On Saturday, progressives watched #BlackLivesMatter activists confront Bernie Sanders at the Netroots Nation conference. Sanders didn't exactly handle the interaction well — he told the protesters that he could leave if he wasn't wanted, but didn't (in their estimation) do much to address the issues they were raising about deaths of black women at the hands of police.
By Sunday, the rift between Sanders supporters and critics had gotten contentious. Roderick Morrow, a 36-year-old podcaster and comedian in Charlotte, North Carolina, pulled up a tried-and-true coping mechanism: the joke hashtag. #BernieSoBlack ended up trending nationally and fed a continuing controversy about whether Sanders and white progressives are taking racial inequality seriously enough.
Vox spoke to Morrow on Sunday evening about why he wasn't impressed with Sanders or his online fans, and whether he thinks the campaign and the progressive movement is responding to the demands of black progressives.
Dara Lind:So how did the #BernieSoBlack hashtag get started?
Roderick Morrow:Bernie Sanders, while he does have a good track record on race in the past, he's kind of been avoiding talking about certain racial issues now. Whenever he's asked a question, he goes into a spiel on economics — which is fine, obviously, people do want wage and class equality. But certain issues are race issues, and they do need to be talked about, at least from a candidate that I would like to vote for.
And it seems like any time black people bring this up on Twitter, there's all these people who, I don't know, they're just sitting around searching his name on Twitter or something, they just come and get in your mentions and start harassing you, they start saying the same things over and over to you, like, "He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King," and, "He was at a sit-in," and they send you a picture of him at a sit-in from 1960-something. That's all well and good, and I'm not denigrating that work, but it's almost as if they're trying to say, "You shouldn't expect him to continue this" or, "Because he's done stuff in the past, you shouldn't question him now."
I thought it was happening to just a few people — apparently it's happening to a lot of us.
Basically the hashtag started because Imani Gandy, who does @AngryBlackLady on Twitter, I saw her say:
— Imani Gandy (@AngryBlackLady) July 19, 2015
Which I thought was a funny joke. It's like they're almost trying to outblack us. "Oh, you're a black person, what could you possibly understand about our candidate? He was marching before you were even born!" Okay, that's cool, but you gotta stay on top of it. So I made a joke that's like, "Bernie's blacker than us! Bernie's SO BLACK!" That's how it feels when they come into our mentions and tell us that we don't know what we're talking about, and even though [Sanders] doesn't talk about #BlackLivesMatter right now, we should just kind of shut up. So I was just like:
— Rod TBGWT (@rodimusprime) July 19, 2015
It was just a joke! I think I only made three jokes, and then I left — I do a comedy podcast, so I went to go do my show — and then I came back, and I don't know, it was trending everywhere! It was kind of weird.
Dara Lind:So I assume your mentions were an absolute disaster area at that point.
Roderick Morrow:Sort of. The thing about the Bernie Sanders fans is while they're very obtuse and they don't listen, they are more polite than the people who just call you the n-word or a racial slur or something. It's more like that passive-aggressive "We're on the same side, man!" where clearly they don't want you to talk about anything that their candidate can do better, but they do want you to just vote for him.
There's a lot of "You're not saying this stuff to other candidates," but we are. He just kind of had a bad 48 hours or so. I'm not expecting him to drop out of the race; I think he'll be fine. Hopefully, from the tweets I've seen, I think his campaign's listening, and hopefully they're going to regroup and hopefully reform and be more vocal around some of these issues.
Dara Lind:But while this is all kind of targeted at Sanders's campaign, it's also targeted at the people who are just sitting around waiting for someone to talk smack about Bernie Sanders, right?
Roderick Morrow:Oh, it's mostly about them.
Dara Lind:So the Sanders supporters who aren't with the campaign, did you see any receptiveness from them, or was it just a lot of unironic "#BernieSoBlack he marched with MLK," which missed the point completely?
Roderick Morrow:Oh, yeah, there's a ton of that. Honestly, the joke is not even on Bernie Sanders. That's what's so funny — the joke is on the defense of him, which is, if you extrapolate to the furthest extent, he can do no wrong on race. Like, we should not even expect anything of him, he put in his time already, we need to just shut up.
I'm sure it does happen, but I can't imagine people doing this to other constituencies, because you do rely on those votes. At Netroots Nation, you're going to be addressing a very diverse but very black-centric audience, and to not really be prepared to talk about race there is a little bit of a slap in the face. So for us — and when I say "us," I just mean black people, I'm not any level of an activist or anything — for us to just say, Hey, you kind of did a bad job, hope you do better in the future, and then get bombarded with "He marched in 1968!" it's like, All right, man, I don't know what to tell you.
And it's kind of scary, too, because on a deeper level, when he talked about Ferguson, he was like, "Well, the real problem is that there's not enough jobs." And while I agree — jobs are definitely a problem, and opportunities are a problem, and you definitely want people to be working — Mike Brown was going to college. He was on his way to school in a couple of days. I don't think that was necessarily the problem in that situation. I hope it's not just him saying, "If these Negroes were working there wouldn't be any problems," because ooh, that's not too far from some really bold negative statements that we've heard about the black race in the past. I don't think that's what's underlying it, I just think he needs to be more vocal and speak with some authority about it because he seems to run from talking about it. I don't think it's that hard to talk about it. Elizabeth Warren knocked the socks off the room, because she was talking about the economy, but she just happened to mention, "Hey, black lives matter, we do need people working, we do need to get people out of jails." She was very vocal about it, but I didn't feel like she was just coming there to kiss butt. I felt like she was just being sincere.
Dara Lind:After today, are you more or less hopeful about the white progressives who have been using Sanders's civil rights record?
Roderick Morrow:I'm more hopeful for the campaign than I am for his defenders. The campaign itself tweeted out a couple things. Obviously they're seeing the trends on social media and they're obviously seeing they need to do better.
They messed one of them up: I think he tweeted out #SayHerName, which is a hashtag about black women who've been killed in police custody, but then he said one women and then two guys' names, which is kind of the opposite of what that hashtag is about.
Dara Lind:But then he did mention Sandra Bland in his speech today.
Roderick Morrow:Exactly. Exactly. And they deleted that tweet, and he also tweeted #BlackLivesMatter. So for me, I'm looking at those as positives. Maybe I'm being foolish. But hey, they're hearing, they're receptive, they're responding — they don't seem to be hurt over it, which, I don't know how you can run for president if you're that easily hurt. I think his campaign will do a better job.
Look at President Obama, where he was on marriage equality when he first showed up. He was like, "I believe in civil unions, but ..." and enough people just kept on him to the point where he was like, "All right! Apparently I was wrong about that." I just think that's part of the job.
As far as fans ... I don't know, man. You're talking about hundreds of years of history of people who can kind of be very ... they can ignore a lot of voices if they don't sign up exactly with what they're saying. There will always be a struggle, even in progressive spaces, to have people who don't dismiss you for having a different goal than they do. You see the same thing with, like, immigration. A lot of black people who love President Obama don't care about immigration. Because it's like, "Not our problem!" The challenge is always how can you support each other without turning on each other? I don't know that the Sanders camp fans will learn that lesson. But it ain't going to stop people from wanting #BlackLivesMatter to be talked about, so they might as well let it go.