Thoughts for White Activists on Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter

by Alex Greene

August 9, 2015

A year ago today, Michael Brown was murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, MO–one of a thousand or more victims of police violence in 2014. In the time since then, Black Lives Matter has grown from a hashtag and rallying cry to one of the most important social movements this country has seen in many years, a movement which has mobilized and radicalized significant new layers of young people of color, developed and promoted the leadership of young women and queer people, made a number of important tactical innovations, and in changed the whole conversation around race in the U.S. Today should be a day of mourning for the hundreds of innocent lives taken by police each year, as well as a day to acknowledge and take action for the movement that has grown in response to this violence.

Black Lives Matter activists interrupt a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle.

And for many, it will be both of those things. How disappointing, though, that for so many white leftists and progressives in my social media feed, today has instead been a day to criticize if not outright condemn this movement and its activists for staging an action that interrupted Bernie Sanders at the start of his presentation at a rally defending Social Security. These responses have ranged from questions which, while perhaps coming from a well-intentioned desire to understand, betray a fundamental ignorance about the movement and its politics and structures, to proclamations about the problems of the movement and what it should be doing better, to outright racist and sexist attacks on the two young women who carried out the action, to claims that they are operatives working for the Clinton campaign and deliberately trying to sabotage Bernie for her sake.

I am white, and I am primarily concerned here with the attitudes of other white activists. Rather than just shaking my head at the responses I’m seeing, I want to appeal to white folks to think this through and do better.

As white people, our response here should focus primarily on the problematic ideas and attitudes and gaps in understanding that we are seeing among white people (including in ourselves), rather than on the tactics that Black activists chose or what we think they should have done instead. That so many white liberal supporters of Bernie Sanders have been dismissive of Black Lives Matter, and that some have said racist and sexist things about the Seattle activists, is sad, if not terribly surprising (this is part of how whiteness operates). But that many white revolutionaries are responding to this incident primarily with criticisms of the tactic and of BLM as a movement is more of an unfortunate surprise. We ought to know better.

Surely it is more important to consider and respond to the deeply flawed race politics (or lack thereof) we are seeing from countless white activists around the country than to draw up a balance sheet on the tactical choices of a small handful of young Black activists in one city. Rather than blaming BLM activists for provoking these problems, we should encourage collective education and reflection around race and white supremacy and hope that people can develop a deeper commitment to racial justice and come to understand why Sanders has so much criticism. That Sanders has responded by adjusting and expanding his campaign message around racial justice, to some extent, is laudable, but this shift was in response to previous disruptive pressure from BLM activists, which suggests there was something successful about their approach. (And today, a day after the second disruption, the platform on his website has a brand new section on racial justice.)

We need to learn about and understand movements led by people of color in more than a cursory way. Some white radicals, including revolutionaries with many years of experience engaging in and analyzing movements, have responded to the Seattle incident in ways that make clear they have not followed this movement closely, don’t know who is in it or leading it, don’t know how it’s structured internally, and really don’t even know what its basic politics are. For example, I don’t think anyone who has followed this movement closely could seriously suggest that BLM is targeting Sanders because it supports Clinton, when the movement has consistently rejected the presence even of Black Democratic politicians at its events and when so many of the movement’s visible leaders are consistently, publicly, and explicitly critical of Clinton and the Democratic Party. Further, I think anyone attuned to this movement understands that it is loosely structured and heterogeneous, and has a large degree of local autonomy, and therefore that reading a broad strategy or politics into one action from one small local group makes little sense without carefully establishing the context (and the context, in this case, appears to be confusing even to active participants in BLM).

When we are ignorant it’s our job to learn, rather than jumping straight to ill-informed speculation (let alone ill-informed confident proclamations, a hallmark of white male leftism). And we should take it as our own responsibility to educate ourselves, rather than waiting until we see something that confuses us or that we find objectionable and then demanding answers. I couldn’t count the number of times in the last year I’ve heard Black activists complaining about white people constantly asking them for explanations about the most basic stuff, and can only imagine how tiring that must become–and how frustrating it must be when the white interlocutor decides they disagree with something they’ve just heard for probably the first time, and the request for an explanation becomes a demand to defend political ideas on behalf of an entire community and movement.

If we took responsibility for our own self-education–by listening to the words of movement activists in articles and blogs and social media accounts, by paying close attention to activities of the movement all over the country, by showing up to events and meetings wherever possible to listen and participate, and however else–we wouldn’t have to ask the vast majority of questions we ask, and the questions we did still have would be relevant ones that didn’t force people of color to take responsibility for white ignorance.

We need to carefully understand movements like Black Lives Matter not so that we can make more informed criticisms, but so that we can know how to get involved and concretely support the work. This means directly supporting BLM work as allies or co-conspirators (and this is possible even in places where actual membership of local groups is exclusive to Black people) but it also means bringing support for the movement and its politics to other political spaces–including, for example, our unions and community-based organizing and also, for those active in it, to the Bernie Sanders campaign. This might mean pushing Sanders to do better on race and immigration; it might mean pushing his supporters to show up for Black Lives Matter actions and other social movements to support them in good faith.

None of this is to say that there can be no criticism of BLM actions, or even that the Seattle action was on balance a good idea. But critical analysis, to be productive, should originate from people active in the movement. And I imagine it will: I see plenty of evidence that folks in this movement are engaged in vibrant and creative debate and have a range of views. BLM is full of brilliant and radical organizers who don’t need casual outside objections from white folks to tell them what is or isn’t working. It isn’t that white people aren’t allowed opinions or that nobody should listen to them, or that we have to uncritically accept whatever we’re told–after all, if different movement leaders are saying different things, where would that leave someone who couldn’t think critically and form their own opinions? But the long tradition of white supremacy and the historical limits of white support for racial and national liberation means that the right to have anyone care about or engage with our opinions in a situation like this must be earned.

If you complain and criticize without doing the work or even understanding the politics, folks will be entirely justified in being upset with your attitude and naming it as part of a pattern that reinforces white supremacy. But if you listen more than you demand to be heard and do work in a principled and productive way, I think you’ll find that your ideas are taken seriously and that folks are willing to engage with you positively. So, rather than asking Black folks to stop criticizing our spaces and our work, let’s seek to understand the criticisms and ask ourselves what we can do to support the struggle for Black liberation.

Alex is a member of Solidarity’s National Committee and lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.


9 responses to “Thoughts for White Activists on Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter”

  1. Eric ws Avatar
    Eric ws

    I really appreciate you reply and I think it has so many truths, many of which I had not yet realized in my own journey looking from the outside in on others struggles.

    You have correctly characterized me as a white man, which undeniably exempts me in this society from some truly horrible realities. I think that my initial reaction that the event was ugly and ineffective, like many others, is rooted in a feeling that I can only describe as deep and uneasy. As someone from the outside looking in, I so want for the BLM movement to win the psychological battle of systemic racism, by which I mean, I want the compelling arguments about the persistent inequalities between people of color and whites to be heard by the most amount of people and taken to heart, and not rejected out of hand because the listener sees the speaker as an unreliable source.

    Here’s a quote of yours I want to address specifically.

    “If all it takes is for 2 black women taking space that SHOULD have been given to US in the first place (especially with Bernie’s back ground- the wise thing would have been to join forces with BLM from the beginning to show solidarity with the ongoing plight of Black Americans) makes you not want to be an ally anymore due to “inappropriateness” then I would have to say that- you’re not the kind of ally I really want on my side.”

    I agree with the above, I want to start with that, but I don’t agree with what population is implied to be at stake by the very large and very public events such as the one we are discussing. It is not the population of potential ally’s who are at stake, its the a-political, those who aren’t paying attention to the issues, ignorant of the issues. Most people are not greeted with the narratives of the people affected by racism and all its forms. They have no conception of what growing up in a world constantly applying forces diametrically opposed to your success.

    Those peoples reactions, the ones not aware, are the ones that cause my uneasy feeling, because I know all the words of a great speech were said in Seattle, its just that they were said to an audience that listened to them but didn’t hear them. I want to believe that popular support for meaningful change will actually bring about meaningful change. It probably came from growing up in a system that was not rigged against me. Maybe that’s my fallacy.

  2. Black Medusa Avatar
    Black Medusa

    Lovely sentiment. While I am in no way excusing Sanders proselytes, I understand that we are in an intense period in our nation with serious consequences for the poor especially if we don’t get it right as voters. In fact, I think clamor of disparate voices is quite refreshing compared to american quiet following the subprime lending scandal that cost many of them retirement and life savings, 401Ks, homes, etc. I prefer a loud collective delusion to the silence of surrender. At a minimum americans are finally talking AT each other rather than to, which we will eventually achieve provided we respect each other’s humanity.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    ^This. I hear too often that members of the majority shouldn’t bother to voice their opinions on topics, because they aren’t as relevant as opinions of members of the minority. That’s pretty dumb. If only one side is allowed to have opinions, there can be no conversation; there can be only lectures. Lectures aren’t going to solve the problems.

  4. Alex Avatar

    Well, first, it’s straightforwardly true that white folks’ opinions about Black struggles will never be as important as Black folks’ opinion about those struggles. If you’re white, you really just have to accept this. If it’s not your struggle and you’re not the one being oppressed, your opinion about it doesn’t need to be at the center.

    That said, I think my article is clear that I’m not saying members of a “majority” should never voice their opinions. I’m saying our opinions as white folks about this matter to the extent that we’ve done the work to be really well informed and, more importantly, to the extent that we’re actually involved and contributing anything to the struggle. If you aren’t actively contributing anything to this struggle, why would the folks who *are* contributing to it care about what you have to say? And for that matter why would you feel the need to share your opinion with the world and ask anyone to pay attention to it?

    The dynamic here is that Black organizers are putting in tons of work to address the racist state violence directed at their communities, and white folks who aren’t doing shit about it are spouting ill-informed opinions about that work left and right. That’s what I’m trying to talk about here, not some simplistic notion that white people can never talk about race.

  5. Eric ws Avatar
    Eric ws

    TL;DR: Don’t criticize the effectiveness of the action until you are helping with the movement.

    Fair enough, but basically you make no defense of the specific action as being effective or successful. From my view, it was a terrible mis-communication. They’re press release was articulate and effective, however their temper tantrum on stage when they were told they would speak after Bernie was immature and not effective.

    It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the crowd reacted they way they did. The “claims” that they were operatives for Clinton or otherwise were not motivated by a racist or ignorant morality but rather from a rational observation that this action alienated more potential sympathetic ears than it reached. That’s what the majority of commentary has been saying.

    This was a missed opportunity, but there will be more.

  6. mary pike Avatar
    mary pike

    Thank you, Alex Greene, for this thorough reminder of how to be a better ally and how to unlearn so much of the “ill-informed confident proclamations, a hallmark of white male leftism”. I get tired of repeating that response and I know my friends of color definitely get tired of hearing it. I look forward to reading more of your commentary and putting it to good use.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    I’m just guna take a moment to criticise the critic of the critics of the critics of the critic šŸ˜€ join in guys its fun!

    Alex (author of article) has good points.

    but one thing about your argument kind of irks me. i hear it quite often. “these people critisizing need to get educated on the issue”. i heard it a lot when i had dreads. people would tell me that having dreads made me a racist (mostsly white people) and that i need to get educated on the issue of appropriation. i did at the time know something and thought models wearing head dresses was terrible and white teenage girls wearing bindis was very bad taste. but i wasnt aware of any dreads being associated with cultral appropriation.
    i did as much research as i could, i researched ras tafari, ethiopia, indian sadhus. i reseached the history of “black hair” and the racism and oppresion associated with black hair styles.

    but i still came to the conclusion that i was not racist in dreading my hair. yet i was still told to educate my self. i may not know everything there is to know but where is the point of education at which my opinion is valid? i get the feeling that it is only valid at the point where i agree with you or whoever is criticising me.

    for the record tho im not hugely critical of these BLM activists. i understand when your in a grassroots organisation you do what you can to affect things.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    That’s the problem Eric, when it comes to acts of civil disobedience and its “success” for POC, it is not up to white folks to comment on what is or isn’t productive because you simply don’t know how to experience or recognize success from our point of view. As a POC, I would argue that this public disruption was extremely successful. You say that she doesn’t but the author makes mention of some of the fruits that came from this labor- not to mention bc of this backlash POC now have a black woman with a voice that will matter inside Bernie’s political camp! That is a HUGE WIN for POC. However, privilege doesn’t allow most white folks to see the benefit of this action as we do because you are used to whiteness and by default used to being included in everything at all times and if you’re a man double it. For Poc however, that is not, nor has it EVER been the case.

    As you can see with this situation, it took those 2 women having the where with all to TAKE/MAKE space in order to get Bernie to clearly define his solidarity with POC on his website to make sure he was in alignment with OUR causes and concerns but it took this action to happen before those things were addressed. Moreover, This is the first time in history that 2 female POC have ever been able to do what they did on that stage. You/white folks calling their actions immature is showing how much you don’t understand this unprecedented event in the eyes of POC (aka the biggest marginalized group of people in our country (Black Women.) As 2 groups of people with 2 very different lived experiences what you saw as counterproductive was truly productive for “US.” In a way I believe this subconsciously offends allies that mean wells bc we are not asking for your permission or your opinions to empower ourselves, however one thing that you must bare in mind is that This movement does not cater to a white person ideology of right or wrong bc the playing field is not balanced. Allow me to explain.

    You see, these women had to take/make space bc it would have never been given to them otherwise. Maybe it wasn’t as organized as YOU would have wanted it to be- or as elegant but again I believe this is the point of this article. My advice? if you want to be the type of ally that POC really need in this fight for justice, don’t be so quick to make a negative judgement of the situation based on your opinion because white supremacy and how it permeates a white persons psyche makes it nearly impossible to truly comprehend what success looks like to a POC when you are not one- it’s not a judgement- it just is what it is.

    An important detail to remember when moving through this process of ally ship (because ally ship IS a process and NOT a destination-) is to remain cognizant of the needs of those who are being oppressed. Don’t just think you know, ASK … and do it often! This is how one can measure how good of an ally they are being to POC. I will say, as a POC who is heavily involved in social justice- I KNOW the biggest need for POC right now is to be truly SEEN and HEARD by white people in the beginning…UPFRONT! Not as an after thought! We want to be included in conversations as they happen, not when the white person in the room with the most power or control realizes that they left us out so now they have to do damage control. It is important for allies to understand that This is the state in which Black Americans have been living in for decades and what you saw on that podium by those 2 women was a message that as POC we are no longer willing to let our silence or lack of visibility be our norm or YOURS. If you ignore this aspect of ally ship then the truth is you are not being the type of ally that WE need.

    Now, If the first thing that came into your mind when you read that last line was, “but what about my needs?” Herein lies the ultimate problem and the inconvenient truth of your version of ally ship… It’s a watered down version. At best, your calling yourself an ally is an attempt to make yourself feel good so that you can rest easy and say you are a just person and by default appease your ego. Yesterday I saw at least 100 people on the BLM Seattle page make comments like “way to get rid of folks who would’ve been in your corner.” My answer to this sentiment is- if all it takes is for 2 black women taking space that SHOULD have been given to US in the first place (especially with Bernie’s back ground- the wise thing would have been to join forces with BLM from the beginning to show solidarity with the ongoing plight of Black Americans) makes you not want to be an ally anymore due to “inappropriateness” then I would have to say that- you’re not the kind of ally I really want on my side. If you found this act inappropriate then that means that you also don’t understand the true dynamics of what the BLM movement is or what it stands for. If you don’t like the fact that I am saying this, then I say rectify it- educate yourself.

    What I am saying may be harsh but the reality is This situation has made many a POC draw a line in the sand. POC are now actively calling out wishy washy allies who treat their activism like most folks treat their religion.. engaging when something goes wrong or when its a special occasion- what POC’s need right now are warriors. If you’re not a warrior, again, no judgement. However, I would have to say do us all a favor and save us the trouble and have enough sense and courage to “Opt-out.” Save us the hurt and shock and awe of having to deal with the hateful responses such as the ones we experienced due to this situation on line or in the media. Save us from wasting the precious time and energy that we need for fighting this fight with you because if you don’t we WILL invest, believe and put our trust in you to have our backs. And by all means, please don’t fill our ears with more of your near sighted opinions. Believe me when I say, one of the things POC DON’T need right now is more opinions that are presented as “help” but really aren’t. And no, I am not saying you don’t have the right to your opinion, you do! However, I feel it would be better served to remember to communicate in a respectful manner. If its done any other way then the reality is you are ultimately contributing to the problem of silencing the already almost ignored voices of POC.

    Look, We understand that simply by being white- the world and our culture supports the idea that you are “right” and yes we also understand that even you have come to believe that you know what’s right in most cases- However, when it comes to the issue of POC and the tactics we gravitate towards to empower ourselves and gain freedom from this long standing white supremacist oppression- you’re probably going to be wrong- no judgement, it just is what it is.

  9. Bilal Ali Avatar
    Bilal Ali

    Alex i think your critique is on point. Some “white” people will never understand because they haven’t experienced oppression, exploitation, brutality and other forms of inhumanity. Yet, some “white” people think they have a handle on all that is good, decent, right…etc…Any real change in this fascist, white supremacist and corporate kkkountry has been initiated through black struggle. Any real change will come through black struggle.