Bernie Sanders vies for the black vote

Our contemporary moment strikes me as the most interesting time to be a liberal since the late 1960s. Thanks to the 2008 financial crisis and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, issues relating to racial justice and economic inequality are front and center among Democrats for the first time in a generation or two. The current Democratic presidential race is highlighting the fissures among those who prioritize each of these issues, with the votes of African Americans shaping up to be the prize that determines who carries the day.

Bernie Sanders (Source: The Atlantic)

Bernie Sanders (Source: The Atlantic)

Bernie Sanders is the economic radical, who wants to provide universal health care and free college for all Americans, guarantee a $15/hour minimum wage, ensure daycare for parents and break up the biggest Wall Street financial institutions. His opponent Hillary Clinton advocates policies that are generally more moderate than Sanders. She has served as first lady, senator and Secretary of State; hers is the "establishment" candidacy.  (Indeed, one of the main reason that Bernie Sanders has gotten the attention that he has is that Clinton seemed so formidable a year ago that virtually no other Democratic politicians wanted to challenge her.) Yet it is Clinton who enjoys the overwhelming support of African Americans. In a January poll, 74% of black voters supported her over Sanders.

Clinton fought Sanders to a very narrow victory (basically a draw) in Iowa and lost big to him in New Hampshire. The rumpled socialist senator now verges on being much more than a protest candidate. South Carolina, with its 27.8% African American population, and the more multicultural Nevada were supposed to constitute Clinton's "firewall." The primaries in these states, the Clinton campaign expected, would bring Sanders back down to earth. This may yet happen, but Sanders is making inroads among the black demographic by appealing to younger voters, and one recent poll shows Clinton and Sanders in a dead heat in Nevada.

Clinton has cultivated support among African Americans for decades. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, was and is popular among black voters. Sanders comes from largely white Vermont and has done little before now to make himself known to black people. Additionally, he tends to believe that racial problems are largely issues of access that can be addressed with radical government economic intervention. As a result of these factors, he has had trouble with this important Democratic demographic. Early in the campaign, BLM activists disrupted Sanders events. While Sanders speaks of having been active in the Civil Rights Movement as a young man, congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis (who is supporting Clinton), recently claimed that he "never met" and "never saw" Sanders during the heyday of the movement in the 1960s . (Lewis has since walked back the implication that, because the two had never met, Sanders was lying about his civil rights activism.) African-American New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently issued a scathing rebuke to Sanders supporters (the so called "Bernie bros"), who he believes talk down to blacks and take their votes for granted. By asking, as Blow claims that they frequently do, "Don’t black folks understand that Bernie best represents their interests?”, the Bernie bros manifest "a not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage that [is] so grossly offensive that it boggles the mind that such language should emanate from the mouths—or keyboards—of supposed progressives."

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Source: Huffington Post)

Ta-Nehisi Coates (Source: Huffington Post)

Additionally, Sanders has earned some criticism from prominent African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose voice carries a lot of weight with black people. Coates first gained nationwide attention with his painstakingly researched and argued article in the Atlantic arguing for reparations for slavery. So it is not surprising that he took issue with Sanders when the candidate came out against reparations, calling them "divisive" and claiming that they would never get through Congress. In a response to Sanders's comments, Coates noted the ridiculousness of a candidate who identifies himself with democratic socialism suddenly expressing concerns about divisiveness and legislative pragmatism. Because Sanders is "not the candidate of moderation and unification, so much as the candidate of partisanship and radicalism," he could be expected to stand for what is right rather than what is possible. Yet his "radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy" as his "platform on race echoes Democratic orthodoxy." Noting Sanders "class first" approach, he argues that his proposals treat "black people not so much as a class specifically injured by white supremacy, but rather as a group which magically suffers from disproportionate poverty."

Democrats cannot take the black vote for granted. More broadly, though, to the extent that the party is moving to the left (reports of which, in my view, are a bit overblown), that party needs to keep both economic and racial justice simultaneously in its sights. If the contemporary moment represents a newly invigorated liberalism--represented not only by the surprising success of the Sanders candidacy, but also by Clinton's tacking to the left on issues like gay marriage and the Trans-Pacific Partnership--then Democrats who wish to capitalize on it must find a way to understand--and to sell--the idea that racial and economic justice are complementary approaches rather than rival ones. The kind of advocacy that Blow criticizes is infuriating when one is on the receiving end of it, so it is a terrible way to reach out to black voters. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the class-first approach would ever appeal to a wide segment of African Americans. Nonetheless, I see Sanders addressing racial issues more forcefully as a far more likely possibility than Clinton ever truly walking the walk of economic populism.

Overall, I have been very impressed with Sanders's approach to the concerns of black voters. After Black Lives Matter activists took over Sanders's microphone at his own campaign event, he did not complain about decorum and argue that there is a time and place for legitimate grievances, as many politicians often do in such circumstances. He instead met with representatives of the group, one of whom characterized Sanders as "very open to being pushed." Though Clinton has been more successful lining up African American surrogates, Sanders is not without prominent black supporters, who include rapper Killer Mike, former NAACP leader Ben Jealous and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN). African-American legal scholar Michelle Alexander's 2012 book The New Jim Crow has been an important force in the developing understanding that high rates of black incarceration reflect racial power dynamics far more than they do black criminality. Hers is an important perspective, and Alexander recently published a scathing piece called "Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote." There she takes issue with Bill Clinton's racial policies (the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, "tough on crime" posturing, welfare reform) and argues that "Hillary Clinton is still singing the same old tune in a slightly different key." Though she specifically notes that her point is not to endorse Sanders, she argues that "there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it."

Perhaps the most intriguing such development is that Ta-Nehisi Coates himself recently stated that, despite his criticisms, he is "thrilled to see an actual radical, left-wing...option in the Democratic Party" and he "will be voting for Senator Sanders." Coates was clear that he was only expressing his personal view as a citizen rather than offering any sort of endorsement. Still, his decision suggests a path toward the possibility of simultaneously prioritizing both racial and economic justice.