Ralph Nader’s Racial Blindspot

Web Exclusive-In tackling thorny topics such as corporate globalization, environmental abuse and child poverty, Nader often speaks to problems that have their most devastating affects in communities of color. However, he almost never points to the racial dimensions of these issues.

By Vanessa Daniel Aug 17, 2000

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, General Colin Powell spoke boldly to racial issues, telling a somewhat alarmed audience that he supported affirmative action and opposed the growing imprisonment of people of color. Amidst nervous applause, Powell signaled that the Republicans had for the first time brought a show of race to center stage. His words indicated a shift in the presidential race. What he did last week, and what Al Gore will no doubt match during this week’s Democratic National Convention, is to effectively usher in an era in which politicians will more freely capitalize on racial buzz words in order to court the growing "minority vote."

Unfortunately, this does little to actually remedy the racial problems confronting the nation. The mainstream candidates, while cashing in on multiracial images and Civil Rights rhetoric in order to win votes, have predictably stopped short of posing any serious challenges to the status quo. Powell’s speech is a case in point, as he proceeded to endorse George Bush, a man who unabashedly defends the racist criminal justice system and the death penalty in Texas, a state which has, at present, killed more people of color by execution than any other in the nation. The speech did less to represent people of color than to assuage white guilt, applying a thin veneer of ‘diversity’ to make conservativism more palatable and justifiable to white voters.

By contrast, Ralph Nader is actually addressing some of the big issues affecting people of color. In tackling thorny topics such as corporate globalization, environmental abuse and child poverty, Nader often speaks to problems that have their most devastating affects in communities of color. However, he almost never points to the racial dimensions of these issues. His silence is rendered more conspicuous by the sudden Republican and Democrat attention to the topic. Considering the fact that Nader works to appeal to an audience of "progressives," many of whom are people of color, his colorblindness, is also strategically shortsighted.

Among the 19 issues listed on the official Nader2000 website, including such entries as "Clinton-Bush-Gore," "Fair Trade," and "Industrial Hemp," concern for racial justice is not obvious. The topic is largely absent from Nader’s speeches, even in his talk at the NAACP convention. In the past year, he has shied away from some of the most heated racial issues facing communities of color and been absent during difficult moments of national racial turmoil. He has yet to take a pro-active stance on the phony "war on drugs," racial profiling, militarization of the border, the incarceration of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the bombing of Vieques, the rise in police brutality and was absent following the acquittal of the four officers who slayed Amadou Diallo.

That Nader is coming under fire for relegating race to the peripheries is neither new or surprising. During his 1996 campaign for the presidency, he failed to take a stand against Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in the state of California. Nader defended himself by saying, "I’ve come to believe that in a political campaign, if you don’t focus on basic, fundamental, democracy issues and corporate power, the media will scatter you in terms of other issues."

To Nader, racism is apparently an addendum to ‘real’ social justice issues. In reality, the problem of the twenty-first century is, sadly, still the problem of the color line. Most people of color are tired of colorblind politics that are designed to shut race out of the conversation and keep white America comfortable. When asked specifically about racial issues Nader is usually quite candid and supportive. But unless asked directly, he seems content to render the topic invisible.

The issues that Nader focuses on are so intrinsically linked to race and racism that he appears to be tiptoeing around an elephant when he fails to mention the topic. For example, he speaks volumes about environmental abuse, yet touches only lightly on environmental racism. When most toxic waste dumps are in neighborhoods of color and one in four Native American people living on a reservation are housed within the vicinity of a toxic site, the glaring racial implications of these sobering facts deserve serious attention.

At present Nader seems to be drawing fire for this approach. After following Nader to a campaign event, even a most approving journalist from the Nation felt compelled to comment that "At a fundraising breakfast…Nader struggled a bit with questions on race. The Mesa Verde restaurant owner was disappointed that he wouldn’t address a query on the Hispanic vote. An African American grad student felt that he ignored blacks. When someone asked about Native American rights, he referred the issue to his absent running mate, Winona LaDuke."

While a few prominent people of color, such as Randall Robinson, have enthusiastically endorsed Nader, he has failed to garner much support in communities of color and has yet to win the endorsement of any major non-white organization. Many activists of color have been repelled by Nader.

When Hop Hopkins, an organizer and co-founder of the Seattle-based Brown Collective, went to hear Nader speak he was skeptical but genuinely interested. Having been a central organizer during the WTO protests, he respected Nader’s tough stance on globalization. As a long standing activist in the black community, he appreciated that Nader often took on problems, such as child poverty and environmental abuse, that had their deepest and most damaging effects in the black neighborhoods where he worked. As he listened however, he was troubled that Nader never seemed to speak of or to people of color.

At the end of the hour he asked Nader why he wasn’t talking around race, tackling important issues but forgetting to mention those most affected by them? And how did Nader expect to win black support if he didn’t do more to reach out to the black community? Nader answered the question with a question: "you ask what I have done to reach out to the black community and address racial issues and I ask you, how many black people did you bring here today to hear me and support this campaign?" Hopkins left the room viewing Nader as another white, male progressive interested in the black constituency but brashly unwilling to earn or represent it.

Hopkins’ conclusion was not atypical. Others have noticed that while the Democrats and Republicans openly celebrate "diversity," Nader, although he is of Lebanese descent, personifies a brand of colorblindness that is endemic in the white American left. Because of his work in the current protest movement against the WTO, the IMF and World Bank, Hopkins, like other organizers of color, situates his critique of Nader within the framework of the larger tension that exists between non-white activists and the new white left.

With the rise of the contemporary struggle against globalization, the nation stands poised, for perhaps the first time in thirty years, for a powerful new movement. Yet the gatherings in Seattle, DC and elsewhere have been riddled with bitter racial politics stemming from the marginalization of people of color from every aspect of these actions. Many activists of color look askance at Nader in the same way they do at white anti-globalization radicals, viewing him as emblematic of a contemporary protest movement which risks life and limb to fight corporate globalization, only to ignore the third world people most brutally oppressed by these forces.

It is not clear whether Nader deserves this much heat. For those who measure his silence on race against the backdrop of his 40 years of tireless advocacy, Nader is a candidate worthy of full support. He has worked non-stop for human rights and aided several campaigns in communities of color. Tony Affigne, co-founder of the Rhode Island Green Party and the Puerto Rican Action Committee admits that Nader has not addressed the bombing of Vieques and is quiet about race but says in his defense, "there are gaps in Nader’s thinking but I support him very much despite the gaps." He describes Nader as always open to learning about the issues affecting the Puerto Rican community and is willing to overlook the fact that Nader "comes from that part of the progressive movement that believes that racial questions are used to divide workers."

Winona LaDuke, Nader’s vice presidential running mate and long-time activist for Native American rights, centralizes race in her own campaign but says, "I think Ralph talks about the issues he feels most comfortable talking about. He has never pressed me into the service of speaking on issues that I am not really versed in…So I’m not going demand that Ralph talk about these issues."

LaDuke warns against harshly criticizing Nader, reminding people of his long history of work on key issues, saying, "We need to be careful on the left, in the progressive or ‘people of color’ movements, or in the Greens, to not make it so we are islands of political correctness unto ourselves, where it is only those who hold absolutely every stand that we are willing to support…I do not expect that everyone will speak to every issue."

Others, however, believe that Nader can and must speak more strongly to race. The real tragedy is that there is clearly a disconnect between Nader and communities of color despite the tremendous potential for a common ground and mutually supportive alliance. By far the most progressive candidate, should Nader choose to pull race from the margins to the center of his campaign, he could provide great impetus to the growing people’s movement and positively reframe the election year debate.