Color Blind=Tone Deaf: A Message to Bernie Sanders

Source: The Indypendent

I am on the ground in Alabama, an author of two books about the civil rights movement and co-director of an African American history project–  and I can attest, Bernie is losing black support that was already flimsy–I’d give him a C for Netroots Nation, which is generous, and better than O’Malley’s F but still not good enough–he sounds like an old white man  who was current on race 50 years ago but who is now “colorblind” which equals tone deaf on the state of race relations  in this historical moment. This letter is a follow-up to one I wrote the campaign in early June about Bernie’s approach to race relations.

There are things he can do to improve his thinking about race that will also improve his responses.  If no one is stepping up to educate him on this, I can do it, but I would need his attention–I’ve had enough of pissing in the wind.  I want to know the message will land before I go to the trouble to craft it. I could publish about this but I would rather educate Bernie directly than call him out in public.

I can’t believe he isn’t getting better advice about race.  The answer to “say her name” this week is “Sandra Bland.”

Bernie needs to catch up and stay current, because he is sounding too much like the *recipients* of MLK’s letter from the Birmingham Jail–out of touch with the fact that black people in this country are in a state of emergency.  Bernie is better than this and it is CRUCIAL that he not–through unconscious accident– deliver talking points that modern-day white supremacists use.  For example, suggesting that the BLM protestors “wait” until after the stump speech registered as an all-too-familiar dismissal of their urgency. It would have been better to improvise immediately by addressing their concerns first.  When MLK called out Birmingham’s white clergy, he wrote: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Bernie has made some effort to update his racial concepts but he needs to keep working on it by listening as well as by phrasing his points more carefully.  Frederick Douglass was not, in fact, talking about “all of us.”  Impoverished immigrant ancestors who chose to come here are NOT analogous to enslaved ancestors who were forced to come here.  Some issues are **specifically** African American and that needs to be acknowledged openly.  White supremacy is real and should be called out, not swept under the rug of progressive economic reform. 

Dallas was a slight improvement—but Sandra Bland et al should be referred to as “human beings” or as “citizens who died in police custody” not as “things like Sandra Bland…”  I am so worried that Bernie will say something clueless in Alabama, and from what I am seeing, the chances for a race relations gaffe are high.  This isn’t the time to defend Bernie’s past record on race, but to learn from the moment about how to move forward effectively.

Bernie can step up to this moment but he needs to do some serious homework and I will help, given the chance.  I am not the most skilled anti-racism educator in the country, not by a long shot, but I am willing to step up if no one else does. Bernie, from his national perch, has access to the best, and he should reach out and learn from them.  This is urgent.

Jane DeNeefe lives in Huntsville, Alabama. She is the co-author of Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail: An Illustrated Guide to the Cradle of Freedom. This article originally appeared at