A Racially Subversive Bernie Sanders?
By: Joy Moses – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
Black people don’t like Bernie Sanders. Facts. We showed up hugely for Hillary Clinton during the primaries for the 2016 election. Sanders stumbled hard in getting our votes. Yet he continues to have black supporters who maintain that he is a champion for people of color. Maybe. He did do something very racially subversive last week. He introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act.
The new legislation would require companies with more than 500 employees to pay a tax, reimbursing the government for benefits (food stamps, school meals, Medicaid, Section 8 housing) claimed by their employees. How is this racially subversive?
The Status Quo
Black and brown people are lazy. They would rather lay around collecting government benefits and having babies than work. Thus, the primary goal of poverty policy should be forcing them to work. This song has been playing on repeat within American politics for a couple decades.
Politicians use these stereotypes, or dog whistles, on the campaign trail. They are associated with some significant baggage. Perceived differences have historically prevented some white workers from joining in common cause with people of color in fights for living wages. They have otherwise prevented some white Americans from working with people of color in ensuring our government works for us all.
The stereotypes also shape policy — bad policy. For instance, the Trump Administration is planning to propose new regulations that would penalize documented immigrants who have participated in public benefits programs. And conservatives have recently been trying to attach new work requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
Researchers and activists have produced volumes of materials that respond to racial stereotypes, disproving them or placing them in greater context. Sanders just moved to do something far different. Rather than react to the racist narrative, he is altogether replacing it with a new(-ish) one. That is a subversive act.
If you happen to be poor, the government may offer you aid. If you want to improve your competitiveness in the job market, the government may be able to help with job training and education. The government decides the absolute minimum wage workers should earn. These concepts basically define our nation’s approach to poverty. But something very important is missing — a firm acknowledgment of the role that employers play.
In a town that prides itself on its acronyms, Bernie Sanders delivered. The Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act (Stop BEZOS Act) cleverly speaks volumes. In case his intention was still unclear, Sanders specifically called out Bezos (the richest man in the world) when announcing his legislation: “[We] are proposing legislation that would have Mr. Bezos, the Walton family of Walmart, and other billionaires to get off welfare and start paying their employees.”
Sanders shares in a view that has gained prominence in recent years. Entities like the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center, The New Food Economy, and the House Democratic Caucus have questioned employers (especially the large ones) who fail to pay their employees a living wage. Employer decisions help to explain why 30 percent of Americans are poor or near poor. Some workers must rely on government benefits to survive. Sanders and the researchers say this amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of businesses — they can pay low wages because the government ensures their employees are able to feed their families.
This narrative sucks a lot of wind out of the old racist stereotypes. “Bad employers need to provide fair wages” is a goal that will improve poverty outcomes — not “how can we continue to crack the whip on black and brown people?” America has had enough whip cracking in its past and present. It’s time for shared prosperity.
But Wait . . .
Sanders has been facing a fair amount of criticism over his bill. Much of it has to do with the way it was shaped. He successfully navigated the first step in creating beneficial legislation. He used research to identify a valid social problem. But then something went wrong. You see this particular challenge is fairly large and much more complex than the way it appears on the surface. Given this, a red flag should go up when the bill is only six pages long.
Various experts were easily able to point out some major holes. For instance, it doesn’t do enough to prevent employment discrimination against those who need benefits. This is especially true for those who move beyond the application phase and are on the payroll. Nor does it properly account for fast food employees who don’t work directly for corporate headquarters but smaller franchisees who have workforces that are too small to be reached by the legislation. There are also major unanswered logistical and administrative questions. On the surface, it looks like Sanders doesn’t know how to craft solid legislation or lead others in doing so.
Perhaps Sanders’ primary goal was messaging? He did put a spotlight on Bezos and the need for a living wage. And there is the racially subversive part, upending narratives that demonize black and brown people while dividing workers of all races. Wait — Bernie didn’t talk about that natural extension of his message. I did. If he wants to speak truth to power, why not tell the whole the truth? Maybe it all won’t fit on one bumper sticker. But what about in the speeches and interviews?
This discussion isn’t altogether new. Policy experts, looking at the substance of what Bernie Sanders brought to the table during the 2016 election, labeled him “impractical”. Meanwhile, a focus on his message reveals a racial blindspot or calculated exclusions that are surprising for someone who strives to be subversive.
Policy professional, social justice advocate, and entertainment lover. My work can be found at joymoses.com.
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