Cenk Uygur, of The Young Turks, recently received backlash for a tweet he put up in support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). It read, "Perspective | Joe Biden needs a running mate committed to black lives. That's Elizabeth Warren.
Although Cenk did not write the Washington Post article he was boosting, the problem lies in the fact that Cenk, who considers himself to be a progressive, thought that there was absolutely no problem pushing his white* VP pick in the context of being "committed to BLACK lives". Indeed, the fact that he didn't think there was anything wrong with his tweet once again highlights a bigger problem on the progressive left.
There's a problem in the progressive movement that has gone mostly unaddressed. Ironically, the issue has not been addressed because it's a flaw exhibited by the very same demographic of people who are uplifted as the thought leaders of progressive politics. And that problem is the "White Savior Complex". Although one could write an entire dissertation on the intricacies of the white savior complex, it can be distilled into one simple concept: white people who seek to "help" non-white people in a self-serving manner. The reason "help" is placed in quotations is because, in white saviorism, the "help" does not have to be meaningful, altruistic, or selfless. However, in the eyes of the public, the "help" must maintain the appearance of being meaningful, altruistic, or selfless if one is to reap the rewards white saviorism tends to bring to those who learn to effectively weaponize it.
Why is white saviorism dangerous? Well, this is where things can get a little complicated, so let's analyze white saviorism in the context of Cenk's tweet.
The tweet says that Biden must* pick a candidate committed to black lives and that Warren is that candidate. But what does a commitment to black lives as a politician look like, and does Elizabeth Warren fit that description?
It goes without saying that a black running mate would dramatically increase the likelihood of that VP pick being committed to black lives. However, just because one has black skin does not mean that they are allied with black lives. For example, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is racially black, but her horrid record on criminal justice, mass incarceration, marijuana prohibition, and other issues that primarily affect the black community was put on front-street by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI02) during a July Democratic Primary debate. Once the black community figured out her black race did not necessarily play a part in her policy advocacy, her poll numbers plummeted and she was forced to drop out before a single vote was cast. In short, Harris's record proved she was not "committed to black lives". In fact, the black community took her atrocious criminal justice record more personally, because Harris campaigned on being a "strong black woman"; and if we were to accept her self-characterization, that means she knew her policies would harm our community and she just didn't care.
I bring up Sen. Harris's fall from grace to illustrate that it isn't just an identity nor policy that shows a commitment to black lives. In a perfect or even semi-perfect world, it's both. Warren, obviously, does not share identity with the black community. So we have to analyze her "commitment" through the merits of her policy advocacy, her willingness to fight for those policies, and a consistent display of integrity on issues dealing with race.
*SPOILER* Warren fails in all three of these categories
Let's take a look at her stance on reparations. At the beginning of her 2020 campaign, reparations for American Descendent of Slaves was a major part of her platform. Inherent in the promise of reparations is the guarantee of a direct cash payment over a certain period of time. Whether or not you may personally agree with the policy is beside the point. I'm simply pointing out a fact about Warren's platform. Many black voters were impressed that a white person who didn't share the black experience would be so willing to make such a bold and controversial commitment to black lives. Even Bernie Sanders, who was crushing Warren in the black vote at the time, stood against reparations and felt he had a better economic plan that would be more beneficial to black Americans. Warren set herself apart, or so we thought, and she temporarily benefited in her polling numbers amongst black voters because of it. However, she backtracked a couple of months later after she secured that uptick in black support. She played the white savior game, reaped the political benefits, and never truly faced backlash for her flip-flopping. And what's worse? If she would have won the nomination, and subsequently the presidency, we now know she would have completely bailed on the one policy many black voters believed (and still do) she supported, and the policy that would diametrically change their lives for the better if passed. Were her motives altruistic, meaningful, and selfless? No. But people like Cenk treat her motives as such because Warren was able to project the appearance that her motives were indeed altruistic, meaningful, and selfless.
Let's look at Warren's stance on a policy that largely benefits black voters, although not as exclusively as reparations. Warren claimed that she was a fervent supporter of Sen. Sanders Medicare for All legislation and the general idea of single-payer healthcare. This even allowed her to be portrayed as the "younger female version" of Bernie Sanders, who was the Democratic frontrunner and arguably the most popular politician in the country at the time. Once she began to win enough of Sanders's excitable and active base, she pivoted to a policy that was...Well, it was something, but it wasn't Medicare for All nor was it single-payer, and she made sure to constantly critique Sanders's healthcare policy to remind us of that fact. She was still able to retain a massive portion of the Vermont Senator's base, even after reneging on the very policy that made Bernie Sanders a house-hold name. She received all the benefits and little to none of the backlash. Were her motives altruistic, meaningful, or selfless? Are you starting to see a pattern?
I could honestly provide fifteen more examples, but I think you get the point. How does this tie back into the reason white saviorism is so dangerous? Because Cenk is fully aware of everything I discussed above, and yet he's still willing to sell the white women who sold out black people for political capital as the running mate who would be best for black people. What makes this tweet even more appalling is the fact that Cenk considers himself to be progressive, and there are actually progressive leaders who've actually shown a meaningful commitment to black lives and are more than qualified to be Biden's running mate.
Take Nina Turner, former Ohio state senator, a former president of Our Revolution, and former executive director of Sanders's 2020 campaign, for example. Nina Turner is pro-reparations. Even as the candidate she supported did not come out in favor of reparations, she still actively supported the policy during Bernie's 2020 campaign. She also sacrificed her Ohio Senate race in 2016 because she felt it was more important to help Bernie Sanders get elected, instead of returning to Ohio and campaigning for herself, even if that meant giving up the security that being an elected official brings. Not only could she win the confidence of black voters, but she could also win over Bernie Sanders's base - a base Biden needs considering he's only received donations from 60,000 of the 2.2 million people who donated to Sen. Sanders in 2020.
Maybe Biden wants someone who's not as disliked by the Democratic establishment. If that's the case, why not pick Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA 13)? Rep. Lee is a black congresswoman (check), supports single-payer healthcare (check), and is the only person in all of Congress who voted against BOTH the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (triple check). She's not only shown a commitment to black lives at home, she's shown a commitment to preserving black and brown lives overseas. She also supports reparations. Lee isn't only well-liked by the Democratic Establishment. Progressives also find her palatable because of everything I outlined above.
Maybe Biden wants someone who's committed to black lives, but also can pull in some of Trump's voters. Well, look no further than Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI02). Tulsi Gabbard is not a black woman (she's actually Polynesian), but that did not stop her from supporting reparations since before the inception of her presidential campaign. She also introduced legislation to demilitarize the police in 2014, although Congress never followed through. Given the unrest caused by George Floyd's murder, this would help Biden improve his image on the campaign trail. He's going to need it considering his well-known authorship of the '94 "Biden" Crime Bill. She can also boast about being the only presidential Democratic primary candidate who Trump was actually afraid to attack because his base respected her honesty and willingness to stand up for what's right, even when it's inconvenient for her career. If Biden means to win, you don't have to be a Democratic strategist to know he must take some of Trump's votes away to do so. Not to mention, she has the foreign policy chops any Commander in Chief would want to replace them in the event of an unforeseen emergency if they are seeking someone who is confident and ready to take over the office on day one.
I know what you are going to say, "Niko, he would never pick any of those women because they're progressive." I'm fully aware of that, and I'm sure Cenk is as well. However, if he wouldn't pick any of those candidates specifically because of the progressive policies they advocate for, if he picked Warren, wouldn't that mean he's only picking her because she could project the appearance of progressive policy advocacy while being confident in the fact that Warren has no intention on following through on those policies? And wouldn't that mean people (black people) would be voting for her under the false pretense that she would genuinely be committed to black lives? So why would Cenk push a candidate who has shown a commitment to not being committed? The answer lies in the definition of the white savior complex that I provided for you at the beginning of this piece: "white people who seek to "help" non-white people in a self-serving manner...The "help" does not have to be meaningful, altruistic, or selfless. However, in the eyes of the public, the "help" must maintain the appearance of being meaningful, altruistic, or selfless if one is to reap the rewards white saviorism tends to bring to those who learn to effectively weaponize it."
If Cenk is pushing black people towards a candidate that would not help them, it must mean, necessarily, he's pushing black people towards the candidate because it would help HIM. Just like Warren lied about her advocacy for pro-black policies because it helped HER. And why would they make such brazen attempts to dupe people in broad daylight into voting totally against their interests? Because not only have they gotten away with it, but they've personally benefited from this tactic over, and over, and over again with little to no remorse for the black and brown people who donate their money, time, and energy on the slight hope that maybe THIS white savior will treat us better than the last one.
But honestly black people, did we really want someone who pretended to be Indigenous American for her entire life for personal gain only to throw the indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock under the bus so Obama and company could install their pipeline on sacred land? Let's be real - even if we did accept that she genuinely believed she was Native American, that means she thought she had a genuine connection to the Indigenous community, and she still sold them out for political expediency. If she treated her "own people" that way, imagine how she'd treat us if she sat in the oval office?
This would normally be the time where I discuss the solutions to this problem. But that's another piece for another time. First, we must acknowledge the problem and finally accept that it does, in fact, need to be addressed.
For the readers who were gracious enough to stick around to this point, I leave you with this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr:
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council'er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
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