Is Bernie Sanders white? Who cares?

Bernie Sanders. Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

As Joseph Biden warmly caresses his way into the race for the Democratic candidacy (big surprise, there), 2020-watchers have another pressing question to address: Are Jews white?

I’m prompted to ask not by yet another shooting at a US synagogue (this time in San Diego), but by a report in the New York Times of April 20th that finds Democratic voters are wondering: “Is a white man the best face for an increasingly diverse Democratic Party in 2020?”

Put aside for a moment the limited definition of “diversity” to mean only the most superficial differences of skin colour and sex, rather than, say, policy or ideas. The lament about the poll leads and campaign donations for two “white men” – Biden and Bernie Sanders – rather than the dark-skinned and/or female candidates has been the subject of many a left-wing “think piece”, and is likely to get louder as we progress.

The logic of “diversity” and “representation” – which implies the ideal candidate would be a Black lesbian steelworker from the Midwest, preferably a millennial – is no more persuasive than the argument that only a white male can win the votes of the white working class.

But these insulting calculations threaten to poison and derail the Democratic Party’s efforts to unseat a man who is not fit to run a hot dog stand, let alone a superpower with nuclear weapons.

Already the effort by some candidates to polish their minority credentials has provoked the contempt of thinking voters and been the cause of glee in the President’s camp. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s farcical attempts to prove her part-Native American heritage made her look ridiculous, and wounded her promising candidacy right out of the gate.

More creepy was Senator Kamala Harris’s response to questions on a Black-audience radio show about her criminal justice record by saying “they always do this to us” (“they did this to Barack”, etc.) – an outrageous and patronising move, and one compounded by her appalling decision to break into Jamaican patois. (Can you imagine what would be said of any other candidate who did this? The laws of identity politics licence the very worst racial demagogy, not to say bigotry.)

Even the democratic socialist Senator for Vermont has joined the cabaret. Having made what looks like a good faith effort to address criticisms that his 2016 run was “too white and male”, Sanders now boasts of the “diversity” of his campaign team. He’s also spoken repeatedly about his background as the Jewish son of a Polish immigrant, and his growing up in a working class home in Brooklyn.

The element of poverty is more in keeping with the tradition of US elections past, when candidates all try to claim that, like Mr Bounderby in Dickens’s Hard Times, they were born in a ditch. (Why this is regarded as a qualification for high office continues to escape me.)

But the Jewish immigrant bit is unlikely to sway the armies of wokeness, given that Jews feature near the bottom (or should that be top?) of a hierarchy of victimhood, at least in the minds of the self-professed enemies of hierarchy.  In point of fact, not only are there fewer Jews in America than there are Black or Hispanic people, there are fewer Jews than there are Black or Hispanic women. If this isn’t a “minority” the word has no meaning.

Of course, in practice, the word is shorthand for a range of social handicaps, from official discrimination to casual prejudice. And using this definition, it’s true that American Jews are on the whole a highly successful and assimilated minority. (I say “on the whole” in light of such dreary phenomena as the recent decision by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn to decline to vaccinate their children for measles, helping to spur a third-world health crisis in America’s cultural and financial capital.)

And yes, it’s true that Sanders can so to speak “pass” as white, saving him from many of the banal degradations dark flesh is heir to. But one of the flaws in the whole “white privilege” chatter is neglect of the fact that power and privilege is relative. What good is “social capital” or “the wages of whiteness” to a Jew who happens to be in a synagogue in Pittsburgh or San Diego when some punk kid starts unloading their semi-automatic? One answer to the question of whether Jews are white is: Not according to white racists.

And if we take the view of WEB Dubois, who defined an African American (he would have said “Negro”) as “a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia”, and recognise that race is about what people do rather than any inherent quality, we see that the opinion of racists is all that matters.

This is worth bearing in mind as Sanders continues to be filed under “white”, and as our highly privileged Dems jostle for who has more claim to represent the oppressed, based not on their politics and principles but on their pudenda and epidermis.

Personally, I’m not convinced Sanders is our 2020 guy, and I’d be delighted if the right guy turned out to be one of the women. But you can’t fight a racist president and his hipster Blackshirts by granting their first premise that the most important thing about someone is to be found in their genes or between their legs.

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