Opinion: The Left Has a White Supremacy Problem, Too

I really hate educating white people on white supremacy.

That’s where I thought this was going, but through some interesting conversations this week, I’ve realized a lot of people on the left who are black, white and in between, are terrified by the use of the term “white supremacy.”

Maybe it’s because they don’t actually know its meaning. Or maybe because the term has generally been reserved for some of the worst among us. Either way, while all of the attention on white supremacy is being dedicated to alt-right leaders like Steve Bannon and neo-Nazis hailing Trump, people are completely avoiding the fact that yes, the left has to deal with white supremacy, too!

I made a bit of a provocative statement on Facebook this week when I posted, “I like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders but his comments regarding identity politics suggest he may be a white supremacist, too.

I was referencing a statement he gave this week in response to a question about more diversity in the Senate. It is my opinion that Senator Sanders’ response was demeaning, patronizing and came from a place of white supremacy. Did I call Sen. Sanders a white supremacist? No. Do I think his comments come from a place of political thinking that is awash in white supremacy? Certainly.

When I use the term white supremacy, I am not referring to racial hatred, as some would assume the two are parallel.
I realize, respect and am grateful for the work Senator Sanders has done on behalf of racial and economic justice throughout his life. Instead, when I reference white supremacy, I am talking about, as Frances Lee Ansley describes, “…a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” Yes, that’s very academic, but let me connect it.
Bernie Sanders HBCU Tour and Rally At Atlanta University Center
Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the Bernie Sanders HBCU Tour and Rally at Atlanta University Center on February 16, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Prince Williams / WireImage

A recent study from the Women’s Donor Network found that 90% of all elected officials in the United States are white, while people of color make up over 30% of the population. There are a ton of factors that have contributed to this disparity in representation including geography, Jim Crow, voter disenfranchisement, economic disparities, and yes, even white supremacy. What this study shows is that each and everyday in the United States, through a drastic political and economic power imbalance, white people have substantially more power than everyone else.

Therefore, just about every system we come into interaction with on a daily basis, is a system of white supremacy, including the leadership of some of the top democratic organizations in the country.

In his piece entitled “It’s Time to Diversify the Democratic Party Leadership,” in The Nation, Steve Phillips also illustrates this problem. In the article, Steve showed the leadership of all of the major democratic committees, except the DNC and DCCC, were led by white people who controlled $1.5 billion during the 2016 cycle. And with 45 percent of all democratic voters being people of color, one must ask what the hell is going on? Why aren’t more resources being spent to turn out and engage voters of color? What is this fascination with white voters?

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Fast-forward to the conversation this week, Senator Sanders basically stated diversity for diversity’s sake is not good enough. While most can agree with his premise, my challenge to this statement is that I am not aware of many (if any) people who have demanded to be elected, promoted, hired or appointed solely on the basis of their skin color, gender or sexual orientation? Who are these folks who would be so arrogant to make such an argument? And why minimize the call of diversity and equitable representation in government into a tired argument we usually hear from opponents of affirmative action? From what I know and see each and every day across this country, candidates of color, female candidates and LGBTQ candidates have to work twice as hard and be overly qualified, just to be considered as serious contenders.

Sure, I think Sen. Sanders’ comments may have been well-intentioned by trying to make the point that we shouldn’t elect anyone to office who just says they will represent us and yes, we should vet them. But people of color are sophisticated enough to make that distinction.

Senator Sanders sidestepped an opportunity to give a direct response about the need to cut down white supremacy within the democratic ranks and put more people of color into public office by suggesting the diversity of our representatives isn’t equally as important as the issues we care about, or that people aren’t intelligent enough to prioritize both of these needs in their representatives.

Do I think Sen. Sanders is an ally to the cause of racial justice? I do. Does that mean I will hold my tongue when I feel like he is double-speaking and promoting white supremacist ideals? No it does not. White supremacist thinking led democratic and progressive organizations to lose the 2016 election by spending the majority of their campaign cash targeting white swing voters through television ads, when white swings voters are not the sole base of democratic voters.

Bernie Sanders HBCU Tour and Rally At Atlanta University Center
Democratic Presidentail Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the Bernie Sanders HBCU Tour and Rally at Atlanta University Center on February 16, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Prince Williams / WireImage

If we continue to use this type of thinking around issues of diversity within elected office and democratic and progressive organizations, we will continue to see much more of the same; white people, who hold 90 percent of all elected offices, tell us to deprioritize diversity while they continue to hold all of the power to make decisions each and every day that primarily affect our lives. Self-determination requires us to ensure our voices are heard through the process of selecting our own leaders using our own rubric.

In the words of political strategist Jessica Byrd, we just need folks to “get out of our damn chairs!”

This week Senator Sanders added a few more layers on the wall of white supremacy that we are aggressively working to tear down. However, he has the tremendous opportunity to help us continue tearing that wall down by clarifying his comments and redoubling his efforts to ensure the progressive and democratic infrastructure is prioritizing diversity without mandating that candidates fit into a mold of whatever he or other progressive leaders who are almost solely white, deem acceptable.

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Yes, I am making the case that Senator Sanders should not try to tell us who is progressive enough to not only just represent communities of color, but to also lead within the democratic and progressive organizations. I believe Senator Sander’s campaign showed great evidence of his lack of understanding of various groups of people and regions of this country and he should remember that before he recommends we preempt conversations around prioritizing diversity with his own progressive values.

It’s no coincidence that people of color lead the Congressional Progressive Caucus. We don’t have to show off our progressive chops as our communities have been and always will be on the front lines fighting for progressive causes because our lives depend on it. We just need y’all to make room because it won’t always look pretty.

Our communities have only been fully franchised for a little over 50 years and it has taken the democratic party 168 years to get to this point. Give us time and space to figure our stuff out, but don’t mandate we meet your criteria as a first step to prioritize our seat at the table.

Quentin James is a political strategist and co-founder of Vestige Strategies, Inclusv & The Collective PAC.

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