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.)