Black Women and Bernie Sanders: Why Saying Black Lives Matter is Not Enough

by Danielle Stevens

After Tuesday night’s 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary Debate, many Bernie Sanders supporters have been valorizing the candidate for saying ‎Sandra Bland’s name, expressing that Black Lives Matter, and discussing the importance of criminal justice reform. Although many believe this to be a groundbreaking proclamation, the true groundbreaking work comes from the Black women organizers who have been pushing Sanders consistently to act on the importance of dismantling structural violence and organizing and agitating for our freedom and livelihoods every single day; the same Black women who would never receive anywhere near this magnitude of recognition for our analyses and our labor.

Although many believe Sanders’ words to be impactful, over the past few months, Sanders has been addressed by Black women from Phoenix to Seattle who have challenged him to focus not only on job security as a solution to structural anti-Black violence, but to tackle the issue head on and to honor those, like Sandra Bland, who have lost their lives to police violence. It is critical to acknowledge that Bernie Sanders’ remarks on Tuesday night were fundamentally informed by the dynamic and courageous grassroots and direct action organizing tactics that Black women on the ground have engaged in. They are holding Sanders and other presidential candidates accountable. This work demonstrates not only the efficacy and power of Black women engaging in multi-pronged social justice approaches to agitate hegemonic power structures and shift the political status quo, but also highlights the public’s tendency to overlook the labor of Black women within racial and political justice movement building.
It is crucial to keep in mind the vastly divergent realities that Sanders holds in comparison to Black women and the deeply limited proximity from which Sanders speak about Black women. To begin, 90% of the elected political power in this county is held by white people, with 65% being held by people just like Sanders -- white men. The Black women whom Sanders alluded to during the debate are making 64 cents to every dollar he and other white men are making. And with a hefty 75% of Bernie Sanders’ campaign actually being staffed by white people with no indication of the number of black staff, there seems to be a grave discrepancy between his declaration that Black Lives Matter and his practice of such in the racial composition of his campaign. Furthermore, there are currently only two Black women elected to statewide elected offices, 18 Black women serving in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, four elected Black women mayors of the 100 largest cities, and not a single Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

To further illustrate the overlapping forms of erasure to which Black women are subjected, our sisters like 22-year old Kiesha Jenkins and 21-year old Zella Ziona continue to lose their lives to misogynist, transphobic, and gender-based violence in this country. Amongst these widespread modalities of violence and disempowerment, #BlackLivesMatter is not merely a rhetorical or theoretical concept. Uttering Sandra Bland’s name to appeal to Black voters does not make me feel like Bernie Sanders cares deeply about my livelihood as a Black woman. Ironically enough, Black women who advocate, agitate, or legislate on behalf of issues affecting our communities are often excessively scrutinized and perceived as aggressive and unrighteously self-interested, while Sander’s white liberalism affords him the social capital that rewards him for speaking on issues impacting Black women.

It is more urgent now than ever that we begin to trust and believe in the leadership and brilliance of the Black women in our communities—the same Black women who made it possible for Bernie Sanders to merely acknowledge the existence of Black people. Instead of desperately clinging to the hope that one of the all-white Democratic presidential hopefuls will validate the lives of Black women by merely uttering the phrase Black Lives Matter without any other extensive, substantive, long-term shifts in the impact of anti-Blackness in this nation and government, it is time for us to continue to trust in our ability to create strategic and effective solutions to our communities. It is time to activate our collective power and agency in making significant decisions and leading national conversations about our self-determination as Black women living in the U.S. It is time to absolve ourselves of the minimal expectations we have for elected officials and utilize our communities’ power to honor the social and political needs of Black people. It is absolutely time to support elected officials we know will prioritize our issues; it is time to see more Black women elected officials in our country.
As a Black woman, I am not fully pleased with any of the current presidential candidates, and I firmly believe I deserve more than to settle for the lesser of two evils. However, Kamala Harris and Donna Edwards are both running for Senate in 2016, and if elected, will be the first Black women United States senators in 17 years. With their current candidacies confirmed, alongside visions of more Black women stepping into our political power, I am hopeful for a day when it is not a rare, life-shattering reality for an elected official to express, act on, and embody the declaration that Black Lives Matter.

Danielle Stevens is a California-raised, D.C.-based educator, cultural producer, and Contributing Writer for For Harriet. She has been featured on Elixher Magazine, has been heard on KPFA 94.1 FM Berkeley Radio, and is the Co-Founder of This Bridge Called Our Health, a community forum for women and femmes of color of all genders to explore, develop, and imagine the infinite possibilities of healing. She is also the Director of Operations at Three Point Strategies, a Black women-led political & social justice strategy consulting firm based in D.C. You can find more about her work here and indulge in her #BlackFemmeSupremacy Facebook musings here.

Photo Credit: a katz /

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