On July 18, Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the Netroots Nation Conference to force presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to address anti-Black racism. By the next afternoon, the satirical hashtag #BernieSoBlack was trending nationwide in response to Sanders’ unpreparedness to address the specificities and particularities of racial discrimination.
The hashtag has now become a space where followers of Sanders are accusing each other of racism, reverse racism, racial separatism, divisiveness, white progressivism and liberal whitewashing. In reality, the supporters of #BernieSoBlack are calling out Sanders, a long-standing recognized advocate of Black civil rights and gay marriage, on his failure to recognize that racial discrimination is not like any other form of discrimination in this country. This call-out is particularly important in the context of the shallow and deceitful symbolism of “Confederate flag down, rainbow flag up.”
Sander’s passionate US Senate speech on June 22 asked South Carolinians to take down the Confederate flag. Then, on June 26, following the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, the Vermont Senator took to his official Facebook page to celebrate the rainbow flag. Sanders’ advocacy on behalf of minority rights underscores that it is the same crowd that cheers both the rise of the rainbow flag and the fall of the Confederate flag. Conversely, #BernieSoBlack retrospectively speaks to the overlooked point that the two flags call for different cheers. The hashtag instructs allies of Black Lives Matter not to subsume their race advocacy under such homogenizing and superficial rubrics as “equality for all.” And if anything, the naïve symbolism of “Confederate flag down, rainbow flag up” models the lazy intersectional politics that #BernieSoBlack is rejecting.
Intersectional solidarity demands that advocates of Black rights celebrate the hard-won victory of same-sex marriage. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw formulated the notion of intersectionality in 1983 to describe the intersecting forms of racial and gender oppression that Black women experience. The notion has subsequently evolved to bring different minority groups in solidarity against their shared experience of discrimination. The juxtaposition of the progress in LGBTQ rights and the devaluation of Black lives is a test for intersectional solidarity. Intersectional solidarity demands that the celebration of LGBTQ rights be tempered by anger at the violation of Black rights.
#BernieSoBlack speaks to the false equivalency between the important civil rights victory of same-sex marriage on June 26 and the symbolic victory of the fallen Confederate flag on July 10. This equivalency ignores the singularity of anti-Black structural racism. Celebratory connections of the Supreme Court ruling to the demise of the Confederate flag came fast. Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, a meme portrayed a lowered Confederate flag and a raised rainbow flag.
Steven Thrasher’s June 28 column for The Guardian reaffirms the faulty connection with the triumphant title, “Confederate flag down, rainbow flag up: this is the American pride we’ve been waiting for.” In a June 26 piece for Time Magazine, Charlotte Alter hails June 26 as an important date not just for gay Americans but all Americans, then suggests the date as a national holiday to honor progress.
Alter never nuances her assessment of June 26 with the sobering reality that June 26, the day of Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s funeral, is also a day of excruciating grief and mourning for millions of Americans. If gay Americans were to rally behind June 26 as a national day of progress, they would demonstrate a total lack of intersectional solidarity by conveying that Black lives don’t matter. In fact, as much was conveyed when news and media coverage were quick to retreat from Charleston after the funeral of Clementa Pinckney.
The funerals of the remaining victims received very little mention in the news. Equally ignored by the national media was the post-Charleston burning of seven historically Black churches over 10 days across four Southern states. Black twitter took up the task of turning the string of arsons into a news item with the hashtag #WhosBurningBlackChurches.
No doubt LGBTQ rights are civil rights. But gay is not the new Black as some gay rights advocate have claimed after California’s passage of Proposition 8. Unless gay has such social and economic consequences as profiling, police brutality, housing discrimination and employment discrimination. Same-sex marriage certainly affects Black LGBTQ individuals. But the consequences of being a Black body in 2015 USA dilute any benefits that Black LBTQs might derive from the Supreme Court ruling.
Structural racism means that Black same-sex couples are more likely to face unstable households as a result of diminished socioeconomic opportunities, very much like Black heterosexual households fare less well than their white counterparts. A December 12, 2014, Pew analysis of Federal Reserve data by Rakesh Kochhar and Richard Fry documents that the median wealth of Black households dropped 34 percent from 2010 to 2013, while that of white households increased slightly over the same period. These numbers estimate the worth of the median white household at $141,900 versus $11,000 for the median Black household.
Of course, symbols are powerful. Symbols inspire and shape minds, attitudes, belief systems, societies and nations. The paired symbols of the rising rainbow flag and the fallen Confederate flag certainly offer a powerful blueprint for the inclusive nation we should strive to become. The two coinciding moments cannot be ignored, and they merit celebration. Still, any equation of the flowing rainbow flag with the fallen Confederate flag evinces the type of lazy and dishonest intersectional solidarity that supporters of #BernieSoBlack are denouncing. Such an equation dismisses the reality of anti-Black structural racism and the constant attack on Black civil rights in our era. Unlike the rise of the rainbow flag, the demise of the Confederate flag does not come with a civil rights victory.
Critics of #BernieSoBlack also need to be reminded that Black rights in this country have often played second fiddle to the rights of other minority groups, and Black communities have had other minority groups reap more benefit from Black civil rights victories. Many studies confirm that white women have benefited disproportionately from affirmative action in employment, contracting and education. Affirmative action has now come under attack in a way that clearly targets communities of color.
University of Minnesota Law Professor Michelle Goodwin writes in a 2013 essay in The Wisconsin Law Review that white women have been leading the charges against affirmative action in education. Intersectional solidarity failed to prevail here. Intersectional justice and movements have had a long history in this country, even before Crenshaw coined the term. Minorities in this country, including African Americans, have variably been good and bad allies to each other, depending on social and political circumstances. In some instances, allies have used African Americans to get forward and never looked back once they achieved their goals.
In The Ethnic Project, Sociology Professor Vilna Bashi Treitler shows how successive immigrant groups have navigated and exploited American racial hierarchies at the expense of African Americans and Native Americans. Treitler writes that the two latter groups consistently used the inclusive rhetoric of equal rights for all men and women when combating racial oppression. But allied minority groups failed to question structural racism and opted to seek progress within the very racial hierarchy that marginalized Blacks.
#BernieSoBlack manifests an awareness that Black communities have not always fared well with intersectional solidarity. The LGBTQ rights movement has often appropriated the metaphors and rhetoric of Black civil rights movements, with for instance, placards like, “we shall overcome,” “on the road to Selma,” and “I too have a dream” on the day of the Supreme Court ruling.
At the same time, the LGBTQ community has come under attack by advocates of Black rights for their lack of solidarity. On June 28, Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted the Chicago Gay Pride Parade with signs that read “rainbows are just reflected white light” and “gay pride is racist.” A similar protest also took place at the Boston Gay Pride Parade. These protests fold into #BernieSoBlack.
Intersectional movements and solidarities remain crucial for Black rights agendas. #BernieSoBlack clarifies that intersectional vigilance is necessary to avoid such deceptive slogans as “Confederate flag down, rainbow flag up” and potentially elusive allies like Bernie Sanders.