During last weekend’s Netroots Nation Conference in Phoenix, both Bernie Sanders and fellow Democratic presidential hopeful, Martin O’Malley, were targeted by protestors for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Their demand: “a racial justice agenda that will dismantle, not reform, not make progress, but will begin to dismantle the structural racism in the United States.”
Those were the words of Phoenix activist Tia Oso, National Coordinator for the Black Immigration Network and Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). The African-American protestors’ frustration and anger is completely understandable, particularly in light of recent events. However, one has to only look at Sanders’ record over nearly six decades of civic involvement to understand that he is as passionate about racial justice as he is about social and economic justice. In fact, the issues of race and economics are closely entwined – something which Progressives such as Sanders are acutely aware.
Bernie Sanders’ long and distinguished career as a statesman began in the mid-1950s, when he was a student at James Madison High School in New York City. He ran for class president, campaigning on a platform supporting fund raising for Korean youths orphaned during the 1950-53 conflict, providing them with scholarships. It was rare for a teenager to even be aware of such issues in those days – and the very idea of “International Solidarity” was even more unusual. Even though McCarthyism had waned at that point, it still would have required considerable courage to take such a position with “socialist” connotations.
Young Bernie lost his bid for class president – but his opponent later endorsed his campaign to fund the scholarships.
In following years, Sanders was active in the Congress on Racial Equality and the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1970s, Sanders stood up for LGBT rights, calling for an end to laws criminalizing and allowing discrimination against homosexuals. During the 1988 election cycle, Sanders – then mayor of Burlington, Vermont – publicly endorsed Jesse Jackson‘s presidential campaign and joined his criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
In more recent years, Sanders, whose constituency is overwhelmingly white and rural, has received high marks from both the ACLU and the NAACP. He has, in fact, addressed police brutality against blacks – as well as high unemployment among African-American youths and the disproportionate number of blacks making up the U.S. prison inmate population. He continues to speak out on these issues, primarily in the context of economic justice.
We at the Ring of Fire respect Tia Oso’s frustration over her perceptions that Sanders has failed to address the issue of African-American lives. However, we also hope that Ms. Oso will investigate Sanders’ record in greater depth and realize that he stands for people of color – all colors.