Bipartisan Bigotry

The Racist Side of Bernie Sanders Supporters

More proof that ‘progressive’ isn’t a synonym for ‘tolerant.’

Mike Blake/Reuters

For decades, one narrative has dominated American politics: That while white liberal Democrats may not be perfect, they are far more trustworthy and far less scary when it comes to race than conservative Republicans.

The backers of Bernie Sanders’s never-ending kamikaze campaign remind us of an older truth: that there are good people and terrible people in both parties and that Republicans do not have a monopoly on intolerance.

Donald Trump has without question run one of the most racially and ethnically divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory. So much so that as former Senator Bob Bennett lay dying, he asked his loved ones if there were any Muslims in the hospital. His reason? So that he could go up and apologize to each one of them for Donald Trump.

Did I mention Bob Bennett was a conservative Republican? He’s far from the only high profile conservative to come out swinging against Trump. Jeb Bush denounced Trump’s infamous Cinco de Mayo tweet in which he professed his love for Hispanics while eating a taco bowl, comparing it to eating a watermelon and saying ‘I love African Americans.’” Going a step farther, Bush said he will not vote for Trump in November. His brother and father, the two most recent former Republican presidents, have declined to endorse the party’s presumed 2016 nominee. Even more telling, they, along with the two most recent GOP nominees for president, Sen. John McCain and former governor Mitt Romney will not be attending this year’s Republican National Convention.

While a number of conservative Trump critics have attempted to diplomatically convey their problems with his rhetoric, and ultimately his candidacy, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has been refreshingly blunt: “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.”

While high-profile Republicans step forward to denounce one of their own and to argue that minorities should be treated with courtesy and respect, plenty of white progressives seem intent on putting us in our place, so to speak, and keeping us there. Though much of the media coverage of so-called Bernie Bros—overzealous, predominantly white, young, and male Sanders supporters—has focused on their treatment of female journalists online, their lack of respect for racial and ethnic minorities who deign to challenge Sanders has been perhaps more chilling.

The Washington Post noted that at one point #MississippiBerning became a hashtag used by Sanders supporters on social media—a witty and clever turn of phrase unless of course you are a black American who hears the words “Mississippi burning” and immediately thinks of church bombings and lynchings.

Black writers and activists who have had the temerity to challenge Sanders’s record have been targeted by his supporters in ways that go against not just civility but even decency. I should know. I’m one of them. For having the gall to share my perspective, buoyed by polling data, that self-described socialists are pretty much unelectable to the American presidency, his supporters attempted to harass me offline. (Emphasis on “attempted.”)

Let me explain what I mean by “harass.”

While thankfully, I have someone who works for me and wades through much of my mail and social media so I can spend as much time as possible writing (and maintaining my sanity and sense of humor), for more than a week Sanders supporters flooded my accounts with nonstop accusations—one more over the top than the next. I am “a disgrace,” “a liar,” a secret paid Hillary Clinton “mole” or “shill.” Apparently it is beyond the realm of possibility that I, as a free-thinking individual with access to polling data and a fairly vigorous intellect of my own may not consider their chosen candidate a strong one. Simply not possible. After all, as one white Sanders supporter informed me: “You need to be better informed on the needs of black people.” Thanks for the tip!

But there were a couple of messages that made their way to me that were particularly troubling. One Sanders supporter pleaded on Facebook for others to stop attacking me and try to “inform me.” (Again this denotes I couldn’t possibly be educated because I don’t agree with them, but at least he sounded civil.) To which another replied, “She chooses to ignore the issues and work for her own personal interest. If that is the case then to me everything is allowed as long as it’s not physical violence.”

Consider that statement for a moment.

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He’s certainly right from a legal perspective, but what about from a moral and ethical one? By his rationale, if David Duke encouraged other white nationalists to send endless messages—filled with insults and taunts (but not facts)—but none of them physically threatened me, should I feel safe?

So when news broke that a prominent white, male liberal blogger known for his appreciation of Sanders and disdain for Hillary Clinton had called Neera Tanden, one of the most prominent women of color in progressive politics, a “scumbag” I was not surprised.

And when I learned Sanders supporters had sent death threats to a female Democratic Party official because they were outraged at what occurred at the Nevada state convention, I was not surprised. And when Bernie Sanders declined to denounce such behavior vigorously, I was also not surprised.

Just as Donald Trump’s supporters would not demonstrate thuggish behavior, such as assaulting protesters, without getting signals from their leader that it’s acceptable, the same is true of Sanders’s supporters.

One difference is that Republicans haven’t spent decades selling themselves as the saviors of black Americans or any Americans of color, frankly. The fact that a sizable number of prominent Republicans are willing to lose this election in the name of racial and religious tolerance is actually a jarring contrast to the increasing number of Sanders voters who argue they are willing to forfeit an election to a man many of them consider a racist and xenophobe, one who they know will harm minorities, rather than ever vote for his opponent, a woman they don’t like but who is not Donald Trump.

I have a feeling that whatever the outcome of this election, more minorities have come to realize over the course of this primary season that the word “progressive” is not synonymous with “tolerant.” But perhaps the biggest lesson is that there is no such thing as a specific political party or political label that can save us.

We have to save ourselves, and going forward maybe the best way to do that is to diversify more of our political power among the decent people in American politics—regardless of their party label.