Black Lives Matter Owes Sanders an Apology


Progress was made in a flawed coalition
Two recent incidents make one wonder if the Black Lives Matter movement has lost its political savvy. Last December, Smith College President Kathy McCartney used the phrase "all lives matter" in a campus email outlining the campus response to Ferguson, Missouri. When angry students accused her of diverting attention away from racism, she did what anyone with an ounce of political skill would do: she apologized. Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders took the podium at the University of Washington as part of his presidential campaign. He was shoved aside by Black Lives Matter activists who hijacked the podium to harangue the assembly on the need for criminal justice reform. They even had the moxie to dismiss Sanders as "just another white liberal."

Really? One must wonder if, politically speaking, BLM has jumped the shark. Has the greater agenda been swept aside in the name of unfocused anger and opportunistic attention grabbing? Does BLM think it will do better by alienating white liberals? That would be an unwise conclusion—one ranking in severity with the 1967 decision of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to expel its white members, or the Black Panthers' move to engaging in reverse race-baiting.

Purity led to backlash
The history of social movements reveals that a certain degree of provocative confrontation can be effective, the key words being "a certain degree." Not enough, and you get ignored; too much, though, and you invite a counter assault. The latter happened to both SNCC and the Panthers. Whites who were once on the front lines in African American civil rights struggles turned inward to anti-Vietnam protests, cultural issues, and campus activism. SNCC disbanded in 1970, its goal of racial justice obviously unrealized. As for the Black Panthers, although its threats against whites were almost entirely rhetorical, 30 of them died at hands of cops in 1969 alone. Because Panthers had positioned themselves as dangerous, many whites saw their demise as justice, not extralegal race murders. By 1971, the Black Panther Party was known more for its internal squabbles than affecting social change. It was laid to rest in 1982, but had been reduced to ineffectiveness long before then. 

Social movements of all configurations would do well to review the history of the American left. BLM is starting to remind me of socialist movements that spent so much of their time insisting upon ideological purity that they defined themselves by whom they tossed out rather than their agendas. I am sympathetic to BLM claims that enough is enough (Sanders' campaign slogan, by the way!) and that African Americans are tired of explaining how racism works. I get it that they feel the need for self- empowerment. I am 100% on board with the idea that the time to stop police violence is now—not when politicians find it convenient. I am even willing to concede that there are many things that I, as a white person, don't "get" about black people.

Here's the rub, though: separatist movements of all sort are doomed. The United States is the greatest polyglot since the Roman Empire. If BLM insists on going it alone, it will probably obtain that wish, though not its goals. BLM is a minority within a minority. We used to say that Latinos would become the largest minority group by 2030. We were wrong; at 17% of the population Latinos already surpass African Americans (12.6%). Two of three Americans are Euro-Caucasian and three of four identify as "white" (whatever that might mean). The moral is that it's a matter of numbers. BLM can't survive by being viewed as a "Black thing" anymore than SNCC could, and it's doomed for the same reason that the Tea Party will ultimately collapse—it doesn't matter whether or not one likes American social diversity, it's a demographic fact with profound political implications. There are myriad constituencies in America and Jesse Jackson got it right years ago: the best path forward is a rainbow coalition. If you hope to win, you're going to have to build that coalition. Righteous anger might feel better, but it's no substitute for movement building.

My years associated with labor unions teaches me this: the Opposition is more organized and powerful than most social change movements. It's simply a waste of time to fight your allies! Save that energy and anger for the SOBs whose hearts won't change. (Save your breath as well—those whose mindlessness is set are unamenable to reason.) Yes, many of your allies will frustrate you and some of them simply won't "get it." Nonetheless, if they aren't on the line with you, at the very least you don't want to face them on the other side of the barricade.

This brings me back to President McCartney and Bernie Sanders. They are allies, not enemies, and dissing them evokes the very worst excesses of 1970s-style identity politics. It's just silly to shout down Bernie Sanders. Good God! If you don't think Bernie Sanders is on your side, at least have to courage to become a revolutionary and denounce all interest in politics. If BLM thinks there are things Sanders doesn't "get," it would behoove it to explain it to him, because there simply isn't a bigger champion of social change than he in political office. Derail someone like Sanders and all I can say is, good luck with the alternatives.

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