Racial Justice platform
While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.
Like many who watched Tuesday’s Democratic debate, I was a little annoyed by CNN’s choice to assign to debate moderators questions on the basis of their respective “identities” (Don Lemon got to field the “black” question, Juan Carlos Lopez the “immigrant” question, Dana Bush the “woman” question, and a young woman the “youth” [i.e., climate change] question). Those issues that were presumptively non-identity based – e.g., questions concerning our unending war on terror or TPP or Iran – were assigned primarily to Anderson Cooper, the white male who presided over the debate.
As tempting as it is to agree with some critics that CNN should have (as Janell Ross of the Washington Post argued) given Lemon and Lopez the opportunity to ask questions about, for example, “education,” “the economy,” “tax policy,” “Clinton’s reference to a New Deal,” “the Islamic State,” as well as “many of the other things that concern all Americans, including Americans who are not white,” it is hard to see this as a solution that addresses what was and is really at stake in CNN’s crass demonstration of tokenism and identity politics. For the truth of the matter is, had Lemon (who I’ll use as an example) had the opportunity to ask about Syria, his doing so would not have conveyed – by any stretch of the imagination – that Syria is an issue of importance to African American communities. This is because it is the practice of CNN – and the media writ large – to construe black interests solely in terms of race. Consequently, had Lemon asked about Syria, it would not have mattered one bit since Syria would have already been understood as an issue entirely outside of black people’s political, economic, and moral interests.
Of course, CNN and the media in general are greatly assisted by white as well as African American elites (on the right and left) in this reductionist practice concerning African American interests. It is telling, for example, that Bernie Sanders’ laudable Racial Justice platform does not intersect with or speak to his platform issue that focuses on the war on terror – though the devotion of over one trillion dollars to this disastrous adventure has cost black lives, militarized our police forces, eroded civil liberties, and come at the expense of addressing economic inequality (which African Americans suffer disproportionately). Given that the Racial Justice issue in Sanders’ platform at least nods to and intersects with other platform concerns, its silence on the issue of war and peace reinforces the presumption that the war (and foreign policy generally) doesn’t matter to African Americans and perhaps doesn’t even affect our day-to-day lives.
Permitting Lemon or Lopez to ask questions on “other” issues, therefore, would not have addressed this larger problem of how black interests are framed. What is needed, instead, is news and political analysis and candidate questions that assume African American communities (and Latino communities, and women) have a stake in our nation’s domestic and foreign policies that is shaped, no doubt, by our nation’s racial politics, but also by a host of other competing interests (such as class) and lived experiences within black communities that cannot possibly be conveyed by merely having Don Lemon ask more questions, and that problematize identity politics altogether.
I invite you to explore my recently published book, Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015), at www.amazon.com/author/alyceelane.