The son of prominent civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, Bakari Sellers made history when he was elected to the South Carolina State Legislature at age 22. He currently serves as an attorney for South Carolina’s Strom Law Firm, and as a CNN commentator. He hosts a podcast, Viewpoint with Bakari Sellers, available on ITunes. As an IOP Pritzker Fellow for the UChicago Institute of Politics, Bakari lectured the Seminar Series “The Progressive Movement within the Democratic Party & the Politics of the South.” Topics ranged from the history of the Civil Rights movement, the role of identity politics within the Democratic Party, and where the modern progressive moment will take the country.
The Gate: Do you see the civil rights movement as one long tradition, or should it be separated into distinct “periods” that are related to each other, but each still of a different nature?
Bakari Sellers: I don’t think it really matters how you evaluate it, as long as you learn the lessons from periods that come before. I look at the civil rights movement during time periods, because that’s the easiest way for me to comprehend it. But my father’s portion, or fight, built upon the work of those who came before. None of these things happen in a vacuum or in isolation; we stand on the shoulders of them, and we should just continue that fight.
The Gate: The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was renowned for his condemnation of what he called “The Three Evils” of society: Racial Injustice, Poverty, and War. How do you think the post-Trump Democratic Party fares on these moral concerns?
Bakari Sellers: That’s a good question. I don’t think we have a clear answer to that, I think we need to go back and answer the question. In fact, in my class today, that’s where we conclude. That’s where I think the party needs to focus, on those three Axes of Evil, and we’ll see if we’re able to craft a clear message around that.
The Gate: Your friend Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Atlantic entitled The Case for Reparations—where do you fall on the case for reparations?
Bakari Sellers: I think reparations are essential— the question is what do they look like? I think that’s where the rubber meets the road. What I anticipate it looks like on a fundamental level is equity, where you’re giving people an opportunity to actually succeed in the proverbial land of milk and honey. I’m sure Ta-Nehisi and others have fleshed out what they expect reparations to look like. So I believe in it, the question is what does it look like?
The Gate: When Senator Nina Turner skyped into one of your Fellows Seminars here at the UChicago Institute of Politics, she mentioned the legacy of Congresswoman Shirely Chisolm, and the symbolic importance of her candidacy for president. However, some critics of the Democratic Party’s identity politics claim that symbolic victory is being treated as more important than substantive policy. Do you think these criticisms hold water?
Bakari Sellers: No not at all, because that devalues the fact that there is some substantive policy in diversity. And in our Fellows Seminars, one of the blessings is that we’ve had a diverse group of people, so that is a victory in of itself. The real victory is the thought that comes from that diversity. You and I can have a great discussion about reproductive rights, however when we bring in a woman into the conversation, not only does that room look better and more diverse, but the substance of the conversation will be as well.
The Gate: Progressives are often critiqued for their foreign policy “dovishness”—they’re averse to most expressions of militarism unless deemed absolutely necessary. These convictions have contributed to narratives about Democrats being “weak” on foreign policy. How do you view these assertions?
Bakari Sellers: I think that’s a false narrative. Although people throw that out there, the most hawkish person running for President of the United States [in 2016] was literally Hillary Clinton. I see myself to be more hawkish than dovish, I think that we’ve found ourselves in some places where we should not have been fighting a war—Iraq, Afghanistan to be more specific. This isn’t the first time that we’ve ended up there, especially with the Bushes as President. But [in Syria for example] I do think that someone like Bashar al-Assad needs to go. I think anyone who uses chemical weapons on their people needs to go.
The Gate: “Transpartisanship”, is a type of policy making that involves moving beyond strict ideological stances to address social problems. Are progressives too unwilling to work with those who have different values, consider other perspectives, and be transpartisan?
Bakari Sellers: I think that there is a portion of the Democratic Party who believes in these purity tests, which drives me absolutely crazy. I am a believer that our party has a big tent for a reason. And we’re going to have some individuals who are more moderate than others in our party because we want to win in places like Alabama and Georgia. Politics is not one size fits all.
The Gate: Do you see rurality as an identity that may be marginalized? What is unique about rural outreach for building political coalitions?
Bakari Sellers: Yes, no question. In Wisconsin for example, the election of Scott Walker was an exhibit of rural America fighting back, striking back. I think that Democrats need to do better at understanding rurality, as you so eloquently put it. What we have to understand is that there are places that depend on agriculture, depend on access to our technical college system. One of the things that the Democratic Party has done poorly is look down upon these communities. I’m a product of these communities, and we have to lift these communities up.
The Gate: What would you say are the key distinctions between Southern and Northern organizing?
Bakari Sellers: On the key distinctions between Southern and Northern organizing—my opinion is that Southern is rooted more deeply in civil rights. With that being said, I think that most Northern and Southern organizing is rooted in our new technologies and social media, and so they have very similar parallels.
The Gate: What does bi-partisanship in the South look like to you?
Bakari Sellers: I think it’s different perspectives. As a Republican in the South, there’s no need for bipartisanship because most of the time you have a majority or a supermajority in the State legislatures. As a Democrat it looks like success. You have to have an idea, sometimes you have to moderate your thoughts, and bring your ideals closer to the center to get more people from the right to get on board with it. I’ve been decently successful with passing legislation, because I’ve been able to get Republicans to sign on to it. For me, being a Southern Democrat, bipartisanship is success—for Republicans it’s not necessary.
The Gate: How do you measure success with your podcast “Viewpoint”?
Bakari Sellers: I know how other people measure success, by how many downloads I get per episode. I measure success by whether or not I am able to get a little nugget out of one of my guests that no one else has gotten. I think that my interviews with Don Lemon, Charles Barkley, and most recently Tim Scott, exhibit those nuggets. I’m very proud of those. The reason it’s called Viewpoint is because I want people to feel comfortable giving their viewpoint and cutting through the noise no matter how unpopular it may be. Getting to understand someone like Charles Barkley or Don Lemon is an amazing opportunity, as was getting Mark Cuban to say that he’s considering a run for President. But even more importantly, sitting down with a black member of Congress [Tim Scott] and understanding for him what it means to be black, and what it means to be a black Republican.
Special thanks to Kanisha Williams, a fourth year Sociology major at the University of Chicago, who contributed questions. The interviewer served as a Fellows Ambassador for Bakari Sellers during the Fall Quarter at the University. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
The image used in this piece is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.