Would James Baldwin Endorse #BernieSanders?
A social media friend, a writer of immense talent, posted the following message:
“Some of you “supporters” of Bernie need to leave us simple “voters” alone. Some of us have too much love of self to actually “support” a major party presidential candidate though we might have to vote for one. Leave us alone and go teach Bernie to tighten up on his debate skills. Why is he such a slow learner? Why won’t be go hard and make massive distinctions with Hillary around issues of racial terror and welfare reform? Please leave us the fuck alone. We are voters, not supporters of major party candidates. Never will be.”
We are an angry nation, fractured by polarization and hundreds of years of history, building up to the collapse in 2008.
While most people call the collapse a financial crisis, what happened was far more significant than that. The crisis affected not only the wealth of a nation, but broke its moral soul. The country was there to bail out Wall Street, which is doing more than fine now, but no one was there to bail out the nation’s moral center. Eight years later, the destruction of the last vestiges of a morality that was flawed from birth is being felt in ways this nation has rarely seen.
For tens of millions of voters, this election is the expression and culmination of a deep personal existential crisis. For many a million of a new underclass, the precariat, it comes at the end of everything, and the precipice of a nothingness never previously experienced. For tens of millions of Americans who have experienced centuries-long oppression, a history of abiding disappointment is getting in the way of a renewed excitement and dedication to civic activism in the wake of 2008.
The only thing we all have as Americans, this election cycle, is that whatever else Election 2016 represents, the stakes are deeply personal to each and every one of us. In that respect, what is personal for me is as true, abidingly deep, and urgent as anyone else’s.
I’ve been blessed with a thrice-exceptional child. Once for the gifts that came with her Autism. Twice, for the gifts that came that terrible day the lightning of epilepsy struck and her artistic ability appeared. Thrice, when she began to show deep interest in Africana studies. We may be a family caught in the turmoil that produced the American precariat, but as I wrote in the plea on my blog, none of the three of us stops thinking, imagining, and wanting better for all of us.
So, to read Dr. Angela Davis, I have renewed hope that maybe the opportunity of a joining of the very people Martin Luther King sought to gather up and join in a common struggle, maybe that task can finally be completed.
Trust is hard to come by after so many bitter disappointments. But King worked hard to change the very foundation so that success wouldn’t be left up to trust.
Neoliberalism and the personal selfishness of a generation are what gave birth to the madness we are living. While selfishness may never be eradicated, neoliberalism can be vanquished. It has to be. We – I – die if it lives on. I refuse to die, right at this moment.
At a time of deepening racial divisions that are being cruelly and cynically exploited by many political candidates and not only the most obvious one, we must keep our wits about ourselves and turn to history’s great lessons to keep our collective perspective anchored due north.
Yes, Donald J. Trump represents the worst of everything we know America is capable of producing. He is the embodiment of white supremacy at its ugliest. But he is hardly the only politician to make use of the uniquely American tactic employed by the majority of politicians America has produced: divide and conquer by class, race, and gender and then claim that’s what your opponents are doing. That is also all we know as voters. Americans, through the generations, who have been born, raised – socialized – to think through the prism of class, race, and gender. Universalism is an unknown state of mind in our nation; one that a large percentage deem suspicious. In, Why Do Blacks Keep Propelling Hillary to Victory? LA Progressive’s Randy Shaw writes:
“Spiritual v. Secular Appeals
I think Sanders failed to connect to African-American voters because his appeal is strictly secular. He does not try to frame his agenda in the spiritual terms that have long resonated in the African-American community.
Clinton, in contrast, has prioritized a spiritual message. In her South Carolina victory speech she quoted Corinthians at length. She referenced a talk she’d had with a local minister and said that what is most needed in the United States is more love and kindness. She further preached “love and kindness” in two Memphis churches on February 28.
There’s a reason African-American ministers across the South are backing Clinton—they see her as speaking their language while Sanders is not. And their parishioners feel the same.”
To be sure, the kind of secularism and universalism embodied in Sanders’ philosophy, personal and political, is anathema to traditional Black culture in general, and especially among older cohorts in the Deep South. That is at the heart of the generational divide between those Blacks who support Sanders and those who do not. Sanders’ philosophy is the Jewish mirror of James Baldwin’s lifelong quest for answers. Sanders begins after Baldwin rejects religion and goes down his own version of Jewish socialist ethics. He appeals to the young because, instinctively, they begin where Baldwin leaves off, perhaps more so in the North, but undoubtedly in the young Black South.
Indeed, the last few months have seen the release of a spate of articles depicting socialism and Jewish socialism as inherently racist at worst or, at best, comatose in its lack of awareness of the impact of America’s racial policies through the ages, as well as essays declaring Judaism as having achieved a state of whiteness. The latter two judgments are what is being applied to Bernie Sanders while, so far, every single white supremacist, racial divide and conquer behavior exhibited by Hillary Clinton has either been ignored or justified by a sympathetic neoliberal press. It is true that Clinton is a master at appealing to a Black audience using familiar chapter and verse. But is that facility a cynical use of rhythm, poetry and religiosity to connect with an audience?
In a piece on how to recognize anti-Jewish racist dog-whistling, I wrote this, in answer to articles by Jewish authors who questioned Sanders’ Jewish rootedness:
“While the first article informs, the second both questions Sanders’ Jewish self-identity incorrectly and assumes, based on one interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a mention that Sanders spent Yom Kippur speaking at Liberty University, that Sanders identifies primarily as a socialist. However, Sanders, who is not an observant Jew, does not shy away from asserting his Jewish identity whenever he is directly asked about it. Sanders is also not a socialist in the classic sense of the term, or in the “Jewish socialist” classification sense of the term. The kind of socialism Sanders identifies with is Democratic socialism of the kind one associates with Europe’s labor movements, and not the Jewish emigre movements of New York in the last century, even though, clearly, Sanders’ Jewish ethics are derived from the uniquely secular Jewish environment he was raised in. The first article, from The Forward, better explains the environment that Sanders matured in, but neither article explains the arc of Sanders’ development after he left Brooklyn for Chicago.
At a time when racial bias is at such an all-time high that it is the focus of a new movement for civil rights, Sanders provides a uniquely universalist approach to solving some of America’s most persistent problems; one that is decoupled from America’s race-centric approach, one that embraces the humanist ethos, rather than tribal affiliation, including his own. Sanders’ growing appeal in “firewall” communities may well be a subconscious appreciation by the youngest in these groups, that a universalist approach, together with the balancing effect of today’s new civil rights militancy is the wave of the future.
Martin Luther King was a Democratic socialist, as were many of the leaders of the 60’s and 70’s-era civil rights groups. The work of the Black Panther movement, though radical in its day, is part and parcel of current day policy.
America’s shift to the left is both a rejection of 1990’s neoliberalismand an inevitable realignment, after 8 years of wild swing to the right that have brought us to the precipice of oligarchy. Hillary Clinton’s continuity is the continuation of neoliberalism, with a incrementalism added, to account for the politics of our time. Bernie Sanders’ political revolution, if he can bring it about, would be a return to FDR and a new, New Deal.”
Bernie Sanders’ unique brand of humanist universalism is anathema to most non-Jewish Americans as well as to a portion of America’s Jewry and, given the history of Blacks in America, it is no wonder that it is viewed with suspicion by most, regardless of religiosity, but especially by those who were nurtured in the deeply religious Baptist and Methodist culture of what we think of as the “Black Church.”
Are race and religion being used by Clinton and Trump precisely in the ways described by Martin Luther King in Selma? We are still the same nation King described as being intentionally kept racially separated:
“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)”
“To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. (Right) I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, (Yes) thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. (Yes, sir) And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.”
Martin Luther King, 1965, Selma
When examining the response to Sanders in present day cultural terms, is the distrustful analysis of Sanders’ electoral strategy fair? Is he, as some accuse, ignoring Black communities and other communities of color, and using the same cynical Republican tactic to gain the white vote, or are his choices reflective of a more pragmatic view that, in the face of decades long relationships between the Clintons and the Black political class, Sanders stands no chance of making inroads among older, traditional Black voting bases and that while garnering a high degree of support from Black millennials is a positive step, it is an insufficient one? Is the attraction of Republican white working and middle class voters who are repulsed by Trump and all he stands for indicative of some pernicious latent racist strategy by Sanders?
Before tackling this last question, one must be reminded of the longstanding relationship of this nation with the Jew. James Baldwin’s explanation in “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is still very much relevant:
“The root of anti-Semitism among Negroes is, ironically, the relationship of colored peoples–all over the globe–to the Christian world. This is a fact which may be difficult to grasp, not only for the ghetto’s most blasted and embittered inhabitants, but also for many Jews, to say nothing of many Christians. But it is a fact, and it will not ameliorated–in fact, it can only be aggravated–by the adoption, on the part of colored people now, of the most devastating of the Christian vices.”
This statement still rings as true today as it did at the time of writing, in 1967.
In a context and at a time when American fundamentalist Christianity is one of the forces poised to take control of our nation’s political apparatus, this view must be reexamined in terms of its application to the effect of such fundamentalism on groups that are not associated with right wing theocracy, but still a part of the same religious grouping.
Could it be that some, or much, of the suspicion applied to Sanders’ doctrine is being filtered through this Christian fundamentalist lens, inadvertently or purposely? In a nation stricken both by conscious and subconscious bias, is that not a distinct possibility? Are we not, as Americans born in America, all infected with the same disease called racism. Do we not all carry some strain of it, to varying degrees of potency? Can any of us, myself included, deny its existence inside of us? Who among us is pure? Who among those of us who think themselves “woke,” never has to struggle against impure racial impulses?
As I’ve written previously, Bernie Sanders bears our collective subconscious image of the physical appearance of the proverbial oppressor: older, white, and assertive. We suspect him, deeply and subconsciously, because we are conditioned to suspect the veracity of anyone whose message diverges from what we are accustomed to and know. We suspect him because we are socialized to accept the consensus of group-think, even when we know better. We trust the older white woman because we are socialized to trust women, including older white women, and think of them as benign and empathetic and, in the face of behaviors that clearly counter that image, are apt to reject reality and find ways to explain it away through proxies.
When adding all the different aspects outlined in this piece, and taking another look at the tack the Sanders campaign seems to have taken, in order to win where it can, is it reasonable to levy a condemnation of Sanders as a racist in disguise, one who is forgoing harder work with the Black community but really aiming to appeal to working class whites on the right and left? Is Does such a tack constitute proof of lack of true commitment to his professed racial justice platform? Is Sanders a hypocrite?
To that, and in the typically Jewish form, I answer a question with a question: in the face of well-established relationships between Clinton and the leadership of the Black community, is it wrong for Sanders, who wants to win, to try hard both in the one community he needs but is rejecting him, and those communities that are receptive? Is that not, in essence, more indicative of an intent to unify, rather than divide?
Sanders has neither disavowed his platform for economic and racial justice for the Black community, nor has he stopped promoting it in all-white audiences. A number of revered civil rights leaders have come out in varying degrees of support of Sanders, whom they see, fundamentally, as more aligned with the philosophies and needs of the Black community than any other candidate running in this election cycle, including Hillary Clinton, who continues to demonstrate a propensity to assert a kind of racial swagger that does not sit well. Dr. Angela Davis, in an interview with Ebony Magazine, said this:
EBONY.COM: Is there a particular candidate you’re supporting in this presidential election?
Davis: My approach has always been to emphasize independent, more radical politics, but I do think that it is important that Bernie Sanders has been raising issues that otherwise never would have been taken up within the context of the campaign between the two major parties.
My goodness! Angela Davis said this! If Davis, America’s most radical icon of Black freedom and self-love, can recognize those things that Sanders embodies that are positive, while undoubtedly having fundamental disagreements with him on peripheral issues that are of current import to the Black community, then it should give pause to those who are deeply mistrustful of Sanders’ motives. Sanders is not a Black man. He is as much a product of America as any other American, but he has been on a lifelong mission to strive and fundamentally change how we see each other, from a humanistic, universalist perspective. That universalism is one way to break the cycle of racial division that King himself described in his Selma speech.
Sanders wants to transform the foundation from which this nation has been operating. That kind of change is revolutionary, whereas incrementalism is how establishments survive. If we want real change, then we must be prepared to abandon the familiar in order to attain what is desired. I think James Baldwin, as many civil rights leaders are indicating, would also recognize that the truths inherent in Sanders’ brand of populism and his approaches to change. Would they stop pushing Sanders as Black Lives Matter has? No, and neither will I!
We can do this together. We can.