Bernie stickers have adorned my white Vermont family’s Subaru’s since I was small. My family’s friends talk about him like he’s our radical grumpy uncle. Most of my life I’d been proud he was one of Vermont’s three electoral votes. I was bred to be a Bernie girl.
Recently, I’ve been creating a fictional world where Bernie Sanders spends time in the domestic violence shelter where I work. I put him there, and then I wonder what he would say. Say to me and to the women living in hiding—of partners, of patriarchy, of institutionalized white supremacist violence, of particularly racialized forms of misogyny.
Bernie has some things going for him. He’s an old white Jewish man born in Brooklyn, politically raised in the ‘Progressive bastion’ of little Vermont. This may win the hearts of aspiring Vermonters, people born during the Second World War, white men who feel safe with peers who also hold large amounts of power and those of us who have never had a Christmas tree. He also ran and won the mayoral seat of Vermont’s largest city as a Socialist and has an unprecedented commitment to economic justice. In large part this alone draws another crowd of self-identified Progressives (not to be confused with more centrist Liberals) who have a tendency conflate class with race and gender, and argue that fighting poverty also fights misogyny and racism. Or who don’t actually argue that at all, but hey, will take what they can get and don’t worry too much where Bernie’s blind spots lie.
But today, on this stormy night before the first 2016 Democratic debate, I’m calling bullshit on any claim to Progressive politics when we are satisfied, or at least complacent to, politician’s inabilities (or our own for that matter) to address race, gender and violence. And not as three distinct issues, but as a single complicated web—racialized gender-based violence. And gendered racial violence. Like the worst of white Liberals, we white Progressives have a tendency to neglect the work of examining our investments in racialized misogyny and patriarchy, and gendered white racial supremacy.
Bernie announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic ticket and didn’t have a Racial Justice platform. After Black women organizers called him out, and he got one—and it’s not bad. He’s even mentioned banning the privatization of prisons. However, the only mention of gender is a note about pay disparity between women of color and white men. He has a Women’s Rights platform that mainly focuses on issues around reproductive and parental rights and economic gender justice, including access to birth control and abortion, $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and the expansion of WIC. He has been consistent on supporting these issues in Congress and they are vital to this nation.
I recognize and value the anti-gender based violence voting record Bernie has. In 2001 he was on of 32 co-sponsors of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and ten years later he was of 10 co-sponsors on a bill to address the backlog of rape kits. In 2011 he was one of 61 co-sponsors for the renewal of Violence Against Women Act. And in the last couple of years he has spoken publically about the need for resources for Veteran survivors of sexual violence, as well as supported Senator Gillibran’s proposal to prosecute military rape accusations outside of the military justice system.
These particular bills are incredibly important, and Bernie supported them, along with large numbers of much more centrist politicians—some bills even having some support from Republicans. Bernie’s voting record on these issues is so necessary and in fairly good company. Simply, he did the right thing.
Bernie no doubt has a history of some support for issues of racialized gender-based violence. And, it is not at all central to his presidential message. There is one single sentence about how “we must” expand the Violence Against Women Act but nothing more in his commitment plan about addressing the epidemic of intimate partner violence, even though one in four women in the United States are survivors of domestic violence in their lifetime. There is no mention at all of sexual violence even though one in three women and one in ten men report having experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by a partner and one in two women will be sexually victimized while in college. The entire plan is race neutral.
Gender blind racial justice work can’t actually believe all Black lives matter because all Black people don’t experience anti-Black violence the same. Race blind women’s justice work can’t actually believe in women’s rights to safety, security and healthy choice because women’s vulnerabilities are race and class specific. A single category of Woman does not exist nor does a single category of Black & Brown people.
Women are disproportionately poor. Black and Brown people are disproportionately poor. Women of color are disproportionately poor. It is common for survivors of gender-based violence to be considered to be living under the poverty line because financial abuse is so pervasive in domestically violent relationships. This form of abuse so often restricts women’s access to her own money, necessary to meet basic survival needs such as food or medicine. So yes, Bernie’s central focus on wealth inequality and his commitment to wealth redistribution disproportionately advantages white women, and men and women of color. This is so important and a refreshing understanding of the elasticity of American capitalism.
But, and it’s a big but, having more money does not protect Black men from being rendered dangerous and aggressive by the police. Rest in Power Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Water Scott and so on. It does not protect little girls from cops who kill them in their sleep on their couch. Rest in Power Aiyanna Jones. It does not protect white women from her husband controlling her access to her own increased wage. It does not protect black women from the complex way both anti-blackness and misogyny historically have rendered her body commodity and violable. And so on.
(And even if our low standards for Progressivism accept class as the only serious issue at hand, addressing gender-based violence is still a relevant conversation. Domestic violence costs the United States more than $12.6 billion a year in expenses including but not limited to ‘law enforcement involvement, legal work, medical and mental health treatment, and lost productivity at companies’.)
In this imaginary world where somehow the shelter had visitors, I wonder what Bernie would do at breakfast. I wonder what he would say to a Mama and her children. I wonder what he would say to a 65-year-old woman and her Bible. I wonder how his fan club would react if a woman told him she can’t find herself anywhere in this speeches and interviews. Would they shake their heads, saying she “just doesn’t know what’s good for her”, as they did when Black women organizers interrupted speeches this summer to ask more of the presidential candidate?
Our overused reaction to, well most, critique is often along the lines of “he may not be perfect” but “he can’t do everything”. Or “why are you coming at Bernie” when he is “so much better than the rest”? Of course, Bernie can’t take on every typically American failure. Politics is a game, and when you are always pushing the boundaries, you have to be smart. But, and again this is a big but, there is a pattern to the “issues” that don’t quite make the cut, over and over and over. It is no coincidence that the countries most abused, and most vulnerable, keep being national blind spot. We are long over due, to demand more—of our presidential hopeful, and of ourselves.
And I am talking about myself and us as much as I’m talking about Bernie. I worry that misogyny, and an alarmingly shallow puddle of non-violent men, encourage women to share lives with men unworthy of them. I similarly worry, a political arena where Donald Trump is the GOP frontrunner, encourages us as a country to not just be easily grateful and impressed, but to rationalize any moral or political failure, by congratulating ourselves on not being worse than we are.
Personally, I am neither grateful nor impressed by men who don’t obviously hate me. And I’m neither impressed nor grateful even for men who have the courage to see me as a complicated valuable being. I expect it. I expect all of Congress, including Bernie Sanders, to vote on bills that protect women from violent assault. And today, if Bernie, and his fans, are going to continue to align themselves in such opposition to the rest of the political pool party—if he is going to claim the coming of a political revolution—I expect revolutionary commitment to the people so long left out.
But no matter how Bernie and my state of Vermont invest in masculine whiteness, we have never been the Confederacy, right? And even though Bernie’s platform has no intent on addressing various types of racialized patriarchal violence that affect 12 million people each year, at least they might have a little more money, right? And even though he never speaks on the meaning of his own white manhood, at least he isn’t a Liberal, right?
I’m tired and terrified of continuing to fail—as white folks, as entitled feminists, as Progressives. I’m also worried about false advertising and brutally low standards.
Many of us theoretically identify as Progressives as a way to deliberately align ourselves more closely with values of equity and empowerment and justice. But this label, this identification is empty and dishonest, or at least pathetic, if it fails so many people, vulnerable to and experiencing so many forms of violence, and abuse.
I’m not speaking about whom we should or shouldn’t vote for. I’m speaking about the audacity and the authenticity of a presidential politic that for the first time understands that history has rendered race, gender and violence inextricable from each other and unfortunately, inextricable from the foundation of American family making, community making and country making.
I hope Bernie fans would never tell the mom living in shelter with her infant, that no matter how little he may commit to her, she should just be happy that he’s not Donald John Trump. So let’s not say that to each other either. We’re here with our history. Let’s lead. And follow. And let’s stop lying for once. Let’s be the white American Progressives we pretend we are, the Progressives we have the power to be, not the typical ones we’ve always been.
 Fisher, Cullen, and Turner (2000)