Can Bernie Sanders talk straight about race?

bernie sandersTwo presidential contenders stand out from the crowd when it comes to expressing clear, unequivocal views: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. We’ve already established that Trump’s forthright views, while clear, are often factually inaccurate. But what about Bernie?

Senator Sanders’ biggest challenge in winning the nomination is black voters, who so far are more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. As Nate Silver of put it, “It’s not complicated. In a state where you have a lot of white moderates and a lot of black voters, Sanders does terribly.” He’s going to have to get beyond the satirical hashtag #BernieSoBlack.

Let’s look at the issue of police shootings of black people, which is important not just to black voters but to all of us. On one side, you have the racial justice movement, symbolized by the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, highlighting the disproportionate rate at which police shoot blacks. On the other, you’ve got a police, the symbol of law and order in our society and a group that politicians don’t want to demonize. Caught between these extremes, politicians hedge.

Based on a tip from a reader, I took a close look at Sanders’ published position on Social Justice to see if it’s clear and free of hedges. (If you think it’s not fair that I analyze Sanders on this topic, you should know that I analyze all speech, regardless of where it lands on the political spectrum. That’s easy when the speaker is a buffoon like Donald Trump, but I am an equal opportunity critic. Whether you are a Sanders fan or foe, I hope you’ll agree that examining the language he uses is appropriate.)

He starts with this (I’ve used bold italic to highlight passive language, statements that hold no one responsible, and other and weasel words):

The chants are growing louder. People are angry and they have a right to be angry. . . .  African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

It is an outrage that in these early years of the 21st century we are seeing intolerable acts of violence being perpetuated by police, and racist terrorism by white supremacists.

A growing number of communities do not trust the police and law enforcement officers have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect. Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of the police sworn to protect and serve our communities, is unacceptable and must not be tolerated. We need a societal transformation to make it clear that black lives matter, and racism cannot be accepted in a civilized country.

This is rousing, but it’s typical political rhetoric, unlikely to persuade black voters that Sanders truly understands. I don’t think that black voters are seeking permission to be angry. It’s all very well to call things “an outrage,” “intolerable,” and “unacceptable,” but what does it mean to say that violence “must not be tolerated” and racism “cannot be accepted.” Who shouldn’t tolerate it. What should they do? This is a classic example of how passive voice appears to make a statement, but holds no actual person responsible.

After this preamble, Sanders calls for a number of policy proposals.

We must demilitarize our police forces so they don’t look and act like invading armies.

We must invest in community policing. Only when we get officers into the communities, working within neighborhoods before trouble arises, do we develop the relationships necessary to make our communities safer together. . . .

We need police forces that reflect the diversity of our communities.

At the federal level we need to establish a new model police training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country. . . .

We need to federally fund and require body cameras for law enforcement officers to make it easier to hold them accountable.

Our Justice Department must aggressively investigate and prosecute police officers who break the law and hold them accountable for their actions.

We need to require police departments and states to provide public reports on all police shootings and deaths that take place while in police custody.

We need new rules on the allowable use of force. Police officers need to be trained to de-escalate confrontations and to humanely interact with people who have mental illnesses.

States and localities that make progress in this area should get more federal justice grant money. Those that do not should get their funding slashed.

These sound like strong policy statements, and some of them are. But concentrate on the “we” in these statements. Federal funding for body cameras, police department reporting requirements, and Justice Department prosecutions of police are actions that a President Sanders could actually take (or support in Congress). But how does Sanders propose to demilitarize the police and encourage police diversity? Is he proposing federal rules for allowable force?

Compare this to some of the unequivocal positions of Campaign Zero, the voice of the Black Lives Matter Movement:

End Policing of Minor “Broken Windows” Offenses.

End Profiling and “Stop-and-Frisk.”

Establish standards and reporting of police use of deadly force. Authorize deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to an officer’s life or the life of another person and such force is strictly unavoidable to protect life.

Monitor how police use force and proactively hold officers accountable for excessive force. Report all uses of force to a database with information on related injuries and demographics of the victims.

Establish an early intervention system to correct officers who use excessive force.

End the Federal Government’s 1033 Program Providing Military Weaponry to Local Police Departments.

Establish Local Restrictions to Prevent Police Departments from Purchasing or Using Military Weaponry.

Require and fund the use of body cameras – in addition to dashboard cameras – to record interactions with civilians and establish policies governing their use.

Ban police officers from taking cell phones or other recording devices without a person’s consent or warrant and give people the right to sue police departments if they take or destroy these devices.

Lower the standard of proof for Department of Justice civil rights investigations of police officers.

I am not saying that Sanders should adopt the positions of Black Lives Matter. And some of Campaign Zero’s positions lack implementation details. But the contrast is clear: the Campaign Zero site shows the kind of clear statements that non-politicians make and politicians avoid.

Bernie Sanders achieved his surge in support by his unequivocal statements regarding taxes, income inequality, financial regulation, and similar liberal issues. I agree with those who say he needs the support of African American voters to win the nomination. To get that support, he’s going to have to embrace the pain of Black Lives Matter a little more firmly, and speak a lot more clearly about what he’s going to do about it.

Photo: Roger H. Goun via Flickr

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