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Sunday, August 23, 2015


Sheryl Mitchell asks the following question:  "I am very interested in your thoughts on the recent conflict between the Sander's campaign and some black activist groups. Today's Times characterised this as a difference between a race-based and class-based analysis of American society. As a Sanders fan, Marxist, and former head of an Afro-American studies department, you would seem to be uniquely well-placed to comment on this. What is your take?"

One correction:  I was the Graduate Program Director of the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for twelve years, but never the head of the department.  That said, what is my take?

I have some things to say of an unorganized nature, and I will be happy to share them, but I want to resist offering a full-scale theoretical response, which would suggest that my insight is deeper and my knowledge broader than is the fact. 

First of all, I am not surprised that Bernie was blind-sided.  He clearly initially believed that since his very detailed policy proposals would, if anything, disproportionally benefit people of color, inasmuch as they have been disproportionally disadvantaged by American capitalism, and since he put himself personally on the line during the Civil Rights Movement, Black activists would recognize these facts and support rather than confront him.  He was wrong to assume that, as he very quickly realized, but I find it entirely understandable and -- in my personal opinion -- not at all reprehensible.

I think he knows that it is essential for him to embrace the Black Lives Matter activists in ways they can acknowledge and welcome, rather than acting hurt that they do not recognize his lifelong commitment to racial justice.  Speaking [or writing] as someone even older than Bernie, I can tell you that it is often hard for old warriors to be confronted by young fired up activists who seem to have been born yesterday.  Saying, somewhat defensively, "I marched and rode in the '60's" -- which is to say before the parents of the people confronting him were born -- is never going to get a respectful hearing.  I have the same problem all the time talking to philosophy students whose grandparents I might have taught in college.

By comparison, Hillary Clinton's initial response to the activists -- "all lives matter" -- was tone-deaf.  The cry "Black lives matter!" is not by implication a statement that white lives do not matter.  It is a dramatic assertion that Black men and women are being slaughtered by the police in this country and it has got to stop now.  Those saying it are announcing that they are no longer willing in any way to accept or be complicit in the injustice being inflicted specifically on Black people in America.

But obviously there is a great deal more to say.  I have on a number of occasions written on this blog about the distinctive intersection of race and class in American history -- an intersection that one does not find in the same way in European nations [despite the English exploitation and brutalization of the Irish peasantry.]   Slavery was not some unfortunate peccadillo on the way to the realization of the American dream.  It was the central fact about the development of the American economy for the first two hundred and fifty years, and the particular structural deformations and social evils consequent upon it remain a defining element of the American "story" to the present day.  It is understandable that socialist theorists schooled on the story of the rise of capitalism in Europe should try to assimilate the fact of American slavery to that story without in any essential way altering the outlines of the story, but it is in my judgment a mistake.  Since I have written a book about this [Autobiography of an Ex-White Man University of Rochester Press, 2005] I will not repeat here what I said there.

It is a fact about contemporary American politics that Bill Clinton, and by extension Hillary Clinton, enjoys phenomenal and very emotional approval in the Black community -- never mind whether that approval is justified.  Bernie needs a substantial portion of the community behind him if he is to have any chance of mounting a serious challenge to Clinton for the nomination, and I do not know whether he has the slightest chance of getting it.

On any substantive issue of policy you can name, Sanders would be at least as good as Clinton from the point of view of Black activists and on many he would clearly be better, but nobody ever votes on the basis of rational self-interest except the rich, and even they are quite capable of failing to recognize their Savior when he appears, as the monied hatred of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 30's demonstrates.





Matt Austern said...

Hillary Clinton's initial response to the activists -- "all lives matter" -- was tone-deaf.

Are you sure about that attribution? There have been a lot of stories about how "all lives matter" was Martin O'Malley's initial response. (And that he apologized for it later, and that Trump attacked him for apologizing.) Conceivably Clinton said it too, but I don't remember seeing any stories about it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am relying on memory, which at my age, or any age, is dangerous. I certainly could be wrong. If so, I apologize.

Lounger said...

According to an article on NPR she did say "All lives matter."

Ludwig Richter said...

There has been a great deal of discussion in Seattle about Black Lives Matter and the Sanders campaign, particularly as a result of a protest a couple weeks ago in which two activists took over the mic from Sen. Sanders, who was about to speak to large crowd.

Here is some raw footage of the protest. The footage, of course, doesn't give us the full context for the protest, but it is striking (to me) nonetheless:

formerly a wage slave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

There is some useful discussion of the positions argued for by "Black Lives Matter", and how the various Democratic candidates stack up in relation to them here:

For what it's worth, Sanders, it seems, does the best already.