The Implications of a Sanders “Whites-Only” Revolution

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Bernie Sanders’ first major political rally in Burlington, Vermont began with the words, “Today… we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially, and environmentally.” He has since revisited that theme numerous times, most famously in his New Hampshire victory speech when he proclaimed, “What began last week in Iowa, what voters here in New Hampshire confirm tonight, is nothing short of the beginning of a political revolution.” And while it is true that in states like New Hampshire and Kansas he’s achieved record youth turnout, he’s still struggling in states with high black populations. In South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, and Louisiana, which all have a black population of approximately 20% or higher, he’s lost by about 30 – 60 points. So if Sanders isn’t winning states with large black populations, does that mean his “revolution” isn’t resonating with black voters – or worse yet, isn’t for them?

Despite what some pundits would have you believe, Sanders is not without his black supporters. People such as the rapper Killer Mike, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, civil rights leader Dr. Cornel West, and South Carolina Representative Justin T. Bamberg have openly either endorsed or promised to vote for Sanders. Members of Black Lives Matter and Ferguson protesters have endorsed him, citing his work in the 1960s and refusal to take corporate or Super PAC donations as reasons why they support him. And anecdotally at least, he’s popular with black millennials.

It’s also true that Sanders is not unsympathetic to the black community. From 1961 – 1963, he helped organize and participated in sit-ins in Chicago that culminated in his arrest. In 1963, he marched to Washington and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. In September 2015, he met with Black Lives Matter member DeRay McKesson to learn more about the movement’s needs. He’s issued calls for criminal justice reform that demilitarize the police, end capital punishment, and change our focus from incarceration to education, training, and jobs. He has said the names of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, forcing other candidates to confront the racial and police violence black people face on a daily basis. Many people characterize a Sanders Presidency as the best means to break the status quo for black people – and yet, he is still heavily trailing.

According to a recent Gallup poll, Sanders only has a favorable rating of 53% among black Democrats (whereas Hillary Clinton has 82%). In South Carolina, he netted less than 15% of the black vote, and even among black millennials he scored less than 40%. Civil Rights icon Representative John Lewis has stated that Clinton has a better record of service for the black community, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has claimed that Bernie Sanders is “insensitive to the plight of black people.” He definitely has an image problem.

The reason may be that many blacks (especially age 35 and up) don’t believe Sanders has done the work in the same way Clinton has. They point out that he has lived and worked in a state with only a 2% black population and has not made black issues the cornerstone of his political career. They see that he is critical of ex-President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, whom many consider symbols of black sympathy and black excellence. They take offense at how he can seem dismissive of black community concerns, brushing them off in favor of declaring that economic equality will solve all our social woes.

In contrast, some believe that Clinton is better able to deal with the unique challenges the black community faces, problems like the school-to-prison pipeline, repealing harmful laws like the three-strike law, and reaching across the aisle to affect real, meaningful change. They appreciate how she was willing to step aside and be Obama’s Secretary of State despite the tense campaign between the two. Many have claimed that she’s “paid her dues” and now it’s her time to lead. They see her career not as isolated incidents indicating sympathy but as a rocky yet progressive road leading towards actual equality and change.

And yet, it is Sanders’ campaign that is meant to be a political revolution that will positively affect all of us – millennials and Baby Boomers, black and white, male and female, queer and straight, cis and trans – so shouldn’t it burn through the campaign trail on a wave of equality? And if it doesn’t, does that mean that it won’t actually support everyone?

The power of the Black Lives Matter movement (created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors) lies in its open, vocal, and constant demand for equality that begins and focuses on black people. According to its web site, “It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to… society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” It knows that all lives matter but seeks to bring attention to the fact that, in reality, black lives are treated as less. It understands that, until society acknowledges that we have a problem with the black community, we cannot change things for the better.

Sanders seemed to understand that, whether through his Civil Rights work, belated condemnation of the 1994 crime law, or saying the names of those lost to police violence. However, when he, his staff, and his surrogates write off black votes as a loss and take the easy route to the Midwest, he shows that he’s not really willing to fight for black approval – or black needs. He’s not willing to alienate white voters to improve black conditions. He’s not willing to modify his platform to include black voters. He won’t do the work to entice them from a candidate who’s done more than enough to alienate them. He’s abandoned them.

If any of that is true, then he’s only going to increase racial tensions and further disenfranchise the black community. People will see that they have no role in this “revolution” while, as has been the case for hundreds of years, a white person asks them to remain patient. Meanwhile, African-Americans have the highest poverty rate in the country. Almost half of our 2.3 million prisoners are black. They are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Black people cannot wait and should not wait for the Great White Hope to get around to them. Rather, he should go to them.

There is still time for Sanders to turn the situation around. In the next two weeks, Michigan, Mississippi, Florida, and Illinois, all states with a 15% or more black population, will be casting their votes for the nomination. And just this past week, Sanders and his team have shown a renewed commitment to appealing to black voters by making the campaign more intersectional and being more explicit in how his economic proposals will positively affect the black population. So if he can re-center his platform and begin appealing to black voters, he has a real shot of making his revolution a reality. And if not? Well, it’ll just be business as usual for the black community, regardless of Sanders’ fiery rhetoric.



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