I’ve been pretty weirded out by the search to show Bernie Sanders was a progressive youth, particularly through images. I was hella self-hating, hyper conservative, homophobic and transphobic, pro-capitalist and imperialist right through college, until I started being confronted with the wrongheadedness of those claims. Many of us that claim a leftist politic testify likewise. And many of us now are at least a bit concerned by how folks have used, exploited really, “being there on the ground” contemporarily as a means to self promotion with vests and twitter t-shirts. That is, the search for images does not immediately demonstrate a commitment to justice. Advocating strongly for the privatization of public resources while being fully resistant to critique should make us a bit more leery about attempting to use the image of a young Bernie, a young anyone really, as proof of a politic, progressive, regressive or otherwise.
One of the problems with trying to find images of Bernie resistance as a young person seems to be a problem of thinking progressivism, radicalism, can be stable, coherent identities. And this is particularly acute in a society that assumes certain racial categories, of themselves, confer a progressive politics on the basis of identity itself (such that white people must find something to append in order to make identity radical or progressive or in any way meaningful). But as the old adage goes, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” or its more contemporary version, the proof is in the pudding. It is the search for identity grounded in a misrecognition of blackness. The search for the images that would have him intimate with antiblack police violence wants to, it seems to me, relate him to blackness through the capacity to be victim of violence. That he was there is supposed to charge our imaginations: he was there and, thus, a victim of that violence, a violence that confers to him a certain value and identity. But no thanks. Blackness is not created by violence, though blackness is excluded from the zone of the proper. We need to think differently about who we are as people committed to justice.
And I just don’t understand the deep need to say, “even as a youth, Bernie was right!” because I suspect such a claim having more to do with the fetishizing of youthfulness that Yasmin Nair compellingly writes about than such a claim is about a sense of justice. Like, Clarence Thomas – the conservative, terribly right wing, terribly loathsome Supreme Court justice – was at one time in his life a left leaning Black Panther Parter for Self Defense sympathizer, a supporter of Black Nationalism, Malcolm X and general Black radical politics. This as a young person. So I find these arguments – about the rightness of certain folks as youth – only obtain their force when their politics as youth coalesce with a politics we hold today. We still fetishize the politics of youth. So it’s not very useful to me because we all change. Some of us commit more to justice, some of us less.
And what do such images have to do with Vermont? And justice? And rhetoric? And progressiveness? It’s like we’ve thrown away research that shows people hold a more progressive politics in the abstract; when there are less people of color in a city, state, municipality, it is easier to assert progressive stances. We learned this in 2008 Iowa with the hella disproportionate incarceration rates: for a state with 3% blacks, blacks make up 23% of the incarcerated; 5% hispanic, 8% of the incarcerated. Vermont should, perhaps, be thought about through the way progressivism plays out for the folks living there. Vermont is ~95% white. Blacks make up 1% of the population but disproportionately roughly 11% of the incarcerated; hispanics make up 2% of the population but 5% of the incarcerated. It’s easy to advocate progressive policies but things like incarceration rates, because of the huge disparities along the lines of race, should give us pause.
So I’d love to think that the senator, had he settled in Michigan or Alabama, would’ve advocated for the same things he has as a Vermonter but his stance on Israel/Palestine and the seeming inability to attack racialized disparities in any real way in Vermont makes me wary. What is the proof in the pudding of the disparity between saying the names of wrongfully, prematurely dead black folks and hiring a black woman press secretary on the one hand and policy positions that would continue support for the ongoing violent assault of Palestinians, policy positions in his own state that do not ameliorate racial disparities in terms of incarceration? We have verified images, there are old speeches…but what of actions taken in his own state, his own domain of influence? I do wonder.