Bernie Sanders and the black vote

The glaring weakness in the early stages of the campaign of Bernie Sanders had been his inability to connect with and gain the support of a significant chunk of the black community. The early stages of his campaign was focused almost exclusively on economic issues, seemingly with the belief that people would understand that economic injustices were at the root of many of the difficulties faced by the African American community and that his long-standing record of strong support for civil rights would speak for itself.

This high-level view of social problems is a common attitude among old-style lefties that I recall from my own experience in Sri Lanka back in the day. They acknowledged the injustices experienced by minority groups but felt that they were a consequence of the capitalist class exploiting divisions among people for its own gain and that the main task was to break the power of that class, institute economic justice, and then everything else would follow. But the minority groups did not like their immediate problems being treated as a secondary effect to be addressed somewhere down the road, and were demanding more immediate actions to redress them.

To his credit, Sanders seems to have realized his error and is now speaking out more forcefully about the issues that concern the black community. Terrell Jermaine Starr has an excellent article that critiques Sanders’s missteps but also gives suggestions for what he can do about it. It is a long article and here are some key excerpts.

Paul Maslin, who was on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign team in 2004, said Sanders and his supporters are relying too heavily on the assumption that black people will connect with his civil rights record and stance on social justice policies.

Luther Smith, a political strategist who worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, has this take on Sanders’ mindset toward black voters: “Sanders attitude is, ‘I don’t have to be chummy with you. I am talking about the kind of things I think should be important to you and if I am saying the right things on those policy issues then you should naturally gravitate towards me.’ I think that is what he is thinking. But that is not how we operate. That is not how most people operate, but that is definitely not how black people operate. We gotta feel you and we have to know that you feel us.”

No one is arguing that Sanders has done nothing. The concern is that there is a belief that his campaign is operating on the assumption that its candidate doesn’t have to do the work of connecting emotionally with black voters and earning their trust. Part of the problem is that Sanders has never had to depend on black voters to win elected office. Vermont is one of the whitest states in America with a black population that reached one percent in 2011.

As helpful as his past record may have been for African Americans, much of Sanders’ most impressive work has been done in the information vacuum of Congress, where people cannot see it unless they are watching C-SPAN.

Roland Martin, managing editor and host of TV One’s African-American news show, NewsOne Now, says Sanders needs to tailor his economic message and be more consistent about it if he expects to earn a decent percentage of black votes.

“It has to be a strong economic message that speaks directly to black people,” Martin said. “I think what happens is that white progressives want to be able to speak in these general terms and not speak specifically to black people.”

But MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid wonders if it is even possible for Sanders to adjust his message to the grand scale required for him to win over a significant number of black votes.

“That is asking Bernie Sanders to be very inauthentic,” she said. “At its core, the Sanders message is that all problems and ills in the country essentially and fundamentally boil down to economic inequality, not racial inequality, and that racial inequality in other areas are a subset of economic inequality. That is his message.”

Sanders had heard the complaints and is clearly trying to change course and in recent days he has scheduled appearances before many predominantly black audiences in Georgia, North and South Carolina. He has also found support from high-profile black intellectual Cornel West as he visits venues that have largely black audiences.

West introduced Sanders to a racially mixed crowd of close to 1,000 people in the gymnasium of Benedict College, a historically black institution, as someone who could unite the country across racial lines and bridge other divisions.

“What I love about Brother Bernie is he’s a brother of integrity and honesty and decency,” said West, a prolific author and civil rights activist who is now a professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “He’s not just on the move. He’s going to win.”

West, whom Sanders referred to as “my dear friend” and embraced on stage, was scheduled to join the senator from Vermont at two more events Saturday in South Carolina, where black voters could account for about half the voters in next year’s presidential primary.

After introducing Sanders, West settled in among those seated on stage and gazed admiringly in the senator’s direction throughout his nearly hour-long stump speech.

And West led the crowd in a standing ovation when Sanders said the country needs to “invest in jobs and education rather than jails and incarceration.”

He did the same when Sanders later ticked off the names of several African Americans who recently “died at the hands of police officers or in police custody” and said forcefully that officers who break the law “must be held accountable.”

But one thing that the Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated is that it is no longer the case that older black leaders like West or Jesse Jackson and establishment black institutions like the NAACP or the Urban League can be assumed to be speaking for a sizable chunk of the community. Black leaders are increasingly seen as no longer good barometers of black public opinion nor as power brokers. Like with the Occupy movement, leadership has become more diffuse and shifted to a younger demographic that has more women in positions of influence, and candidates have to shift their message targeting accordingly.

Starr says that there are signs that Sanders has got the message and as a result may be having some success, especially since his hiring of Symone Sanders as his national press secretary.

An African American who is a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, Symone Sanders doesn’t agree with political strategists who think her candidate’s message isn’t resonating with the black community.

“It’s that some African Americans haven’t heard it,” Sanders said. “On June 16, the polls said 1 percent of African-American voters are familiar with the senator. On September 1, it was 14 percent. We know we still have a lot of work to do in terms of name recognition in African-American and Latino communities and young people as well. Our platform speaks to everyday, hard-working American people whether they are black, white, Latino or otherwise. We are talking about economic equality, but we’re also talking about issues of racial justice. We’re talking about voting rights, pay equity, and climate change, which by the way, disproportionately affects people of color, particularly African-American communities. So I think it is a name recognition thing, but we have to go out there and do the work.”

One black woman AlterNet spoke with is already convinced. Summer Martin, a 35-year-old African American from Dallas, says if the primaries were held tomorrow, “I’d vote for Sanders without even thinking about it.”

When the senator visited her city in July, Martin says the crowd was very much on the “whiter side,” yet small pockets of minorities were there cheering Sanders on. For Summer Martin, Sanders’ message of racial injustice resonates.

“It’s clearcut and it is inclusive of us,” she said. “Particularly as a black woman in America. So what he needs to do now is be better with articulating that message to the country.”

Let’s hope Sanders’s standing among minorities continues to improve.

(You can go to Sanders’s website to join the campaign and contribute and here to see where he stands on the issues. Despite the media trying to paint him as some kind of extremist candidate, a majority of Americans actually support him on most of the issues he stands for.)


  1. atheistblog says

    I don’t know if it’s poor choice of words, or is that’s what you believe in Mr Singham ?

    his inability to connect

    What that supposed to mean, Is that mean black people looked at his records and what he stand for and fight for, then decided, meh, here is our fighter warrior beloved Hillary Clinton to fight for us even though we decided she was not in 2008 ? BS.
    Hillary only supports herself and the riches. The reason she is supported by black community is because, basically, she is running for president for more than decade just like romney, since she got in to the senate.

    You are making all kind of fuking assumption that he don’t have to talk about race, records speak for itself. So, what hillary speaking for ? Why she got more poll numbers ? He is talking, well, is that enough for you ? How you gonna fight if you don’t take money out of politics ? If people are elected only by public funded election, then we have more real democracy. Otherwise you are implying that if he talks 1 hr speech, 55 mins he has to talk about race, then only he will connect to black people. Is that your argument ?

    With you arguments, and the hillary poll numbers, then what you mean is, hillary is standing for everything what you are accusing of bernie sanders.
    You singled out older black leaders, like Cornel west, but some home there is no mention of Obama, was he too old too or he is not a black leader ? He is the one dumped more combat weapons on local police than anyone, he is the one arrested more people on drug crime than anyone, the list goes on, while he and hillary, they were in the power, they didn’t do much or anything, but somehow they are connecting with black people not bernie sanders.

    This is nothing about policy or who is better fighter, this is all about name game, even obama did not connect to black people at this time of primary election in 2007.
    So, fuking stop reading too much of BS from hillary sycophants. If Bernie gonna loose, it won’t be about ideas, it will only about name game. But just stop implying that hillary is some how nobly connecting to black people. Gosh, what the hell are you reading these days.

  2. atheistblog says

    People of afraid that what if Bernie gains support of the Black people, here in NYT a clear example of a Hillary sycophant, Charles Blow, lying

    half empty gymnasium

    So far these sycophants showed their devotion to Queen Hillary, now these people turning to lies, it was not half empty gymnasium, it was full, clearly seen in this video

  3. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham: But the minority groups did not like their immediate problems being treated as a secondary effect to be addressed somewhere down the road, and were demanding more immediate actions to redress them.

    Not only are minorities justified in feeling slighted by this, it’s not even true that racism is a “secondary effect.” While it’s true that the elites of any society can and do manipulate and exploit racism to maintain their own power and status, racism is a phenomenon that exists independently of the elites.

    The African-American socialist Marable Manning has stated that he believed the problem of racism could never be solved under capitalism, but a socialist society would not itself be sufficient to eliminate racism; it must be confronted as a problem on its own terms.


    At any rate, it will be interesting to see how much support Sanders will have among women and minorities during the primaries and caucuses. I have a feeling that the majority may continue to support Clinton; even so, as I’ve stated before, an important goal is make sure that should Sanders get the nomination, he is a candidate to whom women and members of minority groups can support with enough enthusiasm even after their preferred candidate doesn’t win.

    It has been reported before: in recent history, no Democratic candidate for President has won a majority of white men. It is crucial that women and minorities go to the polls and vote. A lack of enthusiasm (especially with voting barriers going up in some swing states) and a feeling that the “nomination was stolen from them” will keep a lot of people from the polls, and that will doom us to one of the Republikan Klowns.

  4. atheistblog says

    If black won’t change their mind but stick with Hillary, well, south goes hillary, north east and west goes to bernie, let see, how everything plays out. Do you really want a southern democrat ? 2008-2010 democrat had full majority, house, senate, white house, what happened ? Southern blue dog democrat political establishment elites did what usually republican would do, so we had obama care, not even public option. Then they totally lost it. It is like that democrat only vote in presidential election, they voted democrat to power in 2006, from 2006-2010 what they did ? They were just republican but democrat in speech, that’s what happened.
    After debates, then after Bernie wins first 2 states, then you think by march, nothing gonna change in the states coming after that ? If obama lost Iowa, he would have been gone, think bernie winning Iowa and NH.

    BTW, the lead is now double digit even in Iowa.

  5. atheistblog says

    For eg, take a look at this MSNBC pundits arguments, what hillary putting out as agendas are just lies, after nomination, she will be like mitt romney, “Shakes the Etch a Sketch”, those hypocrite democrat were so furious how romney was hypocrite, now, fuking they are saying exactly same thing, shameless democrat establishment pundits.
    It’s all about queen hillary, either we should be for her or we are against her, it’s not about us, the people. Gosh, these pundits, does anyone say, it’s a good think that people who support Bernie is not against Lincon Chaffee ? Why everything has to be all about hillary ?

  6. atheistblog says

    Greece, France, Scotland, Canada, all of the South America, what they have in common, the rise of people or left in last couple of years. If you US misses it, I don’t know if we will even get another chance.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    Atheistblog, your reading comprehension of English seems poor. I suggest you read more and write less.

  8. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    One of the biggest challenges Bernie faces in winning Black support, is the actions of his fan-base:

    The last few weeks have exposed some real ugliness in the progressive movement, ugliness that has been simmering just below the surface for a long time, but which, due to Black women’s increasing recognition of our political power coupled with leadership in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and unapologetic commitment to dismantling white supremacy, has erupted into a fountain of White Progressive™ racism.

    And it is appalling.

    So it is in that context that I frustratedly tweeted that I would never vote for Bernie Sanders.

    But the thing about irrationality is that sometimes it subsides and rational thought takes hold. And so it did with me.

    Yes, I am tired of being belittled, and slandered, and talked down to, but that doesn’t mean that I should sacrifice my well-being and the well-being of my community out of spite. That would be ridiculous and self-defeating. And I suspect that the many Black people that I have seen who have echoed my sentiment will change their tune in the upcoming months.

    But for that to happen, Sanders’ overzealous supporters, many of whom are fundamentally indistinguishable from Ron Paul supporters in 2012, need to back off.

    Sanders’ fanatics have been viciously harassing Black people on Twitter and Facebook for weeks now—ever since the #BlackLivesMatter activists stood up during the presidential town hall at Netroots Nation and demanded that Sanders provide substantive answers about what he would do about the epidemic of police violence in the Black community.

    In the wake of that protest, Sanders supporters took to Twitter to condescend, patronize, and belittle Black people, talking to us as if we are stupid and don’t know what’s best for us, and therefore should listen to our White Progressive ™ betters lest we usher in a Trump presidency or a Clinton presidency or whomever is the Boogey Man du jour.

    These supporters have twisted and perverted what is a movement about the liberation of Black people and turned it into a weapon to be used against us. They threaten to withdraw their support in protesting state violence against Black people. One Twitter user frankly told me that he was sick of #BlackLivesMatter and would actually vote for people who will “put you in your place.”

    In the wake of the Seattle protest over the weekend, Sanders’ fanatical supporters behaved just as horribly as they had after the Netroots Nation protest.

    If this progressive rage—primarily white progressive rage—at Black voters continues, one has to wonder whether or not Sanders can be defined by the company he keeps, and whether that company will sink any chance he has at becoming the next Democratic nominee.

    And let me be clear: It won’t be Sanders’ fault if he loses the primary. It will be the fault of his supporters.

    Despite reacting poorly to the protests when they were happening, Sanders has been doing all the right things.

    The #BlackLivesMatter activists are changing the political conversation. Black women are flexing our political muscles. And it is obvious that Bernie Sanders and the progressive infrastructure is listening.

    The only people who continue to stalwartly refuse to listen are his fanatical supporters. They stubbornly continue to claim that the protests are stupid and counterproductive despite clear evidence to the contrary, and they express their displeasure in rhetoric steeped in racism and misogynoir.

    And it’s profoundly depressing.

    Ultimately, Bernie Sanders has a coalition problem. His coalition is comprised of primarily white progressives and liberals, unsurprising for a man who hails from a state that is 94 percent white. And when a vocal section of that coalition thinks belittling and harassing Black people is a smart way to encourage Black people to vote for Bernie Sanders, Bernie Sanders likely has a larger problem on his hands than he probably realizes.

    Look at the numbers. Black women are the most loyal and reliable Democratic voting bloc. We won the election for Obama in 2012. Black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout in 2012. We won the gubernatorial election for Terry McAuliffe in Virginia.

    No Democratic candidate can win without the support of Black voters, particularly Black women. And now that that is clear, we are no longer content for Democrats to take our votes for granted. The crisis in our community is too grave to blindly support a candidate and then hope they’ll get around to addressing our issues. We’ve been down that road before.

    And when we see Sanders supporters entertaining conspiracy theories about the #BlackLivesMatter movement being funded by George Soros or Hillary Clinton, we have to wonder why it is easier for white and non-Black progressives to believe in ludicrous theories about #BlackLivesMatter attempting to destroy the progressive movement or destroy Bernie Sanders than it is to believe that the movement is beyond partisan politics—that the Black women who are standing up in protest are fighting for their very lives and the lives of their children.

    The name-calling and slander of #BlackLivesMatter supporters and activists, particularly Black women, by white and non-Black progressives is truly shameful.

    And while this particular storm has settled down a bit, there is still way too much Whitesplaining, condescension and entitlement (to Black votes) happening by Bernie’s super-fans anytime race issues come up. All in all, I think Bernie is learning and has responded ok.

  9. Chiroptera says

    Uncle Ebeneezer, $8:

    Another thing I tire about some of Sanders’ hardcore supporters is their fanatical belief that the only reason for Sanders could fail to get the nomination would be a conspiracy against him by the Big Financial Master Minds Who Control Everything. Their solipsistic egoism doesn’t allow them to comprehend that a large part of the Democratic base actually likes Clinton and sincerely believes in her.

  10. says

    I will say as someone from Iowa who has seen Sanders deliver his “stump speech” twice, once in May and now again here in September, his speech has changed. He has incorporated racial inequality into the speech. It was completely non-existent in May.
    As an example, when he spoke of unemployment in May, he added an additional point of youth unemployment. Here in September he took a couple more steps and added black and Latino unemployment into the mix. He also spoke about a few of the black people killed by police. Here. In pasty white Iowa. Sanders does seem to be paying attention.
    I do agree with points at 8, 9, and 10 as well; it is Sanders supporters who are most likely to cause him to lose.

  11. HFM says

    I admit I don’t fully understand why the Clintons are so beloved in the Black community. I know Mr. Clinton was referred to as “the first black president”, but AFAIK all he did was play a saxophone and refrain from overt hostility. Policy-wise, he was big into the War On Drugs, with its well-known consequences. But I was young during his administration, and was (am) very, very white, so I must have missed something.

    As for Sanders, I don’t think he has anything to apologize for. He entered the race not to win, but to push the Democrats from the left on economic issues, so that’s what he talked about. When it became clear that Sanders had enough support to make a real run, Black thought leaders justifiably made it known that they needed him to explicitly address their issues. So he did. He’s broadened his stumping in other ways, not just that one. (Some of his supporters are idiots, which is unfortunate, but the same is true for most politicians.)

  12. Chiroptera says

    HFM, #12: I admit I don’t fully understand why the Clintons are so beloved in the Black community.

    Bill Clinton did more to promote and appoint African-Americans, women, and other minorities into high public office than any previous president, if I recall correctly. His administration was also pretty aggressive in promoting affirmative action and enforcing equal opportunity laws (again, if I recall correctly). I think he also pushed heavily for “motor-voter” laws and may have used his position as a bully pulpit to promote things like easier absentee voting — things that make it easier for poor (and minority) communities to vote.

    The War on Drugs (which Bill has admitted is a mistake and has apologized for, for what it’s worth) was partially promoted as something that would help poor African-American communities by removing drugs. I don’t know, though, whether African-Americans at the time bought into this, but it was a pretty common attempt to present hard-on-crime conservatives as compassionate.

    Hillary Clinton is a hawk in military matters (probably sincerely), she has voted in favor of Big Bankers’ interests (maybe out of sincerity, maybe for political calculation), but she has been known to be pretty liberal when it comes to social justice issues. It has long been said (I don’t have a cite) that Hillary often unsuccessfully tried behind the scenes to keep Bill from drifting to the right as President.

    At any rate, I believe when she speaks about social justice she is sincere, although it is an open question how hard she will fight for it if and when she’s elected President and confronted with the realities of a not-omnipotent Presidency.

    All of this is based on half-remembered memories and some may be bull shit, but I am not at all surprised by the enthusiasm that the African-American community has for the Clintons.

  13. Chiroptera says

    NateHevens, #15: Can I get some evidence for that claim, please? Like, recent poll numbers and such?

    I just found a Gallup telephone survey last month that shows strong support for Clinton. Maybe someone with better Google skills than I can find better. (Fun phenomenon: my internet search turned up a lot of headlines about support for Clinton dropping drastically among African-Americans…on sites like Beitbart and American Thinker.)

    You may have a point about the paucity of data; considering how important support among the base constituencies are, I’d’ve thought there’d be a whole lot more data.

  14. Chiroptera says

    StevoR, #14: This article suggest that economically Hillary Clinton is more left wing than Obama and Bill Clinton…

    That would be consistent with what I remember reading. I was speaking specifically of banking and financial regulations. And I might be wrong there: I remember reading (in The Nation?) that surprisingly little banking money is making it to her campaign; Big Finance is focusing on the Republicans.


    …as well as simply centrist (not a hawk) on foreign policy.

    Well, I consider Obama to be a hawk, so, without reading the article, it may just be a difference in terminology. Again, I was focusing more on military matters. But if I’m wrong there, that would be welcome.


    I’m mostly saying that although I’d prefer a President Sanders, my preference isn’t really all that strong. I’d be rather happy with President Clinton, I think. (Especially compared to the Republican Klown Kar Kandidates.) Although Sanders has the stronger liberal positions (he claims to be a socialist, but nothing in his campaign promises are particularly socialist), I think Clinton would be fairly liberal over all. (I agree that might be to the left of Obama, not that that’s a particular hard standard to beat.) And I also expect that a President Sanders would end up being blocked by a majority of his own party in Congress, so it may be that Clinton would be able to deliver more of what I would want.

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