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Editorial: Bernie and the Boundaries of Progressive Politics

A battle over the mantle of liberalism ensued over the weekend, pitting members of America's most Democratic demographic against its most progressive presidential candidate in one of the nation's most liberal cities. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took the stage in downtown Seattle on Saturday afternoon to boast an unapologetically liberal platform, featuring expansions in Medicaid and social security.

The nature of revolution would not allow Bernie Sanders to take up the issue of racial injustice at his own leisure.

But it was the absence of reference to racial injustice in his speech which incited the day's most contentious exchange. When self-proclaimed Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted Sanders' campaign speech, their actions served to question the constraints of liberalism—to force the attention of progressive candidates unto the ills of their most reliable voting bloc.

Most evident in the wake of Saturday's conflict is the present debate concerning time; how much time ought to be allotted for our elected officials to arrive as modern day advocates of racial equality? As Bernie Sanders has learned, the time granted is little-to-none.

'Black Lives Matter' Shuts Down Sanders Again 2:56

Bernie Sanders' chronicled history of civil rights advocacy has not sheltered him from the intense scrutiny of young social justice advocates. Despite his involvement with labor, housing, educational, and racial equality movements, Saturday marks the second time in two months Sanders has been shouted down by protesters.

But to merely attribute this scrutiny to ignorance is to deny the weight and direness of present circumstance for Black youth. Undoubtedly, young Black women and men live in a society sculpted by the persistence of their elders and the allies, like Bernie Sanders, who flanked them. The result is a country which has outlawed explicit segregation and discrimination based on race. But inequity and disparity have withstood their legal challenges; today, absent legal backing, disparity between Blacks and Whites slithers about and smothers the nation, still.

The efforts of Black ancestors and their allies are not forgotten, but they have been supplanted by insidious forms of discrimination, segregation, and disenfranchisement wrought in nearly every measurable aspect of life, from education to law enforcement to voting rights.

For Black youth to witness the persistence of racism—its endurance through the tireless efforts of their elders and allies—the resulting rage fuels encounters like that which unfolded at Sanders' rally on Saturday.

For Black youth to witness the persistence of racism—its endurance through the tireless efforts of their elders and allies—the resulting rage fuels encounters like that which unfolded at Sanders' rally on Saturday.

It is possible that Bernie Sanders carries the sentiment of the Black Lives Matter movement in his heart. It is possible that he empathizes yet also lacks the political vocabulary to navigate the wishes of his Black Lives Matter constituency without losing the fervor of his larger, whiter constituency. In fact, this seems certain, given Sanders' campaign announced Saturday it has tapped Symone Sanders, a young Black woman with ties to criminal justice advocacy, as its national press secretary. The Sanders campaign also unveiled a robust racial justice platform on the candidate's website after protesters interrupted his Seattle speech.

Federal Minimum Wage Rally
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., takes a selfie with a supporter during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 22, 2015, to push for a raise to the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Congressional Quarterly / CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

The nature of revolution would not allow Bernie Sanders to take up the issue of racial injustice at his own leisure. Such an allowance would defy the urgency which wrought the Black Lives Matter movement; it would betray the disruption its foot soldiers intend to unleash upon America's political discourse.

Many of Sanders' supporters castigated the protesters after the media scrum subsided. They suggested the two women were rude and uninformed as they spouted calls for Bernie Sanders to better align with the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A more accurate critique would indict the occasional incoherence and lack of focus in the moment. Indeed, there were moments of hollering and a lack of precision uncharacteristic of traditional Black Lives Matter protests. But at the root, there was but one revelation: the boundaries of progressive policy are being shifted by a fervent movement for racial justice.

Sanders' position as the campaign’s progressive stalwart will depend upon his ability to forge on with an all-inclusive, culturally competent political vocabulary. To appeal to his Black Lives Matter constituency, Sanders will need to keep pace with this swift movement. Otherwise, the movement and its valuable voters may pass him by.

'Black Lives Matter' Activists Interrupt O'Malley-Sanders Forum 1:28