‘Where Are the Black People?’ A Night With Socialists For Bernie

Blake Neff

As Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders continues his campaign for president, many have wondered whether Sanders’s self-proclaimed socialism makes him simply too left-wing to hold America’s highest office. But in Washington, D.C. this week, a group of socialists found themselves asking a very different question: Is Sanders too right-wing to be president? Also, why are there no black people here?

On Thursday night, about a hundred people attended a rally for Sanders in Washington D.C. But this was no ordinary rally of Democrats. This rally was put together by the D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a small and very left-wing organization that’s overjoyed to finally see a Democratic candidate who embraces the “S-word.” Red was much in abundance at the event, on T-shirts, flyers, and otherwise. White and blue, not so much. The rally was held in a room at Busboys and Poets, which doubles as both a restaurant and a hotspot for D.C.’s progressive elements, complete with a bookstore hawking their literature right by the entrance.

But in this great assembly of progressives and even self-proclaimed radicals, one concern predominated and put a damper on the rally’s energy: the near-total lack of black people they’d managed to attract.

“My question is, where are the black people?” asked Busboys owner Andy Shallal, who was the first to address the gathered crowd. “[This campaign] cannot be a movement unless it includes people of color, lots of people of color.”

“I’m a face counter, when I walk into the room I count faces,” Shallal continued. “When I don’t see people of color at an event, I’m concerned. I’m concerned about the longevity of the event, I’m concerned about the stability of the event.”

Shallal wasn’t the only person to see a melanin deficiency among the Busboys crowd. When question-and-answer time came later in the evening, it was a recurring concern.

“Look at the room around us. I don’t see anybody besides white people,” said one crowd member, which drew some laughter. One of the handful of blacks in the audience had a similar lament.

“Bernie has a message we can all believe in and embrace,” he said. “But for whatever reason, that message is not getting through to the black community.”

Shallal put forward one theory for why Bernie events aren’t drawing coveted black faces: despite being so progressive, even his supporters can’t help being accidentally racist.

“The tweets that come out from Bernie supporters really don’t do justice for Bernie, especially when it comes to issues of race,” said Shallal. “Often times, they’re just not very culturally sensitive and it paints the candidate in a way that’s not very positive. We know that Bernie cares a lot about black folks, but sometimes I think the crowd that’s around him doesn’t have the competency.”

Another speaker, Sanders campaign volunteer and former labor leader Larry Cohen, said Sanders is struggling because he is simply so humble that he has a hard time showing his credentials on racial issues.

“I think it’s hard for Bernie even though it’s been his whole life,” Cohen said. “It’s hard for him to get used to the idea that somehow, that’s been an issue for him.” He pointed out a recent meeting Sanders had with the mother of Sandra Bland, which he has never brought up or boasted about even though it could potentially have been an easy photo-op for him.

Shallal put forward his personal suggestion to fix the situation: Sanders should win over blacks by talking about them non-stop.

“I would urge Bernie to mention the word race almost at every opportunity that he has,” he said. He also offered suggestions on how Bernie-backers can improve their “competency” on race.

“I would even suggest not saying the word ‘African-American,’ because [that] puts white people in a different category,” he said. “That seems unfair. If you’re gonna hyphenate, hyphenate everybody … Black is a political term. It’s not just a racial term, it’s a political term and has to be used as such.”

Shallal’s admonition is ironic, because “African-American” was popularized within the black community (and by Jesse Jackson in particular), precisely because it is hyphenated and put the emphasis on their heritage rather than just their skin color.

Cohen, for his part, promised affirmative action within Sanders’ campaign to ensure whatever black supporters he does have will be able to rise quickly in his campaign.

“The campaign will disproportionately hire and give leadership to people of color, recognizing that number one in his heart is clearly that black lives do matter,” he said.

To add some optimism, Cohen claimed that black members of the South Carolina labor movement are eager to line up behind Sanders even though many black elected officials have endorsed Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. While some labor figures may be happy to back Sanders, the polling numbers don’t yet bear that out for the entire state. In South Carolina, Sanders performs far worse with non-white Democrats than he does with white ones.

Not everything was about race, though. During the question period, one self-identified radical (complete with Lenin-style beard) criticized Sanders for being “obsessed” with European socialist states and not doing enough to replace the U.S. Constitution with one similar to that of Huge Chavez’s Venezuela.

“We have an incredible grassroots, social movement-based political revolution happening right here in this hemisphere, in Venezuela, in Ecuador, in Bolivia, and other countries,” he said. “Why hasn’t Bernie pledged his support to the Bolivarian process? … And secondly, why is he not talking about the fact the United States needs constitutional change? The Constitution of the United States was written in a time of slavery, it talked about four-fifths [sic] of the people, and in Venezuela you had a constitutional convention where it completely revolutionized the idea of a state, democracy, participation.”

“Why is he being so meek and social democratic?” he concluded. “Why should we even bother with him?” His lengthy question received a substantial cheer from the audience, and a response from Cohen that argued, more or less, that Bolivia and Venezuela were too obscure to serve as a strong rallying point.

“Americans are not gonna get organized primarily based on what’s going on in Venezeula or Bolivia, even though I might be personally sympathetic to that,” he said. “They’ll organize based on what we’re doing here.”

Questioners showed skepticism in other ways. One worried that, because he is running as a Democrat, Sanders’ movement could be co-opted by the Democratic Party, which he felt had repeatedly betrayed the labor movement and could do so again. Another crowd member drew approving murmurs when he said Sanders has “not been very good” on the Israel-Palestine issue, because he has voted for a resolution affirming Israel’s right to defend itself.

Despite their quibbles and concerns, though, most of the socialists at Busboys appeared happy to have a candidate who embraces their cause without reservation.

“If not now, when?” asked Cohen to rouse the crowd. “If you don’t seize this time, if you don’t seize this opportunity … you’re missing what you’ve told me you’ve waited for your entire life!”

“Fuckin’ A!” cried one, amid dramatic applause.

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