Bernie and the black vote

Here’s something I don’t write very often: Chuck Todd, NBC’s intellectual manifestation of the Beltway mindset, offered a real insight on the Democratic primary race.

On the night of March 8, during MSNBC’s coverage of the Mississippi and Michigan primaries, he noted that this would be an entirely different campaign if Bernie Sanders were simply holding his own among black voters.

It’s true. It’s damn true, as Kurt Angle would say. The number-one reason Hillary Clinton has a substantial lead among pledged delegates, and in total votes cast, is her overwhelming support from African-Americans. In Southern states, she’s drawing 80 percent or more of the black vote. In Michigan, she drew a “disappointing” 68 percent — still holding a better than two-to-one margin over Sanders.

That’s the single biggest handicap to Bernie’s candidacy. Bigger than the mainstream media coverage or lack thereof; bigger than the superdelegate system; bigger even than the occasional sniping of Your Obedient Servant.

This problem goes back to the very beginning, before the mainstream media even began to underplay Bernie’s chances or “anoint” Hillary. It goes back to sometime before that first confrontation with Black Lives Matter, when a couple of black activists usurped the microphone at a Bernie rally. That event was a symptom of a pre-existing ailment.

Now, before the Sanderistas jump in with their complaints about black voters and why they shouldn’t be backing Hillary, let’s lay down a ground rule or two. Let’s assume that black voters are as intelligent, insightful, and aware of their needs as white voters. Let’s assume that they support Hillary for reasons that are entirely sensible and well-grounded. Let’s not talk down to them, or tell them they’re wrong. That Way Lies Madness for us white liberals.

Let’s keep the focus squarely on the Sanders campaign. What have they done, or failed to do, that has caused his disastrous showing among black voters?

I don’t know for sure, but I can hazard some guesses.

First, the Sanders campaign was extremely well-organized in almost every way. But it wasn’t really a rainbow operation. They made their first high-profile black hire after the Black Lives Matter confrontation. Was it a Vermonter’s blind spot? Was it Bernie’s insistence that economic issues have primacy over all others? Partly both, I suspect. And speaking of Bernie’s insistence…

Second, Bernie is most comfortable when he’s on his own familiar turf. His vision of America is based on class and financial clout. Racism is more an expression of class resentments than an actual hatred of differing skin color. Racism is fueled by wealthy and corporate interests seeking to divide the working class.

There’s a lot of truth in that. But when Bernie pivots quickly from addressing racism as its own phenomenon back to his class-based arguments, he is communicating discomfort with the realities of black life, and subsuming their life experiences in his broader social critique. It’s the economic equivalent of his early misstep — insisting, in the face of Black Lives Matter protests, that “All lives matter.” It’s true, but it ignores the extra burdens carried by African-Americans.

For them, racism is a real, tangible thing that they feel in the form of hatred and exclusion. Bernie’s arguments can come across as overly academic, disconnected from gritty reality.

I suspect this is why Hillary enjoys the greatest dominance among older black voters — the ones old enough to have lived through the pre-Civil Rights Movement era of segregation, oppression, violence, Jim Crow, and the active denial of access to education and the right to vote. If that was all a plot by our corporate masters, well, it didn’t strike them that way. It hit them as a real, immediate threat to their lives.

I don’t know what Bernie does at this point to make up lost ground. I suspect it’s far too late to win over hearts and minds before Hillary clinches the thing. It is a lesson for the next phase of his political revolution, whatever it may be: make it inclusive. Make room for people of color — and women and the LGBTQ community. You can’t win a Democratic primary race without that rainbow coalition.

And it has to be authentic. It has to come up from the grassroots. It’s not a matter of fine-tuning the “message.” It’s gotta be real.

I welcome more ideas from the audience. But remember the ground rule: focus on the Sanders campaign, not the alleged myopia of the black electorate.

13 thoughts on “Bernie and the black vote

  1. Paula Schramm

    “That’s the single biggest handicap to Bernie’s candidacy. Bigger than the mainstream media coverage or lack thereof; bigger than the superdelegate system”.
    I disagree with you here – lack of coverage, and lack of being taken at all seriously as an actual candidate until after Iowa & N.H. had a huge impact. Because people in most of the states, especially in the south, I would hazard a guess, had little to no idea of who Bernie was. Literally.
    Who would southern African Americans be inclined to take seriously, Hillary Clinton, who they’ve known forever, who is from the south, who ended up as an ally of Barack Obama and served as his Secretary of State….. or this upstart crotchety old “Socialist” from Brooklyn ? Bernie gained some ground with Progressive Blacks, and got some awesome surrogates….but many southern African American are more conservative , Evangelical Democrats, not flaming progressives.
    Michiganers had a little more time to get to know him, and what was telling to me is that he nearly tied Hillary in Flint ( Genessee County ) where she put in so much time & effort, and had the popular mayor’s endorsement. She even had her daughter, Chelsea, working on a project with that mayor to help people with their water.
    Yes, African Americans in Wayne County, Detroit, went hugely for Hillary, as expected. But not in Flint……
    Also this is wrong : “insisting, in the face of Black Lives Matter protests, that “All lives matter.””
    That wasn’t Bernie ! It was the other guy ! Bernie really rose to the occasion with the Black Lives Matter criticism, and got his act together, ( as he really needed to do, I agree.) Even though his activism and history of protest with CORE back in the 60’s was clearly about equality for Blacks, not economics primarily, I don’t think he has done that great in Vermont in dealing with specific concerns of the African American community here. But one last thing : he is by far the best candidate to ” Make room for people of color — and women and the LGBTQ community. You can’t win a Democratic primary race without that rainbow coalition.” And Bernie has truly connected with all these groups . Hillary has little claim for the heartstrings of the LGBTQ folks, as she has just displayed with her recent awful Nancy Reagan gaff.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      So, more and earlier coverage on CNN and the New York Times would have gotten Bernie in solid with black voters? I can’t see that. Their feelings about the Clintons go back decades.

      And one factual error: Genesee County includes a lot of suburbs and rural areas. We don’t know how the Flint vote broke down specifically.

  2. fatherlinda

    Check out the videos circulating on Facebook of the “Black Men for Bernie” group in Michigan. They have their truck tattooed with photos of Bernie being arrested for civil rights protest. They also know how to speak to other Black men, in rhythms to which we whites are tone-deaf. Bernie, after all, yielded his microphone to the Black Lives Matter protesters; Hillary has done what? Consider her treatment of the young woman who showed up at her fundraiser. (Video.) Let’s be real: white people are tone-deaf generally; we don’t know how much we don’t know. That goes for all of us. Maybe Hillary’s dumb remarks re: Nancy Reagan and AIDS will open some ears to her general cluelessness and efforts to turn any situation to her advantage, which too often backfires. She wants to get elected, end of story. Bernie wants to make a difference; that’s harder, and harder for a lot of people to understand.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Yes, Bernie has black supporters. But Hillary gets the overwhelming majority of the black vote. Is that just because they have’t been “spoken to” in the right way? You’re falling into the trap of blaming black voters for being bamboozled by Hillary’s tricks. That’s not nice.

  3. Dave Katz

    How soon we let ourselves forget, John. Rickey Ray Rector, Three strikes. 60 new death penalty federal offenses. Under Bill Clinton.

    From Donna Murch’s New Republic essay. Read the whole thing.

    “In the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration became de facto urban policy for impoverished communities of color in America’s cities. Legislation was passed to impose mandatory minimums, deny public housing to entire families if any member was even suspected of a drug crime, expand federal death penalty-eligible crimes, and impose draconian restrictions of parole. Ultimately, multiple generations of America’s most vulnerable populations, including drug users, African Americans, Latinos, and the very poor found themselves confined to long-term prison sentences and lifelong social and economic marginality. The carceral effects of the New Democrats’ competition with the Republicans vastly increased the ranks of the incarcerated. State and federal prisons imprisoned more people under Clinton’s watch than under any previous administration. During his two terms, the inmate population grew from roughly 1.3 million to 2 million, and the number of executions to 98 by 1999. Significantly, the Democratic president even refused to support the Congressional Black Caucus’s proposed Racial Justice Act, which would have prevented discriminatory application of the death penalty.

    “Despite this terrible record of racialized punishment for political gain, the Clintons’ peculiar ability to reinvent themselves has erased memory of many of their past misdeeds. This is nowhere more true than within the African American community, in which a combination of Bill Clinton’s high-profile black political appointments, his obvious comfort in the presence of black people, and the cultural symbolism of his saxophone performance on Arsenio Hall has severely distorted the New Democrats’ true legacy for the black majority. After all, Toni Morrison, African American Nobel Laureate for literature, embraced Bill Clinton as America’s “first black president,” even if only in jest.

    “At a deeper structural level, the constraints of the two-party system have resulted in the political capture of black Americans inside the Democratic Party, in which no viable electoral alternative exists. Frederick Douglass said of the party of Lincoln during Reconstruction, “The Republican Party is the ship, all else is the sea.” And so it is, with Democrats in the era of mass incarceration. Equally important is the sharp class polarization inside the African American community in which a select group of black elites understands their fate as wholly bound up with the leadership of the Democratic Party. The Clinton presidency is a cautionary tale in this respect. The couple’s close relationships with Vernon Jordan and other black insiders offered an illusion of access that superseded any real concern for how hard-line anti-crime, drug war, and welfare policies affected poor and working class African Americans. As the movement against state sanctioned violence and for black lives grows, it is important to remember that proximity to power rarely equals real power.

    “In American politics we so often live in an eternal present. Forgotten are the days of the DLC, which was recently dismantled in 2011 at the close of President Barack Obama’s first term.

    “As both parties have engaged in a steady march to the right over the past three decades, it is not surprising that the Clintons have done little more than offer half-hearted mea culpas about their role in the drug war and mass incarceration. In July 2015, Bill Clinton went before the National Association for the Advancement of Color People’s 106th annual convention to admit that his federal drug and anti-crime policy made the problem of mass incarceration worse, especially at the state level. Many journalists interpreted his candor cynically as advance preparation for his wife’s presidential campaign of 2016. As in so many things the Clintons have done, even their disavowals appear to be self-serving. Hillary’s explanation that a crime wave inside low income communities and communities of color motivated her husband’s escalation of domestic wars on drugs and crime hides the Clintons’ shared role in capitulating to racist rhetoric and policy in the 1990s. Indeed, they used the drug war, and mass incarceration more broadly, as a powerful political tool to rebuild conservative white support for the Democratic Party. It is only because the experiences of the incarcerated and the poor have been so profoundly erased that the Clintons can be thought of as liberals (racial or otherwise) in any respect.”

    It’s so easy to embrace the meme and go with the herd. A damn sight harder to shoulder the responsibilities of historical memory and accept our own complicity in The Great Forgetting.

      1. Dave Katz

        No, John. Black elites deliver black voters en bloc, via social networks and pulpits, to which the white media narrative has almost universally always been both both deaf and dumb. Have, and will.

        Harry Brunius, writing in the Christian Science Monitor back in January:

        “A lot of this support, many say, is simply that black voters know both Hillary and Bill Clinton well after more than two decades on the national political scene.

        “Though he lived in Chicago and did all sorts of work with [Martin Luther] King, Sanders is a New England liberal,” says Randal Jelks, professor of African-American studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “In such a white state, he really doesn’t know a constituency that is diverse and has diverse needs.”

        “The Clintons have spent time with black people, in black churches, and have come out of a strong black presence in Arkansas,” he continues.

        These ties have long been established with black elites, especially influential black pastors around the nation, experts say.

        “If you’ve been friends with the Clintons, and have benefited from that friendship with the Clintons, this trickles down to voters,” says Professor Greer, an expert in urban politics.”

        And you guys in the paid Memory Machine grind your convenient narratives, once again ignoring the truly barbarous and deliberate suffering inflicted on American blacks by the Clinton administration to cement its approval ratings among white Southerners.

        And no, John, black voters themselves aren’t dumb; the people they trusted to listen to, their elites and opinion shapers who’ve curried favor with the Clintons since 1991 in the hopes they might get some juice thereby, only think they are. That those elites have chosen to cravenly remain silent about the double game they’re complicit in–cementing their own irrelevance as a force for social change, while aligning themselves with a president who, in pursuit of political gain, in fact committed grievous harm to black individuals and black America as a distinct culture in a manner not seen since the days of Andrew Johnson and Rutherford B. Hayes.

        And I’ll wrap with the eminent historian Eric Foner, writing about Reconstruction:
        “Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of (history). More than most historical subjects, how we think about this (or any)era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.”

  4. Faith King

    Oh knock it off, John. We all know voters of all shades make ALL kinds of interesting, perplexing and sometimes downright dumb choices. Whites do it ALL the time. See: the reelection of George W. I’ve read comments from working class white folks in this state who argue against being paid a living wage (defending a farmer for evicting his relatives in order to replace them with undocumented workers). The low income white commentator blamed the even poorer “illegals” for the whole situation….. Not the farmer. What’s fascinating – and sad – to me is our collective willingness to ignore facts and actual history in exchange for….. I have no idea. I mean Clinton’s campaign staff includes multiple former lobbyists for banks and corporations – including Monsanto. Her much touted record as Secretary of State included brokering a large arms deal with Saudi Arabia (with their sterling human rights record) after they donated to the Clinton foundation. Oh, with Boeing as a main player. (Yes, Boeing who was brought up in the Flint debate.) On it goes. Would anyone know this from the mainstream media? No. From your blog? Certainly not. I realize for whatever reason lots of folks don’t know or don’t really care about any of this. Which is sad.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Well, sure lots of voters make dumb choices. But are you really making a blanket statement that 80-plus percent of the black electorate are collectively making a dumb choice? Because that’s where it gets offensive.

      Also, I have yet to hear a response from any Bernie supporter assessing what he should have done differently, or might be able to do now.

  5. Faith Biggs King

    Nah. First of all I’m not the person dividing the electorate up according to an intellectually shaky construct like “race”. I believe you’re falling into that trap. Second, what makes you think I’m only referencing brown-skinned people when I talk about odd voting choices? You’re a Clinton partisan. I’ve yet to hear an explanation for why all of her past policy choices ‘don’t matter’ nor why progressive voters should believe she won’t just do it all again.

  6. H. Brooke Paige

    Could it be that the majority of voters (White, Black, Asian, …) realize that Bernie’s “Santa Sanders” routine fails to end well for anyone who believes in freedom and self-reliance ? Our motto is not (nor was it ever) “Life Liberty and lots of Free Stuff !”

    1. Dave Katz

      Yeah, if corporate welfare and their Giant Bags Of Free Stuff(offshore tax havens? Protection from prosecution for felony financial crimes committed in broad daylight? Applying a sharply reduced Death Tax only to fortunes above $11M? Oh,and so much more!) is good enough for the Koch brothers and Jamie Dimon, it’s certainly too good for the rest of us.

      You think kissing their asses ever turns loose their stolen pie? Kicking their asses might.

  7. Paula Schramm

    This has been a great discussion, with some awesome posts ! Thanks for igniting it, while also being open about ( and seemingly rather blinded by ) your partisanship. One of the things I’ve actually appreciated about this primary season is that we’ve gotten to see much more about African Americans’ views on issues, and more African American commentators and interviewees than ever before. What a relief to see not only “the African American take on the candidates”, but many African American takes, where people can actually differ and debate each other, and still all be representing an African American viewpoint.

    As to your point : ” I have yet to hear a response from any Bernie supporter assessing what he should have done differently, or might be able to do now”……
    I did, in the first comment, say that I “don’t think Bernie has done that great in Vermont in dealing with specific concerns of the African American community “. So perhaps I should have rephrased that as “Bernie needs to deal better with specific concerns of African Americans here in Vermont, and listen up to them to get better at hearing and being able to speak to what they are saying.”
    He needs to really grapple with what Ta Nehisi-Coates,( who asked him about making reparations to African Americans,) is saying and take it to heart. He needs to speak more feelingly about “institutional racism”and show that he gets it. It needs to be said, also, that Nehisi-Coates said he would vote for Bernie over Hillary….. influenced by his son !
    Here is what Bernie needs to say :
    Bernie needs to present his economic concerns by putting the emphasis on the most important thing: it’s not just that the right-wing uses racism to divide us against each other to keep working people down and continue to exploit them…..& that when we address the economic inequality we will all benefit. True enough….but the point is : that RACISM HURTS US ALL. Period. Obviously it hurts white people and everyone else. It’s an evil that must be ended, even if it can’t be done overnight. When we fight racism, we will all be better off, economically and in every other way.

    The various articles here really get at the political realities : “establishment” politics tries to deliver various voting blocks to certain politicians and that’s no less true of African Americans in politics. It was SO OBVIOUS that the Congressional “Black Caucus” endorsement of Hillary , Sen.John Lewis, was not that much to do with the actual Black Caucus rank & file members, who were not even polled, but with the Black Caucus PAC. That really is a whole different kind of statement, but one that most everyday listeners to the news will not pick up on, especially if it is not pointed out or discussed. You see the political leaders whom you love & respect, sounding as if they are representing all the black Congresspeople, endorsing someone you already know well, who is saying all the right things…yes, that’s powerful.

    And yes, John, months of real coverage of the Sanders campaign by major news networks, (including even NPR, fer gawdsakes, ) treating him as seriously as a candidate as they did with all the NUMEROUS other candidates leading up to the primaries, would have helped tremendously. Why ? Because the majority of people in the country, especially in the south still didn’t even know who he was or what he was standing for, when the primaries began. I can just hear the conversations in African American families as the young student who’s been following Black Lives Matter or movements on campus, and the Sanders campaign on social media, tries to talk about Bernie to her parents or grandparents, : ” You want me to vote for who ….. ?! From Vermont ?! I never heard of him ! Are you crazy ?…. I’m voting for Hillary !”

    The way the main media still ignores or snubs Bernie is beyond frustrating, it mirrors the way the DNC did whatever it could to belittle the Sanders campaign, until Hillary obviously had to start taking him more seriously because it was hurting her campaign not to !

    As for Genesee, yes, lots of suburbs and rural areas, and no we don’t know the breakdown. But the city of Flint very likely has the biggest percentage of the population voting and Hillary just didn’t get her 80% black vote there.


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