Bernie Sanders, Race, and Judaism

Jeremy Sarka · Monday, March 9th, 2016 at 7:00 PM PST

The latest twist in Bernie Sanders' ongoing struggle to win over black voters in the Democratic Primary is the controversy over a remark he made during the Flint, Michigan debate: "When you're white, you don't understand 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..." Contrary to the conventional wisdom, that remark does not seem to have hurt his standing with black voters in Michigan, where he won around 30% of the black vote. That may not seem like much, but it's a lot better than he's been doing in the South.

Listening to the debate again today, I can't help but get the feeling that Bernie Sanders wasn't only talking about black people. When he talks about not understanding what it means to "live in a ghetto", to "be poor" (I believe he was not just talking about poverty, but the state of near-total wealthlessness that many black Americans live in,) to be "hassled when you walk down the street," I can not help but think of what the European Jews experienced.

Living in a ghetto means more than just being poor, or being segregated, or being victimized—it means being completely surrounded by people who are different than you and have more power in society than you do; it is the constant reminder that you are the other, that you are alien, that you are less than fully human. Jews understand that. Even if we no longer live in a ghetto, if we are no longer part of the other, it is part of our history.

In the same debate, Sanders talked about how the Holocaust influenced his view of politics. Bernie Sanders may not know what it's like to live in a ghetto, but he surely met many people who did. I don't know what it's like to live in a ghetto, but it is an essential part of my family's history. My grandfather, who grew up in Los Angeles in the 1930's, once told me a story about being set upon by a gang of Catholic boys who beat him and called him "Christ-killer." That experience instilled in him a lifelong passion for social justice, and that history is an essential part of my worldview.

The tradition of Jewish social activism grows out of our people's long history of oppression, of being aliens in our own country—it is founded on the connection we share with all of the oppressed people of the world. Bernie Sanders is part of that tradition. He may not be able to personally understand the experience of black Americans, but his empathy for the oppressed people comes from a personal connection to the countless Jews who have suffered from prejudice and oppression over the centuries, a connection that few other white Americans have. Bernie Sanders needs to highlight his personal connection to social justice to overcome the negative attitudes towards Jews and Israel.

But I'm beginning to suspect that none of this really matters, though. Bernie Sanders hasn't been able to win over the majority of black voters (and may never be able to win them over) because the reason they support Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders has nothing to do with the candidates positions on racial issues, or their familiarity with the black community, or their ability to speak the language of 21st Century racial discourse—it's because the majority of black voters support a candidate who will continue the slow, incremental progress black communities have made over the last 60 years, rather than one offering a much riskier vision of "political revolution," which, if it fails, will produce no progress at all.

Jeremy Sarka is a writer, artist, programmer, attempted creative professional, and disillusioned Millenial.