed from their communities is so pervasive.”
Lugalia-Hollon recalls that he didn’t realize himself that incarceration was a neighborhood problem — even a problem of race and social justice — until he took a job a decade ago in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. There, 70 percent of the men between the ages of 18 and 54 are likely to come in contact with the criminal justice system.
“The country’s at a point where it’s starting to wake up to this,” says Lugalia-Hollon, who now runs a youth development network in San Antonio. “Some of that is fiscally motivated, which is okay. But if folks look at the Web site and just say, ‘Oh man, we’re wasting dollars,’ they’re not getting the whole story. We’re also wasting lives. We’re losing communities. We’re losing families.”