Dear Sen. Bernie Sanders,
I’m not quite sure what you meant to say about identity politics in your speech last Sunday. In your words, “One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics,” and it’s unclear to many whether you’re saying people on the left should let go of identity politics or refocus their attention on economic issues.
Either way, I think the post-Trump Democrat rhetoric that blames an inability to speak to the white working class for their loss this election has had the effect of downplaying the necessity and relevance of identity politics. While I’d like to believe that you sincerely care about fighting identity-based discrimination, it strikes me as troubling that you find an inability to talk to the white working class shameful while yourself failing to adequately appeal to people of color, who make up a disproportionate amount of the actual working class.
Here’s why people like me—people who are young, multiply marginalized, and rooting for progressive politicians like you—are disappointed with the Democratic Party. Leading (mostly white) Democrats know how to pander to marginalized people, name drop civil rights leaders they’ve worked with, and nominally condemn bigotry and discrimination, but they don’t know how to actually hear, see, and help the very people they count on to win elections. You know this problem with the establishment very well—it’s evident that even having a Black president in the White House has not been enough to stem the tide of hatred and violence toward Black people and other people of color.
The Myth of the White Working Class
However, progressive independents like yourself must also do the work to reach out to marginalized people in practical ways. Where was your outreach to people of color who could benefit from your populist message during the primaries? There are no shortage of progressive and radical people of color who wanted your message to reach their communities, but your almost all-consuming focus on populist rhetoric has fallen short of connecting with many ordinary people who aren’t white men.
I agree with you that the Democratic Party needs to rethink its strategy in the future, but I disagree that the problem was a failure to appeal to the white working class through anti-establishment and populist rhetoric. History has shown that racist dog whistles are enough to draw in white voters, even when they are voting against their own economic interests, because the impulse to maintain white supremacy has informed U.S. politics on both sides of the aisle since this country’s founding to the detriment of us all.
What’s more, it was not just the white working class that put Trump in office—it was largely college educated middle-class white people, a demographic that Democrats already put a large amount of work into appealing to. And given that white people in rural areas tend to vote Republican and hold a disproportionate amount of voting power due to the setup of the electoral college, doubling down on appealing to them would mean further devaluing the voices of people of color in urban centers.
So here’s my appeal to you and progressives who feel that identity politics must be diminished in favor of economic policy: work harder to address the ways in which identity-based discrimination is inextricably tied to economic hardship and corporate exploitation.
Come Out More Strongly on Issues of Identity
Before I get into this point about race, I have to say I admire the fact that you’ve made significant efforts to listen to the needs of people of color. You met the group of NoDAPL marchers at the White House earlier this month to call on the president to stop the pipeline. You’ve emphatically affirmed that Black Lives Matter. You’ve come out against Trump’s decision to appoint White Supremacist Steve Bannon.
However, you have not made it entirely clear how the most important part of your platform—your economic populism—would lead to practical and lasting change for communities of color.
Here’s where I’d like to talk about a statement you’ve made regarding your opposition to reparations, one that Ta-Nehisi Coates has already eloquently responded to but which bears repeating here:
”The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.
“So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.”
The trouble with this statement is that it frames Black disenfranchisement as an issue that can be fixed by addressing class first and foremost. The problem with this is that it ignores the fact that our government is designed to structurally oppress Black people and people of color.
The kinds of solutions you’ve proposed for addressing poverty within Black and Latinx communities don’t do much to dismantle white supremacy, stop the school-to-prison pipeline, or address discriminatory housing practices. The problem in poor communities of color is not just historically entrenched poverty. The problem is that politicians have kept systemic oppression in place, used gerrymandering and voter ID laws to decrease the power of the urban Black vote, ignored the tactical segregation of schools and communities, and placed the needs of frustrated white people above those of systemically oppressed people of color.
In short, you cannot afford to be colorblind in your class analysis. While you have commendably acknowledged issues of racial discrimination, you have not tied that into your positions on class in a way that gets to the heart of the United States’ racial issues. Progressives need to center issues of racial discrimination in their analysis because more often than not, people of color need white people to get out of their way or stop killing them more often than they need socialist policies to lift them out of poverty. Deliberate, calculated, and systemic discrimination will keep people of color from building wealth and escaping poverty no matter how well you leverage policy to help the “working class.”
This goes beyond race—systemic oppression keeps women, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, and other marginalized groups from accessing the power and wealth that are more readily available to straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender men.
It is not enough for you to call out issues of class and then encourage people to fight hatred. You must also aim to dismantle the systems of identity-based privilege that allow the largely white, male, cisgender, and straight establishment to hold so tightly to power. And make no mistake, prioritizing outreach to the white working class only further privileges frustrated white men who should not be entrusted to steer the future direction of U.S. policy.
What I Hope You and Other Progressive Leaders Do Moving Forward
In sum, it is the belief of many progressives that placing class at the center of progressive politics is a mistake. Class in the United States has always been informed by issues of race, gender, ability, and conformity, and these facets of identity politics must stay front and center in order to fully address the problems of the working class in this country.
Don’t blame identity politics for our political failures. Don’t cater to the white working class and forget to include other forms of oppression in your analysis. Don’t pander, yes, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either—we still need to talk about identity politics. The current problem is that politicians do so only superficially or use their own marginalized identities as a way to absolve themselves of doing real work or analysis around issues of class and identity. That has to stop.
Really, what I’m asking you to do is to be intersectional—acknowledge the ways in which our identities affect our access to wealth, voting power, safety, and privilege in this country. That is the only way to do right by all potential voters, not just white people of the working class.
A progressive who wants us all to do better