Tucson Progressive

Pamela J. Powers, a progressive voice for Arizona

Does Bernie Sanders Have ‘White People Problems’? (video)

Bernie Sanders crowd

11,000 Sanders supporters filled the Phoenix Convention Center on Saturday, July 18,2015. (Photo by Dennis Gilman)

Saturday was a day of highs and lows for Senator Bernie Sanders.

In the morning at Netroots Nation, Sanders became visibly annoyed by Black Lives Matter protesters who wanted to hear more than stump speeches from Democratic presidential candidates Sanders and former Governor Martin O’Malley. They wanted to know what President Sanders or President O’Malley would do to end systemic racism in the US. They didn’t get an answer from either candidate.

In the evening– again at the Phoenix Convention Center– Sanders was greeted enthusiastically by a mostly white crowd of 11,000 progressives cheering his economic inequality stump speech. According to news accounts, this was Sanders’ largest crowd to date.

The whiteness of Sanders’ supporters has come up before, but Netroots Nation (NN15) really brought the issue home for me.

White People Problems

I have been to many conferences and political events in my day, but NN15 was by far the most diverse event I have ever attended. For this grey-haired grandma, it was refreshing and exciting to talk with and find common ground with progressives of all colors, ages, genders, and sexual orientations– not just old white people like myself.

Many of you know that I am co-chair of the Arizona Democratic Progressive Caucus, and until recently, I was the communications coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) Tucson Chapter. I can’t tell you how many meetings I have attended where old white people (myself included) discuss how to bring more people from the “rising American electorate” (ie, women, young people, and people of color) into the Arizona Democratic Party and/or PDA.

Often, attendees at these meetings conclude that “rising American electorate” just isn’t engaged in politics, or we would see them at caucus meetings or PDA meetings. NN15 showed me how wrong that assumption is. They are highly-engaged, well-organized, and articulate, but for the most part, they are working outside of the Democratic Party and PDA.

Sanders and His Followers

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders in Phoenix. (Photo by Dennis Gilman)

This brings me to Sanders and his white people problems. Basically, Sanders has too many white people following him and not enough of everyone else; his following lacks diversity. His mishandling of the confrontation with the NN15 Black Lives Matter protesters at NN15 made this crystal clear. When asked how he would end systemic racism as president, instead of talking about racial profiling, over-policing of marijuana and over-policing in general, body cameras, racial and gender balance among police officers, mass incarceration, discriminatory laws or enforcement of those laws (as in Ferguson), law enforcement accountability, militarization of local police departments, voter suppression, etc., he answered the protesters with his usual economic inequality talking points.

Yes, economic inequality hurts people of color just as much or more than white people, but people who are subjected to racial profiling and outright police harassment, brutality, and murder have a special subset of problems that Sanders and O’Malley ignored with their minimalist responses.  When NN15 moderator Jose Antonio Vargas asked Sanders what legislation he has passed that helps black people, all he could come up with was the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Yes, the ACA helps black people, but it really helps everyone. This response is analogous to O’Malley’s clueless “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter” comment. 

Other Voices

Feel the Bern

Phoenix supporters for Bernie Sanders. (Photo by Dennis Gilman)

In a comment on my previous article about the the Black Lives Matter protest, Cheri linked to a blog site named ThePeoplesview.net. [A bit of a disclaimer here: I had never seen this blog site before. They have several authors, and they have been around since 2004–so it looks legit. ]

Author Spandan Chakrabarti has two recent articles on what he labels as “Sanders’ race problem”: Bernie Sanders and the Minuteman Militia: “Progressive Hero” Voted to Protect Racist Vigilante Border Thugs (which Cheri drew my attention to) and Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem: Why People of Color Aren’t Feeling the “Bern”, which I think is more interesting and perhaps not as inflammatory as the other one.

Chakrabarti, who describes himself (herself?) as an American of color, goes into detail about the whiteness of Sanders’ supporters and why people of color aren’t “feeling the Bern”. He’s obviously very well-versed with the issues of America’s progressive movement and how that dovetails into our support (or lack of support) for President Obama. I suggest that you read what he has written with an open mind. Chakrabarti writes…

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has been drawing a lot of crowds, a lot of cheers, and a lot of media attention. His followers are adamant that not only can he win the Democratic primary, he can be the next president of the United States. National polls – which mean exactly nothing in primary contests – are showing him gaining on Hillary Clinton fast.


I mean it. Sanders has been drawing crowds, and large ones at that. But the composition of his crowds could make the Republican National Convention look diverse by comparison. Very few faces of color occasionally get captured on the cameras within seas of white – generally older – faces. While his supporters cheer his ability to draw large white crowds in large white cities and states – including the “first in the nation” and very very white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, this is a problem for the self-described socialist.

Why? The last two elections have conclusively shown that no Democrat – and probably no candidate – can win the White House without large, and preferably overwhelming, support from minorities. The reason this is particularly important for the Democratic nominee is that regardless of the palpable white (older) liberal adulation of Sanders, 55-60% of whites are likely to vote for the Republican nominee in November of 2016. Mitt Romney, as you may recall, not only won 59% of the white vote nationwide, he won the white vote almost everywhere in 2012.

Support among minorities is even more critical in the Democratic primary. With only25% of whites identifying as Democrats, the Democratic party is more diverse than the Americans as a whole. Without deep appeal that brings minorities to the voting fold for Sanders, it may end up being the Vermont socialist who ends up “feeling the bern” in the end. Read the rest here.

 Interestingly Enough…

At Netroots Nation, I attended the Women’s Caucus, among many other workshops and presentations. Approximately 50-60 women of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and genders (is that the right way to say that?) participated in the caucus, as sisters. I’d estimate ~40% of the women were women of color. Yes, there was a highly respectable contingent of ~8 Tucsonans, but other than that I knew no one. Despite that, I felt a great camaraderie with these women.

The moderator from the Ms. Foundation lead us in a discussion to develop a list of women’s issues that we believe will be important in the 2016 Presidential Election. (Maybe this was to gather background ideas for TV commercials– like a focus group?) We came up with a huge issue list including violence against women, militarism, child care, the Equal Rights Amendment, voter suppression, Internet harassment, rape culture, not enough women running for office, choice, women’s health…. everything and the kitchen sink was on the list, and we had poignant discussions about all of them.

After we made the big list, we broke up into 6 small issue groups (compacted from our laundry list) of about ~10 women each. I was in the violence group because it included everything from gun safety and domestic violence to micro-aggression and intimidation in person or on the Internet. About half of the women in our group were African-American, a few mixed race, one Asian, and a few white women. Senator Andrea Dalessandro and I were in the upper age limit, and there were women in their early 20s in the group. Although we all had different stories about and experiences with violence, in my opinion, we understood each other at some level.

One petite, well-dressed 20-something white woman spoke up and pledged her support for Hillary Clinton for president. There was some light discussion about some of Hillary’s family-friendly pronouncements such as paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, marriage equality, and choice. At one point, a thin, 40-something black woman leaned into the circle and very seriously said, “Black women helped you elect the first black president. The question is: Will black women help you elect the first white woman president?”

It was a powerful and somewhat dramatic moment. All of the women in the circle nodded in understanding … and perhaps agreement.

Her words rang in my head after the town hall incident the next day.


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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela J. Powers

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals–not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election.

My platform focused on economic reforms to grow Arizona’s economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, grow local small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs.

In the Arizona House, I was a strong voice for fiscal responsibility a moratorium on corporate tax breaks until the schools were fully funded, increased cash assistance to the poor, expansion of maternal healthcare benefits, equal rights, choice, unions, education at all levels and protecting our water supply.

After three terms, I retired from the Arizona Legislature in January 2023 but will continue to blog and produce my podcast “A View from the Left Side.”

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