Why many black voters aren't flocking to Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders has civil rights credentials, but many black thinkers are wary of his brand of liberal socialism, which they say ignores the role of racism in society.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Iowa Falls, Iowa.

With just a week before the first votes are cast in the 2016 United States presidential election, black voters have yet to #feelthebern and embrace Bernie Sanders’s liberal vision for the country.

And while the Vermont senator could upset former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the first two Democratic contests, in mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire, black voters could quickly stop the momentum of the self-described democratic socialist once the election heads to the South, many observers say.

For one thing, Mrs. Clinton enjoys strong support from this constituency, perhaps because of her and her husband’s long involvement with the black community. But for some black thinkers, the issue is more Senator Sanders himself – and specifically, his class-based economic socialism.

His outlook, they say, often ignores deeper questions about race and the divides that the country continues to face. And in that respect, they see Sanders as not warming up to the kind of radical actions that they’re calling for.

“I think this is where some of the white liberal efforts have failed,” says Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York. “In the rush to make it all about class, you turn on your blinders to certain things that quite frankly aren’t about class.... He’s missing a very large piece of the puzzle, and what makes some black voters nervous, there seems to be a huge gap in his understanding about race.”

This summer, as the Sanders campaign’s message of economic populism first began resonating among many Democrats, especially Millennials, it ran into problems when targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters, many of them boisterous and disruptive. They were unimpressed that the radical democratic socialist responded to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore primarily with a “long run” solution of better youth employment.

“When a candidate points to high unemployment among black youth, as well as high incarceration rates, and then dubs himself a radical, it seems prudent to ask what radical anti-racist policies that candidate actually embraces,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic on Sunday. “Hillary Clinton has no interest in being labeled radical, left-wing, or even liberal,” he added.

Mr. Coates’s much-discussed 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” laid out a moral argument that even many conservatives found compelling, as it recounted the history of government “redlining,” which disqualified most black neighborhoods for federally supported mortgage lending.

Over the weekend, Coates returned to the reparations issue, saying that Sanders’s radical bona fides actually reveal the failure of the “liberal imagination.”

“Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies – doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education,” he wrote. “This is the same ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.”

Eradicating the deeper effects of white supremacy, Coates and other commentators believe, requires far more attention to race and much more radical action – such as correcting the devastating history of redlining.

Yet even as some black thinkers and the young protesters of Black Lives Matter remain unimpressed with Sanders, experts say this doesn’t fully explain why black voters are increasingly putting their support behind Mrs. Clinton.

While Clinton has seen her support fall among almost all Democratic constituencies this past month, that has not been the case among black and Latino Democratic voters. In January, their support for Clinton jumped to 71 percent, according to a Monmouth University poll released last week, up from 61 percent in December.

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.

Blacks, she points out, can be pragmatic in their voting decisions.

“What I think a lot of people tend to forget is that black and Latino voters – especially black voters, historically – have been strategic voters, as opposed to sincere voters at certain times,” she says.

Professor Jelks concurs. “I’m not too fond of Ms. Clinton’s policies myself, but I’m a realist about politics,” he says, noting the Clinton administration’s role in a crime bill that led to an even greater disproportion of incarcerated black and Latino young men. “Sometimes you hold your nose and you vote for the devil-you-know over the devil-you-don’t-know.”

This could change, however, if Sanders indeed pulls off upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire, and more black voters in the South take a closer look at the democratic socialist.

Indeed, on Monday a South Carolina lawmaker and lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot and killed by a police officer in North Charleston last year, withdrew his support for Clinton and endorsed Sanders instead.

“Hillary Clinton is more a representation of the status quo when I think about politics or about what it means to be a Democrat,” said State Rep. Justin Bamberg (D), said on Monday, according to The New York Times. “Bernie Sanders on the other hand is bold. He doesn’t think like everyone else. He is not afraid to call things as they are.”

The endorsement could help Sanders as he tries to make inroads among black voters before the critical South Carolina primary, experts say.

Yet many thinkers remain unimpressed with his focus on economic solutions to the country’s racial problems.

“It’s not just about poor black people living in cities,” says Greer. “It’s about, how did those black people get to those cities, and why are they poor? They were fleeing domestic terrorism in the South, they left everything behind and worked low-wage jobs in urban centers. And then people said, we can redline them and use more aggressive policing and all those sorts of things. These aren’t just issues of a class narrative – it’s also a race narrative.”

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