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In Spike Lee's support of Sanders, a debate over Obama's legacy

Modes of thought

Director Spike Lee joined a growing phalanx of black celebrities backing Bernie Sanders. Many feel that President Obama didn't go far enough.

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    Spike Lee gestures during a photocall for the film 'Chi-Raq,' at the 2016 Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin, Feb. 16, 2016. On Feb. 22, film director Spike Lee endorsed Bernie Sanders.
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Film director Spike Lee released a radio ad in South Carolina on Tuesday, urging black South Carolinians to “wake up” by picking Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders over New York moderate Hillary Clinton in Saturday’s first-in-the-South Democratic primary.

Mr. Lee, a Brooklyn-born artist and provocateur, joins a growing phalanx of high-profile African-American celebrities trying to break Mrs. Clinton’s grip on what is for the Democratic primary – and, likely, for the general election – a crucial voting bloc.

It’s a daunting task. Clinton, who has enjoyed broad African-American political support going back to her days as the first lady of Arkansas, continues to lead the polls in the run-up to the South Carolina primary. Clinton has won Iowa and Nevada; Sanders, New Hampshire.

Still, the embrace of Brooklyn-born Sanders by politically active black celebrities suggests a nagging resistance against Obama’s former secretary of State and presumed standard-bearer. In fact, political scientists say, the urge to back a democratic socialist as a coda speaks to the evolving dynamics of the post-Obama black electorate – including concerns about Obama’s own legacy as America’s first black president.

“The correlation between those who think [Obama] wasn’t progressive enough and the inclination to vote for Sanders, for some African-Americans it’s that plus suspicion of Hillary Clinton” because of Bill Clinton’s conservative crime and welfare policies, says Andra Gillespie, who studies African-American voting patterns at Emory University in Atlanta.

One common thread among the celebrity Sanders supporters – who span from the actor Danny Glover to civil rights icon Harry Belafonte, from Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike to MacArthur recipient and writer Ta-Nehesi Coates – is they have criticized Obama for failing to shape a historic presidency into broader advancement for black people.

Instead, they assert that Obama, who in 2012 said, “I’m not president of black America,” has not focused enough on racial inequalities – and that Clinton will only continue a status quo. That pattern has proven devastating to many blacks struggling to rise out of poverty.

“These are voters who are operating under the critique that the civil rights movement progressed the interests of only politically respectable African-Americans [while failing to advocate] for those who are socially undesirable, the people who aren’t particularly well-educated or dress a certain way,” Ms. Gillespie says.

Clinton's 'uphill run'

Clinton, meanwhile, has racked up endorsements of her own. Mississippi native and Oscar winner Morgan Freeman on Tuesday dropped a second ad for the Clinton campaign. In it, Mr. Freeman says Clinton "stands with the president against those who would undo his achievements, just like she's always stood with us."

Sanders – who represents wintry Vermont, where less than 2 percent of the population is African-American – has struggled to adapt his main class message to racial issues, which is one reason he clashed early on with Black Lives Matters groups despite a history of civil rights activism.

“Bernie was at the March on Washington with Dr. [Martin Luther] King. He was arrested in Chicago for protesting segregation in public schools,” Lee said.

Sanders trails Clinton in South Carolina, where more than half the Democratic electorate is African-American. The polls, however, have begun to shift, as he has managed to cut Clinton’s lead in South Carolina by 17 percentage points in the past month, reports the Monitor’s Husna Haq.

Greenville, S.C., resident Ryan Calloway says he senses a shift away from Clinton, especially among progressive and race-conscious activists and artists, like himself. "I think everyone thought Hillary would be a shoo-in,” says Mr. Calloway, who is in his 30s. “But Bernie [Sanders] has turned it into an uphill kind of run."

Part of that uphill run can be seen in Sanders endorsements from artists like Lee. He begins his ad for Sanders by referencing his groundbreaking 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing”: “Wake up. Wake up, South Carolina!”

Given widespread economic hardship, he says, “I am officially endorsing my brother Bernie Sanders. Bernie takes no money from corporations. Nada. Which means he is not on the take. And when Bernie gets into the White House, he will do the right thing.”

The 2016 race has shown that the black electorate, while still overwhelmingly Democratic, is split by generation and class, just like the rest of America. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed that while Sanders commanded only 21 percent of African-American voters over 45, he earned 35 percent of support among those under 45.

That could suggest that at least some of those voters are looking back with a more jaundiced eye at what the Obama presidency accomplished.

“But on the whole,” Ms. Gillespie says, “we still can’t deny that President Obama’s approval ratings among African-Americans has been stratospheric through his presidency.”

Two friends, two opinions

In Atlanta, friends Cedric Craig and Art Halbert, who are both voters in the coveted under-45 bracket, agree that endorsements by local icons like Killer Mike or national ones like Lee don't mean much. 

“I don't let other people tell me what to think,” says Mr. Halbert, a tech specialist. But after that, the two men diverge.

Mr. Craig calls Killer Mike a "well respected political activist," but says he likes Clinton because she's a known entity and has experience. Unlike Sanders, he says, she "didn't just show up in the last year asking for votes."

Halbert says, at least for now, he's planning to vote for Sanders in the March 1 Georgia primary. And it has little to do with his economic agenda. His main reason for leaning Sanders: "Lack of options."

As for how the Democratic race reflects on the Obama legacy, Craig says that critics who claim Obama hasn't done enough for black people fail to take economic and political realities into consideration. “When he says he’s not the president of black America, he’s right, which shows he doesn’t govern by emotion,” he says.

Adds Halbert: “If Obama had started doing things just for black people, like giving them 1,500 bucks, there’d always be an asterisk by his name.”

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