Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sanders critics and the denial of structural racism

The increasingly suspicious campaign to attack Bernie Sanders on race issues has repeatedly accused him and his supporters of maintaining an oversimplistic understanding of racism. This never had any basis in reality -- but as the argument goes, the Sanders camp is just reducing the problem to economics and ignoring all the other complicated factors that perpetuate racism in America.

Notably, this criticism rarely specifies the problems and solutions that Sanders is supposedly ignoring. Mostly this is because Sanders is on record addressing most of the problems they'd mention, and has proposed a whole host of non-economic solutions (I listed this out previously). But in part, I suspect this is also because the critics are themselves oversimplifying the problem. Consider for example this complaint by (yet another politically-and-media-connected professional activist with an elite CV) Brittany Packett:


As far as I can tell, Packett seems to think she has caught Sanders in a moment of racism; the assumption is that he's implicitly blaming black Americans for gun crime in major cities. Notably, this assumption only works if we dismiss any other possible explanation for the disparity in crime that Sanders could have in mind. So we would, for example, have to ignore explanations like this:
"If you got a nice house, you live in a nice neighborhood, then you...got a security point. You don't need no protection. But if you grow up in a place like this [Chicago], housing sucks. When they tore down the projects here, they left the high-rises and came to the neighborhood with that gang mentality. You don't have nothing, so you going to take something..."
That's Chicago activist Billy Lamar Brooks Sr., quoted from Ta-Nehisi Coates' celebrated essay The Case for Reparations. Note how, without blaming black Americans, he can still - like Sanders - acknowledge the empirical fact that Chicago is more violent than Vermont. Brooks can even explain this because, like Coates and Sanders, he has an understanding of racism that is structural. It's grounded in historical knowledge of Chicago's redlining practices and the way that they've systematically cultivated violence. By this analysis, there's simply no reason to suspect that Bernie thinks that black Americans are somehow inherently violent.

Unless, that is, you have really simplistic ideas about racism. That's the real irony here: Packett is relying on the most pernicious and reductive simplification of racism there is, talking about Sanders as if racism only exists as a matter of personal bigotry and secret animus. Meanwhile, we have to pretend that more subtle, systematic and historically contingent forms of racism like redlining don't exist and don't have any consequences; that way, if Sanders points out that Chicago has more gun violence than Vermont, he can only mean one thing.