A friend recently told me that while I could “afford” to vote for Bernie Sanders because I am, as she put it, “highly educated,” she absolutely could not vote for him – nor could many of her friends and others who were decidedly not like me (i.e., highly educated). “For me,” she argued, “the stakes are too high” – the stakes being the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the nation, and thus potentially four years of GOP control over all branches of government. Because of the real and present danger that a Donald Trump win would pose, “I will vote this November,” she declared emphatically, “for Hilary Clinton.”
My friend is right, of course. I am highly (or perhaps, as my brother would put it, over) educated.
And just for the record, I am also middle-class, African American, lesbian, 52, gainfully employed, insured, and a U.S. citizen with a (meager) retirement savings. Et cetera. I will vote for Sanders when my time comes, and if she captures the nomination, I will vote for Clinton. (That’s a strategic black vote, by the way).
Like many, I live a life of both privilege and vulnerability. I don’t apologize for what I can afford – voting or otherwise. And while I don’t fool myself about my vulnerabilities by believing that they don’t exist, I also don’t use them to claim a sameness with all African American women or others in ways that belie class, citizenship status, education and other differences among us – differences that often make for vastly dissimilar experiences with (for example) racism, sexism, economic instability.
But of course there are moments when our experiences are remarkably similar.
Nevertheless, my friend is right as well about the fact that the stakes of this election are YUGE (to use Bernie-speak). A Donald Trump win! win! win! would be absolutely disastrous for the country (and for me. I would not, as she incorrectly assumes, escape unscathed the consequences of his victory). Continued inaction on climate change; the ability to install a Supreme Court thoroughly committed to inequality, the decimation of individual rights, economic and environmental deregulation, and the interests of the rich; expansion of war in the Middle East and a return to Cold War politics; reversal of marriage equality and freedom of choice; the plunder of the treasury; repeal of Obamacare; the shredding of what little safety net we have left….this is the kind of craziness we face.
Given these stakes, then, we must vote, and vote wisely.
My friend is not alone in thinking that a vote for Sanders is a dangerous vote – one that threatens the safety of many of us, most especially those targeted by Trump, Trump supporters, and the GOP generally – while a vote for Clinton is a safe vote or, to put it differently, a vote for safety. You encounter this argument all the time from HRC supporters – in editorial pages, on Twitter, in blogs, on Facebook, in coffee houses, over the airwaves, and in conversations overheard on BART. Bernie Sanders supporters, they say, are fools – elite fools – who might very well usher us all to the end of times.
Or something like that.
Yet, I have heard similar arguments as well from Bernie supporters. Because the polls say Clinton will lose against Trump (some argue), to vote for her is to cast a dangerous vote, one that will plunge us all deep into GOP chaos. On the other hand, the polls do predict that Bernie will beat Trump. Consequently, our safety lies with his nomination.
But we should wonder about this propensity to speak of Hilary’s or Bernie’s supporters, or of a Clinton/Sanders presidency, in terms of danger, protection and refuge – this willingness, in other words, to believe that voting for either candidate will make us safe.
Should Donald Trump lose to Sanders or Clinton (assuming that he will defeat a Republican coup and actually become the Party’s nominee), we will still go home to families, coworkers, friends, neighbors – and mingle daily with strangers – who are willing to sacrifice democracy to authoritarianism, xenophobia, tribalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the machinations of wealthy white men (e.g., Trump, the Koch brothers) whose hunger for power is, it seems, absolutely bottomless.
We will still be surrounded by neighbors and intimates who do not eschew violence as a means to redress economic dislocation and to contend with change that is not merely a reiteration of current power arrangements.
We will still live in a country riven by hate and divisiveness, and be governed by a Congress for which that hate and divisiveness is the stuff of religious creed and public policy.
We will still live in a nation in which the infrastructure is crumbling, coastal cities sinking, schools failing, inequality increasing, desperation mounting and hunger considered just deserts for those who are poor — especially those who are poor, black and female.
We will still be at war, everywhere.
In other words, we are already unsafe – already living dangerously, and we were doing so long before Donald Trump upended the Republican Party.
So whether you vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders, your vote will not protect you.
Thinking of safety in the narrow terms that we do – i.e., merely voting for a president every four years in order to keep at bay the draconian policies of a mean-spirited party and electorate – will not protect us. This is especially true given that our narrow conception of safety is itself a buy-in to a top-down politics of change.
Now don’t get me wrong: vote we must. It is imperative. But we need to think more deeply and ask: what does it mean to be safe? What does real safety look like and how do we create it for all of us – haters included?
Safety, it seem to me, resides with us, in what we do every day – in whatever capacity we are able – to put in place policies and institutions that are grounded in safeguarding and nurturing the lives of the most vulnerable. For if the most vulnerable are cared for, if that which is creating the vulnerability in the first instance is eradicated (poverty, segregation, war funding, separate and unequal school systems, state-sponsored and private acts of violence, structural inequalities, the upward distribution of wealth), then safety will be the order of the day (I, for one, believe that this means envisioning economic, political, geopolitical and social security through the eyes of a poor, undocumented girl of color – but that’s just me).
That kind of safety is purchased in part by the vote, but most especially by political action and grassroots involvement at the local level – like, for example, sitting in on and participating in neighborhood meetings, helping to organize your workplace, conversing with and listening deeply to people who are different from you, running for office, creating viable third, fourth, fifth party alternatives.
Perhaps most of all, the kind of protection we seek – real safety – is purchased by our refusal to live in fear.
We need to stop proclaiming that we are afraid of Donald Trump and his supporters, and to stop telling everyone else that they should be afraid. When we do this, we make him, and them, larger than life, and in the process, we make us small, fearful and powerless.
Our fear will not protect us.
So let’s move beyond fear and way, way past thinking of either Sanders or Clinton as our saving grace; they are not (while we’re at it, let’s also abandon altogether the shitty, hateful, divisive discourse that passes as constructive political engagement. There’s nothing radical about speaking the same language as, and acting like, those who hate us).
Instead, let’s demonstrate the truism that we are in fact “the ones we have been waiting for” and that our calling is to be dangerous to the politics of what is. Let us make the nation absolutely unsafe for poverty, war mongering, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, neoliberalism, free (as opposed to fair) trade, economic inequality. Let us be dangerous to all that stands against peace. And let us be so regardless of whether or not Hilary, Bernie or Donald ends up in the White House.
But of course, let’s make sure that neither Donald nor a GOP alternative makes it anywhere near the Oval Office.
Thirty-seven percent of Flint, Michigan’s population is white. Approximately 14,000 of Flint’s white population live below the poverty line.
Neither statistic has factored much into discussions concerning the water crisis in Flint or in analyses of the “structural racism” that created the crisis in the first place (in fact, pundits and others have cited the statistics merely to show that Flint is, and Flint’s poor are, predominantly African American).
But these statistics matter, and they matter not only because they speak more fully to the suffering state and federal officials visited upon the people of Flint. They also matter because they betray Democrats’ and progressives’ failure to seize opportunities to speak directly to, and be in conversation with, poor and working class whites about the class and race politics that have created much of their suffering. No one who has talked about Flint – not Hilary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not their followers, not progressives in general – has had anything to say whatsoever about just how expendable to Michigan’s white elites are the lives of Flint’s poor and working class white folk. In fact, it is almost as if whites who live at the margins in Flint don’t exist at all (or exist only so that one can make a point about black people and racism).
At a recent event in Harlem, for example, Clinton said of the water crisis: “It’s a horrifying story, but what makes it even worse is that it’s not a coincidence that this was allowed to happen in a largely black, largely poor community. Just ask yourself: Would this have ever occurred in a wealthy, white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not.” During a town hall meeting, Sanders, too, wondered what “the response” would have been had the water crisis happened in “a white suburb.” Flint “is a poor community,” Sanders stated. “It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.”
To be sure, both Clinton and Sanders probably considered whites included in the term “poor community.” But it is clear that poor white people were not the point Clinton and Sanders wanted to make. Instead, what Clinton and Sanders hoped to demonstrate (for good reason) was their understanding of how racist policies continue to constrain the lives of African Americans and to serve the interests of well-to-do whites. Or maybe what they hoped for was recognition of what New York Magazine writer Rembert Brown gleefully declared about Hilary Clinton: that they were willing to “chastise” their “own privilege” and, in so doing, to put “the privilege of whiteness front and center.”
If putting “the privilege of whiteness front and center” was what Clinton and Sanders were trying to accomplish (and I believe there’s some truth to this observation), then what they ultimately gave voice to was a class politics on the part of Democrats and progressives that erases the experiences of poor and working class whites, and does so through a racial politics that reifies the myth of a “naturalized, unmarked, homogenized, privileged white identity” (to borrow from law professor Camille Gear Rich’s “Marginal Whiteness”). This myth is one by which white elites have, throughout American history, defined white interests in terms of their own privileges, wealth, and power – as it is also one by which whites who live on the margins have framed (often to their great detriment) their own interests so as to enjoy the privileges of white identity.
Both candidates (as well as progressives who wrote about Flint) could have explicitly talked about how the water crisis was allowed to “happen” just as surely to Flint’s poor and working class white community as it was allowed to happen to Flint’s African American community; how the privileged whites and minorities who live in the “white suburbs” were provided with clean water; how anti-black racism constitutes a set of policies and practices that facilitate well-to-do whites’ exploitation of poor and working class white people (that is, after all, what happened in Flint). And both Clinton and Sanders (who just yesterday visited Flint & addressed the water crisis in front of an overwhelmingly white audience) could have had this discussion without giving credence to the fiction of equivalent victimization.
Indeed, both candidates could have discussed or put “front and center” for analysis and critique their own class privileges vis-à-vis the black and white Flint communities. They could have stated, as Rich observed, that for some whites “access…to the material and dignitary benefits associated with whiteness is not always assured,” and that some whites – like those in Flint, no doubt – “only enjoy white privilege in contingent, context-specific ways.” They could have spoken of whites – and even of African Americans – in terms of differences that belie the myth of homogeneity.
But that kind of discussion did not happen. Consequently, the Flint water crisis remains solely a story about anti-black politics.
Talking about the racism African Americans face in Flint and beyond, of course, is not the problem. In fact, it is necessary. But while Democrats and progressives sustain the myth of a homogenized, privileged white identity and choose not to be in conversation with poor and working class whites about the kind of class and race politics that creates their suffering (whether we’re talking about Flint or inadequate health care), Donald Trump fills the void. Through a racist and xenophobic framework he engages poor and working class whites directly, casting their suffering as the fault of racial others. In the process, Trump recreates and reinvents – by casting himself as the answer to all white America’s woes – the myth of a homogenized and privileged white identity as well as the fiction that white interests are white elite interests. As long as Clinton, Sanders, Democrats, and progressives offer no real alternative – as long as they persist in spinning the myth themselves –Trump might very well capture the White House this November, and with the help of poor and working class whites.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)