In a debate in Flint, MI, on Sunday, Bernie Sanders, asked to describe his “racial blind spots,” said this:
“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. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”
The Clinton campaign quickly mobilized to condemn him for a raft of implications, saying that not all Black people live in ghettos, that not all people who live in ghettos are Black – many are immigrants who belong to other racial categories, for instance. Some people objected that not all white people lack understanding of racism’s impact, others that there are plenty of whites who know poverty firsthand.
This is a rehearsal of politics-as-usual, of course, in which each faux pas is ammunition, and huge edifices of argument are loaded onto the usage of a word or phrase, (in Bob Dylan’s immortal words) “just like a mattress balanced on a bottle of wine.” It will happen again before November, many times. I doubt many of my progressive friends would take exception to Sanders’ underlying point – however poorly expressed – that many white people have not experienced overt discrimination and harassment on account of their race and may therefore lack adequate empathy and understanding.
I have no objection to holding candidates to a high standard of speech, so long as the standard isn’t double. But as for me, especially when it comes to elections, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame is my guide: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” (I have earlier written about why I choose Sanders’ actions over Clinton’s words.)
Someone who shares the Clinton campaign’s condemnation posted Sanders’ original statement and subsequent attempt at clarification to a progressive e-list I take part in.One response focused on calling an “old white male” to task for communicating badly on race. Another noted the word “ghetto” originally referred to areas restricted to Jews. (To be precise, the term in Venetian dialect was ghèto and came into usage in 1516 to formalize the boundaries on Jews’ residence and rights.) And that Sanders’ own family history reflected this experience: his father had emigrated from Poland, while many relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. Sanders attributes his own politicization to awareness of these events.
The “old white male” commenter retorted that “Jewish refugees from Europe were probably white. Just sayin’.”