Class versus race. The American left has tangled with the question of which issue matters more for the better part of the past hundred years. Today, the argument has manifested into a proxy of sorts for Sanders versus Clinton—Sanders and his supporters largely believe that class politics matter more than racism while Clinton and her supporters have argued the opposite.
Let’s get one thing clear: class matters. Income inequality is an issue, and poor people are disadvantaged in a number of arenas such as healthcare, education, and home buying. That much is obvious.
What isn’t always obvious is how Black people are still being penalized for their skin color. In almost every arena, Black people face steep disadvantages because of their skin color, regardless of class.
Bernie Sanders’ revolution is one that focuses primarily on class. In the Sanders Revolution, identity politics are mostly a distraction to what he perceives as the real problem in this country—millionaires and billionaires exploiting the system and taking advantage of the poor.
Why can’t we have a class-based revolution? After all, income inequality is higher than ever, and poverty affects people of all races. The problem is that America is still divided largely into racial and political lines. We can tell a lot about members of a political party based on their feelings about Black people.
A good example can be taken from FiveThirtyEight: in 2012, they evaluated results from the General Social Survey and found that Republicans are more likely to have negative attitudes towards Blacks. The result that was the most interesting came from the “Is the government spending too much money improving conditions for Blacks” question. Over 30 percent of white Republicans answered yes while just under 10 percent of white Democrats did. On average, states that have a high percentage of Black people in them are less likely to have social programs and more likely to have restrictive voting laws. States with fewer Black people in them are more likely to have more robust social programs. So why can’t we have a class-based revolution in the United States?
Is it because too many white people would rather be poor than equal with minorities? Is it a myth that the white working class votes against its interests? Or is it possible that the white working class is voting in its interests?
In the March debate, Sanders famously equated being Black with being poor. After Don Lemon had asked Sanders a question about his racial blind spots, the Vermont Senator responded by saying, “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”
Sanders conflated being Black with being poor, erasing the Black middle class and their struggle against racism. Perhaps this is because Sanders does not have a large Black constituency in Vermont and he hasn’t had to be in tune with the needs of a diverse electorate. In a 2014 interview with the National Journal about his political ideology, Sanders had this to say: “Let me ask you, what is the largest voting bloc in America? Is it gay people? No. Is it African Americans? No. Hispanics? No. Its working class white people.”
The quote is two years old, but it is still revealing. It is another look into Sanders focus on the economic interests of working class whites, at the expense of identity politics. Working class whites have become a core part of Sanders base in his run for the nomination, but he has struggled to expand beyond that part of the electorate.
Another telling Sanders quote comes from an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. When asked about African-American support for Democrats, Sanders said that the country had overcome racism and that Black people shouldn’t be basing their politics on skin color:
“Well, here’s what you got. What you got is an African-American president, and the African-American community is very, very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. But that’s not important. You should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, “how is your family doing?”
The part of the country overcoming racism is puzzling, but the revealing part is that Sanders does not think that Black people should factor race into their politics. He is essentially saying that Blacks should be more focused on their family’s economic status than on racial issues that Black Americans face regardless of class.
And what he and too many fail to realize is that the reason many Black people are disproportionately poor is simply that they are Black.
Racism plays a greater role in Black poverty than anything else. And often, that racism is administered by Americans in the middle and lower classes, such as police officers, educators, and healthcare officials.
At its core, the class-based argument tells us that having more money should make Black people fundamentally more equal to whites. But when we look at Black people even those who are well-off, we see that they still suffer from race-based discrimination that isn’t faced by poor whites.
Examples Of Race-Based Discrimination
According to a 2001 Brookings Institution study, wealthy minority neighborhoods had less home value per dollar of income than wealthy white neighborhoods, and poor white neighborhoods had more home value per income than poor minority neighborhoods. The study concluded that there is a penalty simply for being Black—the Blacker the neighborhood is, the less a home in that neighborhood is worth on the market, even when controlling for a variety of factors.
Darrick Hamilton of the New School put it succinctly: “Race trumps class, at least when it comes to incarceration.” He was one of the researchers in a study that found that poor white youth was less likely to go to prison than their rich Black counterparts. Even with additional economic resources, Black people still face potentially life-changing discrimination.
In 2013, the Small Business Administration found that Black small owned businesses were only getting 1.7 percent of awarded loan money, although 7 percent of US business owners are Black. Federal Reserve data found that minority business owners also pay higher interest rates when approved—an average of 32 percent higher than their white counterparts.
There are several examples of prominent, wealthy Black men suffering from police brutality. Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha was at a New York nightclub when the NYPD broke his leg. Tennis star James Blake was in Midtown when the NYPD tackled him to the ground and arrested him without explanation. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a distinguished Harvard professor, was arrested when police saw him trying to unjam the front door to his own home in 2009. All of these Black people had significant amounts of money, but none of that cash could stop them from experiencing racism.
Perhaps the most potent example is that white people receive a disproportionate amount of government benefits. Even with social programs that are supposed to be dedicated to the poor, regardless of their ethnic background, white people dominate of benefits received. Analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Black people are 22 percent of the poor, but receive only 14 percent of government benefits.
Meanwhile, whites are 42 percent of the poor but receive 69 percent of government benefits.
Even if we expanded the social programs offered in the United States, as Bernie Sanders would like, white people would disproportionately benefit based on their race alone.
Why We Can’t Have a Class Based “Revolution” in America
Until we can change these attitudes and feelings towards minorities, there will always be resistance to expanding the government’s social programs and uplifting the lower classes. To achieve a class-based revolution, we first have to achieve a race-based one. We need a society where minorities, regardless of class, are not penalized and discriminated against based on the color of their skin.
That is what Bernie Sanders’ campaign has largely missed—economics are not the only means of discrimination. The race-based discrimination that wealthy Black people such as Thabo Sefolosha and James Blake faced is just as real and pressing as economic discrimination faced by working class whites. Identity politics cannot simply be a distraction to economic interests for the working class. Redistributing wealth alone will not solve racial resentment or solve our issues with discrimination. We must focus on solving these racial discrimination issues—with anti-discrimination courses in early and higher education, with anti-discriminatory regulatory watchdogs, and with changes to equalize the criminal justice system—before we can focus on dramatically changing economic policy.