Black Lives Matter Is Speaking Bernie Sanders' Language

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday DeRay Mckesson, the Black Lives Matter activist, posted a wrap of meetings between the movement and Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

I thought the Sanders section was particularly interesting.

The Vermont senator has struggled with racial issues in the campaign, and has been accused of being tone-deaf and out of touch. Activists have complained that his tendency to see everything in class terms is limiting and overlooks big differences driven by race. Sanders has acknowledged the blind spot and sought to understand the issues better. But Mckesson’s shows how activists are also tailoring their language to appeal to the senator. For example:

We talked to Sen. Sanders about making sure that people of color, who have been disproportionately criminalized in the informal marijuana economy, do not get locked out of the emerging legalized marijuana economy because of criminal records tied to possessing or distributing marijuana.

Sen. Sanders asked for additional clarity on some key points and noted that he had not heard this argument in this way before and would consider it.

That’s clever. BLM isn’t taking a new stance, but it’s phrasing the argument about legalization as a matter of economic justice—formulating the arguments in ways that are likely to resonate with Sanders’ old-school leftist, class-based mindset. His positive response they report suggests this can work.

The pattern appears throughout the interview. In a discussion of economic inequality, income matters, but the wealth gap between African Americans and whites is even bigger—and potentially more important. So the group pushed Sanders to think about economic justice in terms of wealth rather than income. They used the classic “yes, and” trick when discussing a jobs bill—agreeing with Sanders on the need while also warning that “a range of barriers (racial bias in the hiring process, discrimination based on past criminal records, and lack of access to housing, childcare, education, and transportation) could prevent black people from being able to participate in this program unless intentional measures are taken to ensure access.”