The Unconscious Bias of Sanders and Some of His Supporters

I’m arriving late to the whole discussion about Ryan Cooper’s takedown of three African American potential Democratic presidential candidates. That is partly because I like to give myself some time to let these kinds of thing simmer. But it’s also because I think Martin did a good job of pointing out that people like Cooper dismiss the entirety of these candidate’s history by simply suggesting that they are corrupted by corporate connections. To get an idea of what was left out of his portrayal of Sen. Kamala Harris, check out this twitter thread:

What Cooper did to Harris, Booker and Patrick is the same thing Sanders did to Clinton and the Democrats during the 2016 primary: shut down all discussion about issues by claiming the disagreements are based on corruption. That is one of the main reasons why these differences have been so difficult to resolve.

But in defending his position, Cooper also took to twitter with something that brings racism/sexism back into the discussion.

Do you see what he did there? He preemptively robbed those “minority candidates” of any agency by suggesting that the so-called “elite” would simply stand them up as a way to cast any disagreement as a form of bigotry. Is it impossible for him to imagine that a person of color might simply disagree with him? Are they only hollow vessels to be manipulated by the elite? Since he isn’t even referring to a particular individual on which a statement like that might be judged, I can find no other explanation than the fact that it emanates from a form of unconscious bias.

Last November, I pointed out that Sanders himself did something similar when he assumed that a young woman who identified herself as Latina would run for office on a platform of simply saying, “I’m a Latina, vote for me.” He went on to suggest that unless she was willing to embrace his issues, that wasn’t good enough.

When I called that out as a form of white supremacy, a lot of people pushed back and said that was too extreme. Personally, I’m not that interested in what we call it. Robbing a woman and/or person of color of their own agency and, in doing so, attempting to shut down any conversation with them about where we might disagree is a problem. To give people like Sanders and Cooper the benefit of the doubt, I don’t believe that is their intention. Rather, it springs from a form of white privilege that produces what some people call unconscious bias.

But regardless of what words we use to describe it, the person on the receiving end is dismissed based on their race and/or gender. The way to combat that is to be willing to listen and not simply shut down the areas of disagreement. That doesn’t mean coming to some kind of kumbaya moment where we all agree. Instead, it means the kind of listening described by author Jonathan Odell.

There is an honest, open give and take, non-defensive dialogue: This may sound obvious, but a lot can go wrong when you are trying to prove you are not a racist, intolerant or even mildly prejudiced. Let it go. Defending your credentials deflects attention from the issue at hand.

The emphasis is not getting it right, just on getting it: You have to step out of the “right or wrong” dilemma. The point is not to agree or debate, or to win, but to understand. This takes an entirely different type of listening. Questions are vital, but they are asked out of sincere interest, not as a means to control, interrogate, embarrass or win a point.

Years ago Eric Holder made the bold statement that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to talking about racism. In a time when the confederate insurgency is gaining steam, it is more important than ever that liberals find their courage and dive into these difficult discussions rather than shut them down because we are uncomfortable with our own unconscious bias.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.