Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo; Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice; Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown; Esaw Garner, the widow of Eric Garner; and the Rev. Al Sharpton address the Justice for All march and rally Dec. 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the race for the Democratic nomination gets tighter, the serious gaps between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the black Democratic voters they seek become more and more apparent.

The Clinton name in the black community has retroactively sunk faster than the names Tavis Smiley, Bill Cosby and Stacey Dash combined. Her campaign’s grotesque race-baiting in the 2008 primary against then-Sen. Barack Obama is still fresh on the minds of many voters. Combine that with Clinton’s silence on the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald case, and her years as a “tough on crime” advocate in the ’90s, and it’s apparent that these missteps have made her a tough sell for many black voters.

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Sanders, for his part, isn’t doing much better. Sanders seems to have all but discovered that black people existed last summer. He is a nonentity with the Congressional Black Caucus, despite having been in the Senate for almost 30 years, and he alienated much of the Black Lives Matter movement with his crusty Larry David impression during the Netroots Nation convention in the summer of 2015.

So, what do these campaigns do? In a move that pushes the envelope regarding both political expediency and decency, the two campaigns have embarked on a Black Lives Matter endorsement primary that seems more about their political lives than the lives of black folks.

What is the Black Lives Matter endorsement primary? It’s the rush from both team Clinton and team Sanders to secure the public support and endorsement of victims. Yes, victims of horrible acts of violence by police officers, vigilantes and eventually the justice system. Moving beyond elected officials or public activists, both Democratic candidates have sought endorsements from the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and others. Starting late last year, several members of those families have actually come out and publicly endorsed one campaign or another.

Families of the Slain Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin   X
Benjamin Crump, attorney for Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice families   X
Justin Bamberg, lawyer for Walter Scott family X (Switched from Clinton)  
Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner X  
Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner   X
Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice   Met with Clinton
Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown   Met with Clinton
Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland Met with Sanders  

Endorsements are extremely important during political primaries; the more endorsements you get, the more likely you are to win your party’s nomination, especially at the presidential level. A senator’s endorsement gives you access to donors and voter lists, while a mayor may introduce you to local activists and volunteers.

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None of these men and women in the Black Lives Matter primary, however, are elected officials, and none of them have stocks of cash. It’s not even clear that African-American voters would be moved by the endorsement of any of these people, despite their notoriety. Is it even appropriate to ask or accept the support of victims’ families? More important, why are these campaigns so desperate for these symbolic taps of authenticity?  

“I find it downright vulgar and basic,” said Niambi Carter, a professor of political science at Howard University. “These endorsements are a way for these candidates to skirt past the serious issues facing the black community by saying, ‘Hey, I’m down with this family that’s suffered a tremendous loss.’”

Politics is a cynical game, and although it’s possible that both campaigns just want to rack up as many black endorsements as possible—no matter who the endorsers are—it still begs the question as to whether any real policies are being offered that could have changed the suffering of these families.

“If Bernie got Erica’s [Garner] vote, he did something to earn it,” said Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a prominent state senator representing Ferguson, Mo., and an advocate within the Black Lives Matter movement.

Chappelle-Nadal, who has yet to endorse any presidential candidate, has nonetheless been approached by both campaigns. She notes the importance of Black Lives Matter endorsements from elected officials but thinks that endorsements from victims’ families are a different thing entirely.  

“I like Lesley,” she said, referring to Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother. “But this is not about her only. … If [a candidate is endorsed by] Mike Brown Sr., then maybe her endorsement doesn’t mean as much. Everyone has their own thing.”

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It’s a result that we’ve already seen in the Black Lives Matter endorsement primary in a somewhat awkward way. In late January, Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, penned an essay endorsing Clinton. Just over a week later, Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, wrote an essay endorsing Sanders in the Washington Post. Justin Bamberg, a state representative in South Carolina and lawyer for Walter Scott’s family, initially endorsed Clinton, then switched after a sit-down with Sanders. In none of these cases do these endorsements make any real policy distinctions between the Democratic candidates. Which makes the aggressive pursuit of these endorsements by campaigns more about symbolism than any actual policy changes.   

While it may be harsh to say, these families have nothing significant about them other than the fact that their loved ones were victims of police or vigilante violence and a corrupt and racist justice system. And that, unfortunately, is a fraternity of pain that actually has many more members than the short list of people who have become well known and whose endorsements are being so desperately sought.

The degree to which any member of any victim’s family feels the need to endorse a particular candidate is his or her prerogative. However, given both candidates’ newfound religion when it comes to criminal justice, this Black Lives Matter endorsement primary smacks of exploiting, in the name of political symbols and campaign expediency, families who are desperate for hope and justice. With so little to stand upon to earn the black vote, Clinton and Sanders are willing to cover up the holes in their own policy histories with lives of slain African Americans. Hopefully they’ll care more about black lives in the future than they have in their policy pasts.

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Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.