My Politics Is Black. Yours Should Be, Too

Why I'm Bernie-skeptical, not anti-Bernie.

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Yesterday, someone alleged that I was “vehemently anti-Bernie.” The context was a comment I made about youth voting. I said no one ever won the presidency counting on young voters turning out. My critic demurred, but he went farther. “Why should anyone take your pessimistic (anti-Bernie bias) rewrite (opinion) of history seriously? The youth vote for [Barack] Obama was unprecedented and he (checks notes) won.”

Don’t get me wrong. My critic is entitled to his opinion. If he thinks I’m “vehemently anti-Bernie,” more power to him. I bring this up because I think it’s a convenient illustration of something I want to talk about today, which is that my politics is black.

Black politics is pragmatic. It isn’t pie in the sky. It isn’t Pollyanna. It isn’t the bright side. It sees clearly.

The history of African-American politics is the history of republican liberalism in this country. What black people have achieved is what the founders wanted Americans to achieve, and, yes, that’s in spite of their owning black people. Small-r republican liberalism demands representative government, individual liberty, equal protection under the law, and the cultivation of the common good. It honors freedom but demands responsibility. Citizens are not taxpayers. They are not consumers. They are citizens—the greatest gift of self-empowerment God ever bestowed on humanity.

Black history, in my view, is a history of making good on the Constitution’s preamble. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It’s all right here. Democracy and brotherhood, equal justice and equal peace, security and prosperity—all the ideological hallmarks of black political thought and republican liberalism.

Black politics is hopeful because it must be in order to survive being cheated, robbed, humiliated or murdered in America. There is no sane person who ever gave up on hope. There is no moral conviction that is hopeless. You must believe tomorrow can be better even though you have every reason to believe it won’t be. You must believe this not for yourself, but for your children (your “Posterity”). Nihilism is a white luxury. (Black conservatism comes close, though; it believes white people are immutably racist.)

Because black politics must be hopeful in order to survive—as well as thrive—hope is therefore pragmatic. It isn’t pie in the sky. It isn’t Pollyanna. It isn’t the bright side. It sees clearly. It must, because America is no place for false hope. While white people entertained themselves after 2008 with the idea of a “post-racial” America, no black person did. Yet Obama’s victory was indisputable evidence of its future possibility.

Black history, moreover, is a history of (often violent) white forces trying to stop the preamble, as well as the Declaration of Independence and the 14 Amendment, from becoming a permanent reality. To put this another way, black history is a history of white supremacy and white violence. Yet another way: black politics is anti-fascism.

Too few white Americans, in my estimation, understand that white supremacy, white nationalism, ethnonationalism, or whatever you want to call it is just another name for fascism. Too few white people understand that the “white” in white supremacy changes according to the contingencies of history. In this country, Italians weren’t white a century ago. Neither were the Irish. In Germany, Slavs weren’t white during the Nazi era. Neither were the Jews. Neither were homosexuals nor the mentally ill.

Too few white Americans understand many conservative policies are fascist. For instance, policies forcing citizens to work in order to demonstrate that they are deserving of public assistance. The Nazis practiced an extreme version of the same belief. Arbeit macht frei (“Labor makes you free”) was displayed prominently over the gates of some of their prison camps. But free from what? From being who you are. You get public assistance after you stop being yourself. Impossible, of course, and that’s the point of such policies—to make the outcomes of sadist policies seem like a moral failing.

Most of Bernie Sanders’ most vocal supporters are white, and it puzzles them why black Americans are not backing the Vermont senator. From their perspective, black Americans would benefit the most from universal health care, greater job security, and higher taxation on the economic elites cheating black Americans out of their wealth.

They are right, of course, but that’s beside the point. The question isn’t whether black Americans want these things. (Black Americans have fought, bled and died for these and similar things.) The question is whether they can trust Sanders. More importantly, the question is whether they can trust white Americans to underwrite black American investment in Sanders. They say he will win by bringing out the youth vote. Will he?

My critic thinks so. Obama did it. Sanders can, too.

Obama didn’t. He supplemented his win with young voters. But his win didn’t depend on them. Things are different for Sanders. According to a new study, he’s probably going to push a lot of voters away. To win, he must get new voters, young ones, and to do that, he must drive out a percentage of young voters no one has ever driven out.

I’m not vehemently anti-Bernie. I’m not anti-Bernie. I’m Bernie-skeptical, though.

My politics is black. Yours* should be, too.

—John Stoehr

(*Apologies to my readers whose politics is already black!)