Disclaimer: I do not hate Bernie Sanders. He does not owe me money. It’s really not that deep to me, fam. That white man means a whole lot more to Bernie bros than he will ever mean to me. I just want him to campaign better for black votes—especially those of black women. That said ...
Pump the brakes. Slow down. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
There’s no way Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) should be considered the Democratic Party’s 2020 front-runner.
Yes, he’s the most popular politician in the United States, according to a Harvard-Harris survey. But so what? That’s not the same as having to pick between candidates running for a presidential nomination. And sure, Sanders’ base is still quite active and, as Vox astutely reports, the Democratic Party is in bad shape and would do itself a disservice by dismissing a 2020 Sanders run. Given his celebrity, Sanders should be the overwhelming favorite three-and-a-half years from now.
There’s just one issue that his supporters and optimistic writers refuse to consider: the voting power of black women.
For all of Sanders’ talk of a “political revolution” and economic inequality, the candidate never seemed to understand that it’s all but impossible to make it out of the Democratic primary without winning over black women—especially those over 35 years old. Perhaps he didn’t have staffers telling him that 70 percent of black women voted in 2012, beating out any other voting demographic; some voter turnout experts argue that black people overall outvoted white men and women in 2008. Keep in mind that black voter turnout has been increasing since at least 1996, with black women leading that charge.
Ask Barack Obama. Black women win presidencies.
But, for some reason, the Democratic Party, Sanders and his supporters seem more interested in converting racist Donald Trump supporters while dismissing the electoral power of black female voters who’ve never wavered in their support of a party that consistently treats them like side pieces. Sanders told CBS News in November that he comes from the white working class and that he was “deeply humiliated” that the Democratic Party (you know, the party he refuses to join) lost its support to Trump.
Hmm. I guess he wasn’t humiliated by the fact that those working-class white folk voted for a man who essentially advocated for resurrecting Jim Crow.
If Sanders is supposed to be the Democratic front-runner, why is he so invested in earning votes from racist white folks who despise minorities, the most loyal voters in the Democratic Party?
No matter how much his backers forced Hillary Clinton’s support of the 1994 crime bill down our throats, he never could steal enough black votes from her. She went on to win the primary with more than 75 percent of their support, compared with just 23 percent going to Sanders. My own reporting found that some of Sanders’ senior black staffers felt that the campaign—or “the white boys,” as some of the black staffers referred to top campaign staffers—did not take Super Tuesday seriously and were convinced that fighting for black Southern voters was pretty much a lost cause.
And it showed. Sanders was crushed Super Tuesday, with Clinton winning black female voters over with more than 85 percent of the vote in most states. Sanders and his supporters assumed that black voters would be easily drawn to his economic-justice policies. On paper, they were pretty impressive and should have had black women on the fence. Though, when challenged on how his policies would specifically help black people in prime-time moments, he faltered. Badly.
During a campaign stop at an economic forum in Minneapolis in February of 2016, a black American woman confronted Sanders on his inability to address anti-blackness and economics. The question focused on a garbage incinerator in the city causing health problems for local residents. Felicia Perry said that her son has asthma and the incinerator was making him sick.
Given that black children are twice as likely to suffer from asthma, it made perfect sense for her to ask the “political revolutionary” what his plans were to address environmental racism. In her question, she also took on what she felt was his refusal to address anti-blackness head on:
My black son. I know you’re scared to say black, I know you’re scared to say reparations. But it seems like every time we try to talk about black people and us getting something for the systematic reparations and the exploitation of our people, we have to include every other person of color. ... Can you please talk about specifically black people and reparations?
That was a perfect opportunity to display empathy for the specific plight of black mothers who have to raise children in unsafe areas plagued by environmental racism. But, in typical Sanders fashion, he got defensive and refused to take on her challenge that he lacks a racial analysis:
What I just indicated in my view is that when you have ... you and I may have disagreements because it’s not just black, it is Latino; there are areas of America, in poor rural areas, where it’s white.
That exchange pretty much convinced me that Sanders wasn’t ready for prime time. If you can’t tell a black woman raising a black kid with asthma how your policies will combat environmental racism, you can’t claim to be a political revolutionary. By the way, if you want to see how a real politician connects with a black female voter, watch Bill Clinton’s home run on this debate question back in 1992:
(Note: Yes, I know about the 1994 crime bill and Hillary Clinton’s support of it, so don’t raid my mentions about it. That didn’t stop black people from backing her in 2008 and 2016. That’s a complicated story for another post. I’m talking directly about empathy in this example.)
I’m not saying that Sanders doesn’t have black female backers. I arranged for Erica Garner to write an op-ed in the Washington Post to express her support for Sanders. I wrote about Flint, Mich., native Danielle Green’s backing of Sanders after he visited the city to address the water crisis there. I also covered former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and Trayvon Martin lawyer Natalie Jackson’s endorsements of Sanders.
I know black women backed Sanders, so spare me.
Another problem Sanders backers aren’t considering is that the 2020 Democratic primary will likely be much tougher than 2016. Possibly competing with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) will be no cakewalk. McAuliffe has a very strong criminal-justice history in Virginia and can display real examples of challenging voter disenfranchisement in Virginia, his home state, which will be a premium selling point for black voters. And if Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) runs, I have a hard time believing that Sanders or any other candidate will take black female votes from her.
Most importantly, a vast majority of Democratic primary voters backed Hillary Clinton by millions of votes. Like it or not, there are many people who aren’t sold on Sanders’ political revolution. If he wants to take over the party, he’ll have to earn the respect of Clintonites and make them believe that they would be active beneficiaries of his presidency.
That means winning over black voters who are not in his far-left, “Democratic socialist” camp. Indeed, as Collier Meyerson correctly outlined in the New Yorker last year, the black vote is not monolithic and requires as much nuanced consideration as any other demographic. Harvard professor Leah Wright Rigueur echoed the same sentiment in a New York Times article in which she pointed out that 43 percent of black voters under age 30 backed Sanders during the primaries as of March 1. That is nothing to stick your nose up at. But Sanders all but gave up on the South, where most black Americans live. This, to me, proved that Sanders had little interest in truly getting down in the trenches and fighting for black votes.
If he doesn’t want to fight tooth and nail for black votes in the primary, why should they believe he’ll apply his revolutionary fervor to black issues once inside the White House?
All of this said, Sanders does have a shot. Donald Trump’s horrid presidency is fueling the “resistance,” and black women are leading the charge. Sanders would do himself a favor by acknowledging this—just as he voiced his sympathy for white working-class voters. Clinton won’t be on the ticket, and the Democratic National Committee has new leadership, so he and his supporters shouldn’t have any “Bernie would have won” excuses in 2020.
Sanders’ main challenge is connecting to black women, the Democratic Party’s most important voting demographic. If he wins them over, he has a shot. As much as people think I hate Sanders, I really do believe that he is a dynamic candidate. He deserves respect. In return, Sanders needs to respect and honor the fact that black women can lead his assent, just as they did for Obama. Or, they can hand him his second L in 2020, just as they did when he didn’t take their votes seriously in 2016.