What happened in Nevada is a microcosm for why Bernie is losing, but we can fix it.
For Bernie Sanders supporters like myself, Bernie’s loss in Nevada Saturday was compounded by a damaging story that Bernie supporters had shouted “English-Only” at civil rights leader Dolores Huerta during one of the caucuses. This story seemed to confirm the worst stereotypes about the Sanders campaign — that he is supported by a mostly white liberal base that is at times both racist and sexist. In the days following, reports came out suggesting that parts of the story weren’t true, and now the debate is focused on what actually happened. But the focus should instead be on the underlying issues of racial ignorance, and how Sanders supporters can fix issues like these that have continually dogged our campaign.
This fairly neutral Washington post article does a good job of summarizing what transpired. During the caucus, someone requested Spanish translation because a significant number of caucus goers did not speak English. Dolores Huerta, civil rights icon and campaign surrogate for Hillary Clinton, was the first to volunteer to translate. At this point, several Sanders supporters loudly objected to Huerta because she was seen as not neutral. The moderator attempted briefly to resolve the situation, and even pointed out that enough people spoke Spanish in the room that someone could speak out if the translation was not neutral. But unable to find an agreeable solution, the moderator stated “we’ll go forward with english-only”, at which point several members of the crowd, presumably Sanders supporters, cheered.
There’s a lot that’s not right with this whole situation. The most significant issue is that ultimately no translation was given and the caucus proceeded with a significant number of people in the audience left out of the process. The blame for this isn’t solely on Sanders supporters. Translation needs should have been addressed before the caucus even began, ideally several days before. And certainly the moderator’s disorganized handling of the situation is partially to blame for the outcome. But none of this changes the fact that Sanders supporters at this caucus supported no translation at all over a potentially biased translation. In a campaign that is supposed to be about “bringing people together,” Sanders supporters left people out of the process instead of risking a few additional votes for Clinton.
The Sanders campaign is caught in a cycle where paranoia about the Clinton campaign’s dirty tricks mixes with an inability to prioritize racial justice, and results in incidents like these over and over again. Here, Sanders supporters were so zealously trying to prevent Clinton bias that they completely lost sight of the more important issue — that Spanish-only speakers be included in the process. Losing the forest through the trees, their behavior inadvertently confirmed arguments that Sanders supporters don’t care about Black and Latino voters. To make matters worse, they attacked a well known civil rights leader, who though imperfect carries the legacy of several decades of Latino/a people’s struggle for social justice. And, predictably, when the incident first rolled out on social media, the Clinton campaign spun it in the worst way possible, leaving the impression that Sanders supporters were an out and out racist mob.
Perhaps what’s most important about the Huerta incident is that it virtual repeats the cycle that happened barely a week earlier when John Lewis questioned Bernie Sander’s role in the civil rights movement. The repeated freak-outs of Sanders (white) supporters, where paranoia about the Clinton campaign machine trumps racial sensitivity, have left a lasting impression that Bernie Sanders supporters simply don’t give a f**k about people of color. At least in my social media world, most people of color I know are supporting Clinton, and they’re primarily doing it cause they are annoyed with the white supporters of Bernie Sanders. The actual positions either the Clinton campaign or the Sanders campaign have taken are trumped by anger at the behavior of Sanders white supporters.
But the good news is it’s completely possible for Sanders supporters (particularly those of us who are white) to clean up our act, hopefully in time for our candidate to still win. The first thing to do is give more f**ks about issues of racial justice. Start by recognizing that ending racial inequality in the long term is actually way more important than Bernie Sanders getting elected in 2016. Sure I know we all think great things will happen for America if Bernie is elected, but keep in mind America’s race problems go back some 400 years at least, and likely aren’t gonna get fixed cause we elect a Jewish socialist.
Bernie wants to do some great things — universal healthcare, free public college, challenging wealth inequality. But practically Bernie’s most repeated message is that electing him on its own won’t actually achieve any of these things. As Bernie says we need a ‘political revolution’ — a sustained long term grass roots organizing effort to bring about social change. We’re in it for the long haul. And in the long haul, the only way to stay on track is to have a strong moral compass. Killer Mike has spoken on multiple occasions about carrying forward the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. A great question for Sanders supporters to start is asking themselves is what would Dr. King do? Would Martin Luther King Jr. let Spanish-speaking people be left out of the political process because he was worried they’d receive biased translation?
The flip side of the equation is how to deal with the Clinton campaign machine’s cynical attacks on Bernie Sanders. As a strong Sanders supporter, I believe that claims that the media is in collusion with the Clinton campaign are at least partially true. I’ve been mad several times when coverage ignored Bernie, or when commentators seemed to fawn endlessly over Clinton after the debates. And I do believe Hillary is a fairly cynical politician willing to bend the truth to be elected. But the solution to media bias and dirty tricks is not hyper-vigilance. The solution is not to become angry at every perceived slight. The only way to defeat the Clinton machine is to repeatedly present the actual facts calmly and compassionately, over and over, until the Clinton campaign is revealed for what it is — a project of center-right wealthy elites to maintain control of government. For so many of us, Bernie Sanders campaign offers the first hope ever of taking back our government for the people of this country. But the elites currently in control are not going down without a fight, and who can blame them for employing every dirty trick in their arsenal. We will defeat them, but only with fierce love and compassion, sustained by presenting the facts to our fellow citizens over and over.
I hope Bernie Sanders will win the democratic nomination. But even if he doesn’t the movement he’s helped ignite has to continue. Victories, if they do happen, will happen over a longer period of time than a campaign cycle. Now is the time to elevate our discourse and deepen our commitment to racial justice. We’re in this to win it.