Bernie Sanders, Racial Justice, Reduxing the Redux


I know I’ve spent more than a little time this past week considering matters of race, policing, Sanders, ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ and Sanders’ seeming response with his newly-drafted policy platform on racial justice.

I don’t apologize. I have a feeling that these issues may well become a defining angle on the presidential debate over the next year.

And so. I read and re-read Bernie’s section on racial justice. Something about it bothered me. And it took me a while to work out what. As is my wont, I will now wander places which may make people uncomfortable. But. Hmm. I seem to do that.

There are very useful, interesting and constructive discussions which could be held, should be held about the matters raised in Bernie’s policy platform on racial justice. I hope that I have, in my advocacy over the years, been making some small contribution myself.

Whether it was my advocacy through and beyond the 2008 presidential election, when I campaigned for a candidate (any candidate) to adopt the notion that we could seriously impact the immediate symptoms of poverty by implementing a pledge that every man, woman and child in the US should have access to adequate food, clothing, housing and healthcare.

My attempt to get the Obama administration to set up a system of community organizers to ensure the sensitive disbursement of anti-poverty funds arising from his 2009 economic stimulus.

My current efforts to help introduce and explore the concept of citizen design of policing in Carrboro, NC.

My problem with Bernie’s new section on racial justice is that it does not offer a temperate and thoughtful review of the matters contributing to the discomfort surrounding the issues of color in the US, not least with policing. Rather it is a one-sided rant, offering little more than a check list of people and institutions to blame and victimize.

It is my opinion that any meaningful discussion of race in the US requires nuanced consideration of all sorts of impulses and imperatives, some of which are necessarily in conflict.

I want today to address just one matter that is raised in Bernie’s section on racial justice, a matter to which others return when I debate with them. Namely, the apparent bias in our justice system (from policing to court), which causes a seeming imbalance in the number of people of color in prison.

Is it reasonable merely to look at outcome (numbers in prison) and state baldly, as Bernie’s section appears to do, that this is a consequence of racial bias in our justice system? Or does it require further and sensitive examination, analysis and discussion? Not least about the rights and responsibilities of all of the protagonists which led to the bald numbers?

This is usually the point at which at least one of my friends screams: racist!

Let’s get down to the neighborhood level, and look at just one situation, merely as example. I truly understand the frustration of folk who say (and they have said it with respect to the conversation we are having in Carrboro; I’m not making this up): it’s ok for rich white people. They live on five acres. Their kids have their own room. They can engage in illegal activity unseen by cops.

Less advantaged families have to fit into a small apartment. Illegal activity takes place on balconies. Where it can be seen by cops. It’s not that poor people, or more specifically poor people of color, commit more non-violent crime. It is that they are more likely to be seen, and therefore caught.

What happens next is that police take to patrolling those neighborhoods more, partly because records now show there is more crime there, partly to increase arrest numbers. Folks in those neighborhoods feel stigmatized and targeted. Their kids have records. And this may start them down a path to more serious whatever. Bingo. More people from poor backgrounds and of color in prison for non-violent crime. Racial bias.

Is the response to apply the law unevenly, merely because of economic circumstance? At the very least, isn’t it fair to accept that this is a valid question, rather than merely presuming the answer is yes, as Bernie appears to do?

Is the answer to turn a blind eye? To decriminalize certain non-violent crime? Or reduce the sentences? Evenly? Or again, do we apply the blind eye unevenly, in response to economic circumstance?

If one person says economic circumstance is no excuse for breaking the law, it is fair to consider another person who says, yes, but we need to look at remedying cause as well as punishing effect?

And, straying a little from the specific issue of legal justice, when examining economic circumstance, is the answer to abandon the community where there is economic disadvantage, or is the better solution to work for improving that neighborhood?

I don’t pretend that the short moment spent discussing the above is the be all and end all of the nuance I reference. I offer it merely as a small example of what I mean by nuanced and balanced consideration.

And it is that nuance and balance which I feel is missing from Bernie’s section on racial justice. Rather I find his policy platform to be simplistic, trite, angry and bombastic.

There are a lot of angry people in the US today. On all sides of the debate on race, justice and policing.

It is entirely appropriate for an organization lobbying on behalf of a specific issue or an identified group of people to be so one-sided. That is their reason for being.

I would hope that a man I admire and who is running for President would be more recognizing of the fact that different viewpoints exist and require more careful navigation.

[Again, a rather interesting discussion began when I posted this essay on Facebook.]


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