Clinton Leads Sanders in Effort to End Racism

Ben Shoemake, Columnist

Last month, Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, in which she criticized Bernie Sanders’ emphasis on economic reform at the expense of the numerous other problems – like the crisis in Flint – he might otherwise be focusing on. She enumerated the ways in which racism is still prevalent in society, the ways in which structural oppression reaches beyond a pure class struggle and intersects with race and gender, and she outlined in her strategy how change was necessary not only in policy, but in the mindsets of those who find themselves in positions of power. She ended with a call to action: “Hold me accountable.”

Recently, a video has been making the rounds among Sanders supporters, praising him for his commitment to racial justice and for, at one of his rallies, giving black protesters the mic. I find this video interesting because I’ve been following the Sanders campaign during the past year and have been more than a few moments in which his loyalties have not seemed so clear. I remember how, at Netroots Nation, when Jose Antonio Vargas gave Tia Oso the microphone and protesters demanded that Sanders and Martin O’Malley address issues of racism – particularly the then-recent murder of Sandra Bland (among too many others) – Sanders tried to speak over them, not listening. I remember how, when that incident prompted two Black Lives Matter activists to take the microphone at his rally in Seattle and demanded he be held accountable for his stance on issues of racial justice, Sanders supporters attacked both women and the entire Black Lives Matter movement with rhetoric of misogyny and hate. I remember Sanders’ statement after the event, that saying he was “disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands.”

I like Bernie Sanders and I would like to think that the events of the past year have, in some ways, opened his eyes. I would like to think that after Netroots Nation, he realized that black voters were not people whose votes he could take for granted or dismiss offhand. I would like to think that, when Sanders released his first strategies for combating racial injustice following the Seattle disruption, it was because he came to realize, to some extent, how much he still has to learn. I would like to think that Sanders is listening and growing as both a person and candidate, as black activists make their voices heard.

Sanders’ campaign is about more than just his own personally held understandings; however, it is a movement, and as its leader Sanders needs to be held accountable for his supporters’ actions. More importantly, Sanders himself needs to hold his supporters – largely white, young and middle-class – accountable. The media attacks Donald Trump for failing to denounce his white-supremacist followers, but we fail to hold our Democratic candidates to the same standard when a similar rhetoric crops up in their support. If Bernie Sanders is truly committed to issues of racial injustice, he should not allow racist remarks by those claiming to speak in his name to stand. And the same holds true for sexism – perhaps doubly, considering his opponent.

When Hillary Clinton called for greater accountability during her speech in Harlem, it was a groundbreaking moment. For once, a white presidential candidate admitted openly that she didn’t have all the answers to systemic racism, that she still had a lot to learn and that she and her colleagues should not be given a free pass for their past transgressions. Bernie Sanders has yet to acknowledge things in the same way. In an election where minority votes matter perhaps more than ever, and with Sanders still failing to meaningfully persuade minority voters, it is not an issue on which he can afford to wait.