The George Floyd Protests Must Be a Wake-Up Call for the Socialist Left

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Bernie Sanders has some serious racial blind spots

Zeeshan Aleem
Published in
6 min readJun 18, 2020


Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

In an interview with The New Yorker last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders turned heads when he rejected growing calls from progressive activists to either defund or abolish the current law enforcement system in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. In fact, Sanders not only declined to back either demand, he also emphasized that police must be “well-paid” in order to be effective at their jobs. It was an echo of a point Sanders made in a letter this month to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer requesting that state and local governments ensure “the resources are available to pay wages” that attract “top tier” talent to police forces.

It wasn’t the first time Sanders has seemed oddly traditional in the face of a rising wave of anger over racist police brutality. During his first presidential run in 2015, Sanders trailed presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in endorsing Black Lives Matter; it took two campaign disruptions from protestors for him to begin to more seriously promote criminal justice reform in his policy platform. Like many socialists, Sanders prioritizes the war against the 1% as his overarching frame for social change and sees the fight against racism as something to fold into that struggle. But at times that framework has resulted in the neglect of antiracist gestures, such as when he was the only presidential candidate who didn’t travel to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate Bloody Sunday and later when he unexpectedly scrapped a speech about race in Flint, Michigan, during the 2020 campaign.

Now Sanders, still the best-known socialist in America, isn’t rushing to back the defund the police movement, which would seem to naturally dovetail with his commitment to boosting social spending on education and health care. While he has indicated support for having some law enforcement tasks reassigned to mental health workers (one goal of defunding the police) his prism for looking at the problem remains at a remove from that of the re-energized Black Lives Matter movement and the burst of progressive and left-wing energy in the streets.