Bernie Sanders and the Public Policy of White Supremacy

It’s funny how we like to lie to ourselves, tell ourselves that a country founded on white supremacy doesn’t need to acknowledge that truth head on in order to relieve us of it–racism, that is.

For the last several months, I’ve waited for presidential candidates to openly address racism in all of its violent forms. The news, although many times problematic, has been able to walk a somewhat nuanced path, celebrities are speaking up, and not only have politicians remained silent, but when they do speak, it doesn’t seem based on reality.

images (1)There is Bernie Sanders, who drastically changed his platform on race in a matter of months. In May, as Baltimore was being turned upside down, he reduced racism to being solely rooted in class tension. But after a few run-ins with #BlackLivesMatter activists, he now has a platform that at least begins to address all the facets of race and oppression.

It’s a powerful thing that protest can change the rhetoric of politicians…if nothing else. As I’m watching #BlackLivesMatter activists asserting themselves in spaces that have historically marginalized their narratives, it seems, to me, necessary to apply pressure in order to have your voice heard. We’re witnessing drastic changes in Ferguson, and not from passive resistance, but from confronting institutions head on. Are these the best solutions? I can’t say. But for almost a century, the quality of life in St. Louis area for Black Americans was ugly, and now real policies are being implemented to eradicate that. We can criticize activists for being loud or rude, but when a society has continually tried to silence and minimize their struggle, it seems those are the last methods these activists have available.

When discussing how policy could eradicate racial inequality today, we point to almost a century ago, when some of the most progressive economic policies were passed: those comprising, The New Deal. Many people who look to those times with a sense of nostalgia, and point to Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, or even the way we once spoke of Barack, as the saviors to bring about the change we’ve been dreaming about, believing that their policies are what can change the current states of affairs.  The problem with nostalgia is that it ignores reality—a reality rooted in negotiating with racists and marginalizing people whose whole identity had already been rooted in marginalization: black Americans.

The New [Other]  Deal

For the majority of poor people at the time, the New Deal was considered a success, but only because it was predicated on racism. You ask a white man in 1930s, his opinion of the New Deal will be completely different from a black farmer living in Mississippi. That should tell us something.

Today, quality of life in the States owes so much to the policies of the New Deal, but the dead corpses of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, the mass incarceration of entire communities, the formation of the ghettos, and poor black schools  are also on account of a legacy of policies, or lack thereof. The only way New Deal policies could pass through Congress was if Southern Democrats—those custodians of Jim Crow—would approve them. Every Act passed during the New Deal had amazing promise to eliminate class and race inequality, but opposition to racial justice was just too strong, and you see that in the rhetoric in many of these laws when you look closely enough.  

When you look at the Wagner Act, passed in 1935, there are two sides. One side shows the evolution of labor relations, allowing workers to form unions at a time when people were being killed for attempting to unionize. However, this all came at a price—black Americans. Originally, the Wagner Act had an anti-discriminatory provision, but The American Federation of Labor used their lobbying power to have it dropped. The AFL used this provision to capitalize on already-existing racial sentiments, to exclude blacks from their unions, and to gain the trust of white workers. For blacks, being denied the security of an adequate safety net meant their livelihood could be manipulated. There was no negotiating their wages, which meant no guarantee of upward mobility. As the standards of labor for white workers improved, blacks’ would remain the same, if not decline.

The Wagner Act was just the foundation for marginalizing segments of society while moving others forward. More compromises would be made at the expense of black Americans. The Social Security Act, also passed in 1935, excluded forms of labor such as domestic and agriculture, whose labor force comprised of up to 65% blacks across the country, and up to 80% in the South.

When we’re trying to understand how all of these policies impacted inequality, look no further than the formation of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), along with Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the G.I. Bill. The FHA, combined with the G.I. Bill, were defining factors in the drastic increase in homeownership after World War II. The FHA lowered the down payment from 50%, to 10%, and the G.I. Bill completely eliminated any down payment altogether for veterans. In addition, the FHA allowed payments to be made over a 30 year period, whereas before it was required to be paid in 10 years.

These policies meant more than home ownership increasing by 34%. They extended hands out to pull the lower class into the world of a middle-class lifestyle. They made the American dream achievable. But neglected to say that it was a dream only achievable on certain terms and conditions, and blackness didn’t fit into that dream. Title III of the G.I. bill was designed to make it easier on veterans, but black veterans were left to negotiate with white officials and banks who had a long history of denying loans for reasons based on race.

While homeownership and suburbs were expanding, many of those newly formed suburbs had racially restrictive covenants that forbade selling to non-whites. As these policies helped whites, at the same time they relegated blacks to specific geographic spaces: namely, the inner city. It was within these urban spaces, the ghetto, that the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) would also decide how money was allocated and which communities would receive the most funding. They would use a color coded system for mapping areas: Green, Yellow, and Red. Green meant the highest priority area, whereas red meant the lowest–little to no funds given. Generally, it was the areas that were largely communities of color which were deemed undesirable, and thus shaded red, a practice which gave rise to the term ‘redlining.’. When we see urban landscapes today, segregated by race, and thus class, we aren’t seeing coincidences. We are seeing what 60 years of public policy– designed to benefit a certain group of people at the expense of another–and what that actually looks like.

Owning Up To Our Past

It’s not enough to have color-blind rhetoric to address issues of class—we have to have anti-racist policies that combat the racist policies that have defined American history. Those New Deal policies weren’t the first. Their legacies came from a belief that Jim Crow was humane, that the enslavement of African Americans was the natural order of things, and that white supremacy should not be questioned.

When I’m seeing thousands of people claiming their support for Bernie Sanders or Hilary Clinton, in the hopes of having radical policy reform, that history is the context that I place these candidates in. How are their words any different from the past? And then how can these policies do anything different from the ones we already fought over?

The answer seems simple: if this country is rooted in racist public policy, then modern public policy must openly confront it. Maybe that means coming to terms with hard truths, and owning up to the idea that maybe this country is not the greatest in the world, and that maybe the wealth of so many wasn’t fairly earned, but predicated on the value of whiteness. One thing is certain: the policies we are hoping to see will never be complete–only when they acknowledge the imperfections from policy’s past.


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