Maybe Blacks Just Aren’t Socialists

This morning, Ed Kilgore discusses a theory “that there’s something about Bernie—perhaps his tendency to frame all issues as economic in nature—that doesn’t grab nonwhite voters.” It’s something I’ve been thinking about, but I’m not quite sure how to go about understanding it.

Growing up in the intellectual and liberal hotbed of Princeton, New Jersey, my playground was often in the living rooms and dens of Ivy League professors. Some of these professors could accurately be described as radically left-wing, others not, but in combination with the general left-wing social activism I encountered on a daily basis, I was kind of marinated in the intramural debates the left had in the late Cold War period.

In that environment, socialism wasn’t just a way of describing a distance from the political center. It was more of a description of how a person chose to interpret the world. I could get into degrees and types of Marxism, distinguishing Leninists from Trostkyites and basic Western European social Democrats, but these were all of a type that sought to understand the world in primarily economic terms.

There were totally different types of leftists who were largely uninterested in such theories and were much more concerned about concrete things like civil rights, gender equality, peace activism, apartheid, the Palestinians, or social spending priorities.

If we roll the tape forward to recent times, the first group would be represented by the folks who gravitated to the Occupy Movement and were keen to use the economic crisis of 2008-9 to break up the big banks and strike a blow against capitalism. The latter group would gravitate more to the project of having a new sympathetic president whose success or failure would determine so much for our future.

Even more recently, the latter group would gravitate to Trayvon Martin and Ferguson and the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Obviously, there’s plenty of overlap in these two types of leftists, but they’re easily distinguishable in my mind. And they don’t speak quite the same language.

When it comes to Bernie Sanders, I think he speaks in the language of class consciousness which is an effort to unify all working people in a common political project. If you look at how he initially reacted to the #blacklivesmatter protestors, his instinct was to say “we all matter,” because that’s the core of his message. We’re all in this together and let’s not let them divide us by exploiting our superficial differences.

And that’s fine, but it doesn’t translate to people who are standing there saying, “We’re getting killed and you’re not because we’re different from you.”

The interesting thing is that once the respective messages are translated, there isn’t any disagreement between the two sides. Surely, there will remain some gap in how issues are prioritized (Bernie will still put income inequality ahead of police brutality, for example) but both sides are willing to fight for the same things.

The inadequacy of this explanation for Bernie’s inability to get his message through to people of color, though, is that I’m talking about elites or intellectuals or social activists talking to each other. And that’s only the crust at the top. Just as the white progressive blogosphere is influential but ultimately unrepresentative of the progressive movement as a whole, the black and brown intelligentsia isn’t representative of the overall black and brown communities. It’s certainly not helpful to Bernie that the black blogosphere is largely hostile to his campaign, but it doesn’t sufficiently explain this:

Sanders started off this primary known to a similar percentage of whites, blacks and Hispanics; around half of all three groups had neither a favorable nor unfavorable opinion of him. But while the share of whites without an opinion of Sanders has steadily declined, his campaign simply hasn’t grabbed the attention of minorities.

What I am arriving at is that the black community simply doesn’t speak the language of socialism. On an intellectual level, socialism can seem like a negation of their unique struggles, but it may run deeper than that.

Just as the black community is more religious than the white progressive community and therefore more socially conservative overall, the black community also has weak roots into the economic theories of the far left. Too often, I think people see how reliably blacks vote for the Democratic Party and automatically place the whole community on the far left. We see the Republicans doing this whenever they suggest that 47% of the people are just looking for a handout. The idea is that (mostly) minorities are dependent on the government and will support a totally socialist political program.

But it appears to me that this misses much more than it explains. You can rightly point out that the right divides people by race, pitting poor whites against poor blacks and Latinos. But there’s also a sense that class struggle is a luxury that you can’t get to until you’ve overcome systemic racial bias and discrimination.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t get to the sanitation workers until after he’d won the right to vote, for example. And, likewise, the current generation is trying to deal with unaccountable police violence and mass incarceration, and breaking up the big banks is just a lower priority.

So, what I think is going on here is that there is some misunderstanding on both sides, and a sense from the black community that their priorities aren’t going to get the right emphasis from the socialist left.

To put it in the simplest terms, the black community isn’t really socialist.

That doesn’t mean that they’re a bunch of corporatists or DLCers. That’s the wrong kind of left-center distinction to make.

For a long time, I saw in Sanders someone who was basically a Democrat and who was advocating nothing more radical than what is fairly mainstream in many Western European countries. What I think I was missing is that there are deep veins in the present that run back into the Cold War period. The language of class struggle and the language of social justice are not the same. That’s why one side can see it as a badge of honor to have “walked with Martin Luther King” which proves your longstanding commitment, and the other side can see it as almost a joke, like “I have lots of black friends.” Because, you know, the struggle didn’t end in 1968.

In any case, I don’t think Sanders will break though with a worker solidarity message or with that kind of language. We might wish for more class solidarity, but I think a new language is required to make it happen. And this is as true about getting through to the white working class as it is to the black and brown one.

The rhetoric of the Old (white) Left isn’t going to get it done.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.