Bernie Sanders’ ghettos and the soft bigotry of low expectations

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stepped into a minefield when he talked about “the ghetto.” And he only made it harder on himself when he tried to explain his remarks.

It all started at last Sunday’s CNN debate in Flint, Michigan, when the Vermont senator was responding to a question about whether he had any racial blind spots. “When you’re white, you don’t know 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 or you get dragged out of a car,” Sanders said at the debate.

The next day, he attempted to explain what he meant:

“What I meant to say is when you talk about ghettos traditionally, what you’re talking about is African-American communities,” Sanders told reporters. “I think many white people are not aware of the kinds of pressures and the kind of police oppression that sometimes takes place within the African-American community,” he added, noting that no other candidate has talked more about poverty, whether black, white or Latino, than he has. “We have 47 million people living in poverty in America, and in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, that is a disgrace, absolutely.”

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“Senator Sanders is from Burlington. He grew up in old Brooklyn, he knows white folks live in ghettos,” said Ben Jealous — former president and CEO of the NAACP and a Sanders supporter — coming to the senator’s defense.

Aside from the fact that no one even talks about “the ghetto” anymore — it sounds like something out of an old episode of Good Times or something — Sanders’ comment and troublesome clarification points out the pitfalls facing white allies of African-Americans. Simply put, you cannot simplistically box black people or other people of color in like that. To do so is to perpetuate racial stereotypes and assume that only people of color live in the povertySome of us did not grow up in the ghetto, and even if we were born in the ghetto, the ghetto might not have been born in us.

The fact is that there are many poor white people in America — more than anyone else, but that’s because there are more white people in America. The issue is that black folks are disproportionately so — 10 percent of whites live in poverty, but over a quarter of blacks and nearly a quarter of Latinos do — in addition to the doubly high unemployment, high mortgage rates, and many roadblocks that institutional racism erects to wipe out our hopes and stifle our aspirations. Now that is a conversation we need to have.

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Unfortunately, many white liberals engage in what Republicans once referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The idea that blacks are all poor, helpless, and in need of a white sympathizer who understands their pain. This is an old notion that Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and countless other white liberal candidates have played to in their outreach to African-Americans. It’s unfortunate, because they fail to see the full dimension of African-Americans; the majority of which live above the poverty line.

If the “ghetto” is Sen. Sanders’ default reference point for how he views black people and their economic reality, it also reflects his difficulties in separating racial and economic issues. And it also speaks to the tone deafness of many whites in addressing race. And Hillary Clinton has faced her own issues of late for her 1996 “super predators” remark. At a time when white politicians, perhaps for the first time, are forced to deal with race, they are finding that black voters, like black moviegoers, are a tough crowd.

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Sanders and others should continue to talk about poverty, race and other issues of importance, but in an informed and thoughtful manner. Because there’s far more to black people than the ghetto.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove