A year before he was to make his first of five runs for The White House under the banner of the Socialist Party of America in 1904, Eugene V. Debs penned an article for the International Socialist Review titled,“The Negro in the Class Struggle.” For the time, it would certainly have been considered a progressive and even radical document, as Debs openly calls for racial equality between blacks and whites, writing that,“the history of the Negro in the United States is a history of crime without a parallel.” However, as the article continues on from its initial exhortations of white supremacy and the racial caste system in the South—Debs doesn’t speak much to racism north of the Mason-Dixon—he switches gears from a focus on racial animus to one centered around class struggle:
“The negro, given economic freedom, will not ask the white man any social favors and the burning question of ‘social equality’ will disappear like mist before the sunrise” Debs wrote, adding that, “there is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle.”
This—the idea that, as Debs would go on to say, the class struggle is colorless—has been and still is one of the most pernicious beliefs of a good portion of the white American left. Historically, white socialists, social democrats and progressives have had a somewhat turbulent relationship with their black constituents in the United States. Teddy Roosevelt, a man who was undoubtedly the most prominent progressive of his day, is most often remembered fondly as a trust-buster, environmental reformer and supporter of women’s suffrage, but he also embodied the paternalistic racism that plagued the progressive era.
For the last 28 years of his life, Roosevelt became obsessed with the notion of “race suicide”, a doctrine developed concurrently with the then popular eugenics movement, which warned of impending doom that was coming about due to decreasing birth rates among old world, Western European whites and an increased number of births among Eastern European immigrants and—most troublingly—communities of color. During his annual message to Congress in 1906, Roosevelt conveyed in no uncertain terms the urgency with which he viewed the nation’s racial shift, telling them that, “Willful sterility is, from the standpoint of the nation, from the standpoint of the human race, the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race death; a sin for which there is no atonement;” Teddy, like many of his contemporaries, both progressive and reactionary, believed that humanity functions in much the same way a livestock farm does and that, should the “best stock” (native whites) cease breeding and allow the “worst stock” (everyone else) to pick up the slack, that society would soon be in ruins.
But Roosevelt was certainly not alone among progressive era reformers in his views on race. Counterintuitively, at the turn of the century it was progressives and not conservatives that led the crusade to crack down on alleged “voter fraud” and to restrict access to the ballot for people of color, even as they crusaded for suffrage for white women. As might be expected, southern progressives turned out to be anything but when it came to race relations and were instrumental in the cementing of Jim Crow in the old Confederacy. Southern progressives like Georgia’s Rebecca Latimer Felton and South Carolina’s “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman—who I have discussed before—are paradoxes that seem completely at odds with our contemporary political landscape.
Tillman, a man who once rode with Klansmen and was at the very least an accessory to the murder of at least seven black South Carolinians in the infamous Hamburg Massacre—was also the sponsor of The Tillman Act of 1907, the first piece of legislation to explicitly bar corporations from funding national political campaigns. For her part, Rebecca Latimer Felton displayed what was in many ways an even greater display of cognitive dissonance than her male colleagues. The first woman to be elected to the Senate, Felton left behind a trailblazing legacy of feminist advocacy that included fighting for women’s suffrage, equal pay and reform of the state’s convict leasing system. On the other hand, Felton was the last member of Congress to have owned slaves, was vehemently opposed to black suffrage and was pro-lynching, once remarking that, “if it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.”
At this point, it would be easy to enough illuminate the gross racial discrimination that lay at the heart of southern progressivism and call it a day, but to do so would be to fall into the trap of framing systemic racism as a uniquely southern problem, which it certainly was and is not. Contrary to what one might expect, the progressive era was not the finest hour white liberals and progressives in the north as well. By the turn of the century, the fervor for racial justice that had characterized the pre-Civil War, abolitionist north had all but vanished, replaced by pseudo-scientific racial Darwinism and the adoption of a Not In My Backyard-ist view of race relations.
In 1908, Ray Stannard Baker, a muckraking journalist from Massachusetts, penned “Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy”, one of the first books on the racial divide during the progressive era. In it, Baker writes that the sentiments regarding race that he encountered among whites living in large northern cities like New York City and Chicago were characterized by uneasiness and detachment. Even in Boston, the bedrock of the abolitionist movement, he found that the William Lloyd Garrisons and the Robert Gould Shaws of the past were nowhere to be found, replaced by a progressive white citizenry that had little appetite for racial justice.
For most of the 19th century and especially prior to emancipation, blacks had been little more than abstractions to most left-leaning whites in the north—a just cause that would manifest itself in the form of a Frederick Douglass or a handful of non-threatening free blacks, but that had little effect on their day to day life. However, as the slow trickle of emancipated blacks turned into an out-and-out flood by the beginning of World War I and the start of the Great Migration, the abstraction of black life become a reality for them—one which they were none too keen on. As Baker astutely noted, “Northern white people would seem to be more interested in the distant Southern Negro than the Negro at their doors.”
We might be tempted to dismiss these views as little more than unfortunate relics of our nation’s racist past, but the truth of the matter is that the attitudes and posturing of today’s white progressives have more in common with their early 20th century counterparts than we would like to admit. As the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has shown in recent months, racial justice is still the blind spot of the progressive movement—a movement which is still overwhelmingly made up of white men and has a tendency to address the black community with the same paternalism, if not always the same overt racism, that was characteristic of Bull Moose progressives 100 years ago.
When Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford—two young black women who co-founded the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter—commandeered the stage at a rally for Social Security & Medicaid at which Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak earlier this month in an attempt to highlight racial inequities in King County, Washington and across the nation, many Sanders supporters were understandably miffed. After all, they had come down that day to hear their candidate—a man who many supporters revere with an almost messianic awe—speak his truth to them, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were not pleased when two black millennial women grabbed the mic and halted the rally. What was surprising, was the amount of venom and vitriol that was expelled at these women, both by those attending the rally and by millions of Sanders’s white progressive followers across the country.
To read the accounts of the crowd response to these women, one would be forgiven in assuming it had come at a Hillary or even a Jeb Bush rally. After being roundly booed by a majority of those in attendance, many people began heckling the women, shouting out things like “all lives matter” and “go ahead and taser ’em.” The reaction from supporters across the country was a much more mixed bag. Some expressed sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement, but made it clear that they disagreed with their tactics. A few were encouraged by the BLM protests,seeing them as a necessary development in trying to unite an American left whose economic and racial justice branches have never quite seen eye to eye. But, a significant portion of the response from Sanders supporters was characterized by a toxic mixture of rage, condescension and whitesplaining that harkened back to days of the Progressive era.
The primary argument proffered by certain diehard Sanders supporters can be adequately summed up by a recent Gawker article entitled, “Don’t Piss on Your Best Friend.” Bernie is the only candidate that’s actually trying to help black people, this line of reasoning normally goes, why would you want to disrupt the one person who’s trying to save you? Well, aside from the presumptuousness involved in white people telling a black movement what’s in the best interest of black Americans, there are plenty of statistical justifications as to why blacks shouldn’t necessarily be lining up around the block to support Sanders, and many of those justifications can be seen in the city of Seattle, where this latest Black Lives Matter/Bernie Sanders dust-up took place.
Seattle is one of the most progressive cities in America. It has a socialist on its city council, recently approved a phase-in of a $15 minimum wage and is one of the most LGBT friendly cities in America. And yet racial inequality in the Emerald City is so pronounced that it makes the deep south look egalitarian by comparison. In King County, Washington—where Seattle is located—less than 4% of white non-hispanic families live in poverty. For black families it’s over 22%and for American Indian/Alaska Native/Pacific Islander populations it’s between 16% and 18%. This is what traditional white progressivism looks like and it’s why the Black Lives Matter movement has been all over Bernie Sanders to address racial inequality in a direct and meaningful way.
A recent Gallup poll showed that only 23% of blacks in America held a favorable opinion of Bernie Sanders, while 80% thought of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in a positive light. If Bernie wants to have any chance of securing the Democratic nomination, he is probably going to have surpass Hillary in popularity among black voters, since the former Secretary of State is all but guaranteed to have the edge among women voters as she did in 2008. And, in order to pull that off, he needs to address issues specifically effecting the black community in ways that Hillary isn’t, as he did with his platform on racial justice, which was released in large part due to pressure put on his campaign by Black Lives Matter activists.
Eugene V. Debs once wrote that, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.” If Bernie Sanders truly wants to win The White House, he is going to have to break away from the path set by his political idol and reach out specifically to voters of color, showing that he understands the issues directly effecting them and pledging to work to ameliorate the problems that plague their communities. At the present moment, Sanders only has the support of 18% of potential Democratic voters nationwide. These 18% are his base—they are the collective of predominantly white, liberal Democrats and left-wing independents who are the inheritors of the mantle passed on by the Progressives of a century ago. They are passionate, informed and a force to be reckoned with in American politics, but 18% of anything won’t win an election. Bernie has proven thus far that he has the capacity to win over and energize those on the left who share his enthusiasm for ending economic inequality. The question is, can he do the same for those who direct the same amount of energy into the cause of furthering racial justice as well?