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Bernie Sanders Understands the Horrors of Racism Much More Personally Than South Carolina Voters Realize

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 25/02/2016 Seth Abramson
BERNIE SANDERS © Scott Olson via Getty Images BERNIE SANDERS

According to scholars, Jews began to be accepted as "white" sometime in the 1960s.
But growing up in eastern Massachusetts in the 1980s, you wouldn't have known it.
I can't recall a single elementary school friend who didn't, at one point or another, assure me that, as a Jew, I was non-white. "Jews are a race of people -- everybody knows that," my 10-year-old friends would solemnly explain. No doubt they'd heard as much from their parents.
As a sensitive kid, I tended to believe the things others told me about myself, with the result that I believed myself to be non-white until I got to eighth grade.
Yes, seriously.
And I can tell you that many other Gen-X Jews had a similar experience in the 1980s.
Being identified as, and self-identifying as, non-white in the 1980s meant a lot more than just a quirk of semantics. Massachusetts, like most of New England, is almost all Christian and white. And in the 1980s, many Christian whites in New England found subtle ways to marginalize not only the few non-Caucasians in the region but also those, like local Jews, who could credibly be separated out from the "Anglo" majority. If a large number of my Jewish friends went to Hebrew School every Sunday, it was partly because, despite the relatively large Jewish population in Massachusetts -- 2.2% of all Americans are Jewish, but 4.3% of Bay Staters are -- we didn't always see our secular schools as safe spaces. Many of us felt like foreigners in our own towns.
On multiple occasions in elementary school, I was slipped papers in class with swastikas on them. Once, two of my closest friends used permanent marker to draw scores of tiny swastikas on their palms, then shoved them in my face at lunch as a "prank." More than one elementary school classmate explained to me that, while he didn't personally approve of the Holocaust, he recognized -- as should I -- that there was a long history of people from one race (his) disliking those of another (mine) and that I just needed to "accept it." Years later, when my high school made the state tournament in basketball and played a team from a town with a large Jewish population, my classmates threw bagels at the opposing players and their student supporters. Of course these are just a very few examples of the sorts of events which were, if not daily, routine enough that I never forgot for a moment that I was a Jew and therefore unlike (as a matter of "kind") almost everyone else in my hometown.
In other words, I grew up not believing myself to be white, not feeling white, and constantly being reminded that while I might look white, I was not. Often, swastikas or anti-Semitic slurs were used -- sometimes with a smile -- to drive the point home.
I was born in 1976, and was a child in the 1980s.
Bernie Sanders was born in 1941, and was a child in the 1940s and early 1950s.
When Bernie Sanders was a child, everyone "knew" Jews were non-white, and polling showed that the only group Americans disliked more than the Jews was the Nazis.
And it was close.
So I've watched with not just dismay but anger as the Clinton campaign has sought to convince Democratic voters, and particularly black voters in South Carolina, that Bernie Sanders not only wasn't involved in the Civil Rights movement but couldn't have understood the scourge of systemic, institutionalized racism even if he had been. Sure, much of Sanders' family was killed in the Holocaust, he grew up "non-white," and he'd be the first non-Christian President in American history, but isn't he just another out-of-touch white dude?
Of course, the truth is that Sanders was very involved in the Civil Rights movement, especially as compared to Hillary. A full year after Sanders was arrested in Chicago protesting housing segregation, Hillary was still a far-right "Barry Goldwater Girl" campaigning passionately for the late, notoriously anti-Civil Rights Act Senator from Arizona. If you haven't heard about this, it's only because the Sanders campaign has held off on the sort of smears we've seen from the Clinton campaign; while the Clinton camp was calling into question the authenticity of photos of Sanders from the 1960s -- even in the face of disagreement by those who took the photos -- Sanders and his camp stayed mum on the fact that Clinton was a Goldwater Republican into her early twenties, and supported a politician whose conspicuously racist "Southern strategy" included a long and vociferous opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But the story goes much deeper than that, because, as Sanders has explained, he actually got into politics because his father's entire family was murdered by the Nazis. So as a fellow Jew who became a public defender after law school, I feel certain that Bernie ended up in that jail cell in 1963 in part because he felt that "racism" against Jews and racism against blacks were equally evil and worthy of spending one's last breath fighting against. That Sanders won't talk about any of this now is a sign of his humility and decency and, not for nothing, his internalization of the culture of New England -- as in my forty-year experience, we New Englanders are loath to wear our religious views on our sleeves.
I can't imagine what it was like growing up in the years before Jews were considered "white" by academics, and Sanders certainly hasn't made that narrative any part of his campaign. But I know very well what it was like growing up in the years before 10-year-olds had gotten the message academics apparently began sending out during the Kennedy Administration. So while I respect Sanders' decision not to discuss his Judaism during the 2016 presidential campaign, if Hillary Clinton is going to allow her surrogates to imply that Sanders is some lily-white Anglo from a fantasyland of unabridged Caucasian privilege, I'm going to call foul on that. Not so much because Sanders needs my support on this score, but because I and the millions of other Gen-X Jews who remember a brief period of being and feeling "non-white" in the 1980s can never be said to have no understanding whatsoever of what it means to experience and combat racism.
I don't mean to imply here that our experiences were anything like co-equal to what African-Americans today experience, let alone what blacks experienced in the 1980s, 1880s, or 1680s -- because they manifestly were not. But I do believe that Bernie Sanders got into politics for a reason, fought segregated housing in Chicago for a reason, and has been a supporter of civil rights for all abused and marginalized populations his entire political career for a reason. And that reason gives the lie to the line of argument Hillary Clinton is presently, and odiously, using to curry favor with black voters in South Carolina.
If Sanders loses African-American voters in South Carolina by as many points as he did in Nevada -- 54 -- that's fine. Everyone everywhere should vote for whomever they wish and for whatever reason. I'm only saddened by the possibility that Clinton's unanswered smears against Sanders will be part of the reason for the latter's poor showing among non-Caucasian voters. I think voters deserve to have the facts when they go into the voting booth, and the fact is that Bernie Sanders' advocacy of civil rights is far, far more personal to him than most voters in the early primary states presently realize.
Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).

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