Bernie vs. Hillary: Who’s Better for Black Voters?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

So which one will it be, folks? If you're voting on the Democratic side, are you going for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton? Who really has the interests of the black electorate at heart? A lot is at stake this year, when 31 percent of the eligible voters will be either black or Hispanic.


The furious competition to win black voters on the Democratic side is giving us something we haven't seen in over 50 years: a real fight for the black vote, with candidates talking about issues that pertain to African Americans and activists calling out those candidates. The contrast from 2008 would give you whiplash. Then-Sen. Barack Obama was devoted to a colorless campaign that avoided specific talk of race and policy prescriptions. Now we have activists unloading on Sanders for not being race-specific enough on the income-inequality issue, and directing complaints at both candidates about too much focus on justice reform.

Race-neutral policy dodging is over. What ended it was an endless stream of police misconduct on video, followed by the activist work of the Black Lives Matter movement. Combine that with stats highlighting the 7.7 percent of African Americans (580,000) behind bars, the highest unemployment rates for blacks since the 1980s, 38 percent of black children living in poverty, black households having only 6 percent of the wealth of white ones and a 1.7 percent Small Business Administration loan rate for black business, and race-neutral talk is over. 

It's time to get serious: Who is better for black voters? 

Let's take a closer look at both candidates.

Hillary Clinton

The former secretary of state and senator from New York has a specific funding plan for HBCUs. Sanders does not. Clinton's first major address of her campaign was on justice reform, with a focus on institutional racism. Though she offered few policy commitments, her focus on the topic, as well as her highlighting of racism, was more than we've heard from any Democratic candidate since the Rev. Jesse Jackson when he ran for the presidency in 1984 and 1988.   

But the last few weeks have been challenging for Clinton on policies affecting African Americans. Recently, the hashtag #WhichHillary trended on Twitter and highlighted her history of inconsistencies. 

The hashtag started after Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams disrupted a fundraiser in Charleston, S.C., over a statement Clinton made in 1996, when she told an audience that young people who committed crimes had to be "brought to heel." She also used the phrase "superpredators"—a theory advanced about black youths by Princeton professor John DiIulio in 1995 that has since been discredited. (Clinton now says, "Looking back, I shouldn't have used those words.")


Other blasts from Clinton's past keep coming back to haunt her. In 2008, during a Democratic debate, the seven candidates onstage were asked if they would end the crack-and-powder-cocaine sentencing disparity and apply it retroactively to those already in jail. Clinton was the only candidate to say no to retroactivity.

She's also having difficulty distancing herself from the record of her husband, former President Bill Clinton—specifically his 1996 welfare-reform bill and the largest crime bill in U.S. history, which he signed in 1994 and included over $9 billion in prison funding.     


Clinton's current problem is also that so much of what she says now is not backed up by legislation she worked on while she was a member of the U.S. Senate. As with so many other voting decisions, black voters must walk on by faith regarding which Clinton would show up at the White House. Clinton does have the high praise of many black lawmakers, who swear that she has always been focused on the concerns of African Americans.  

"We have a relationship; it didn't just start with this campaign," Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) told The Root. Brown was a Clinton supporter in 2008 until the very end. "She has been involved in issues impacting African Americans before, during and after the campaign was over," Brown said.


Bernie Sanders

So, what about the Vermont senator? Is he better than Clinton?

Well, Sanders voted for the massive Clinton crime bill, too. But then there's the fact that he was also involved in the civil rights movement at a time when Hillary Clinton was a “Goldwater girl.” The fact is, among presidential candidates, only Jesse Jackson has a more impressive record of involvement in the civil rights movement than Sanders.   


Sanders was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Chicago and was arrested at several civil rights demonstrations. Over the last few weeks, more images and video of Sanders have surfaced of him being arrested at anti-segregation protests.  

"I'd rather be on the side that is closer to Dr. Martin Luther King," rapper Michael "Killer Mike" Render has said of Sanders. "King was called a radical and out of step," the same things Sanders is called now, Render argues. 


But Sanders' record in Congress, which began in 1991 in the House and 2007 in the Senate, is not deep on the type of racial-justice work he's discussing on the campaign trail today. He has championed fighting income inequality, providing health care (as has Clinton), ending poverty, and pushing back against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. He also assisted Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) by pushing a provision for community health care centers into the Affordable Care Act.  

What many defenders of Sanders say about him is that you won't find statements from him in the 1990s about "superpredators" around issues of justice reform but, rather, a discussion around how poverty and crime are connected. Sanders was an associate member of the Congressional Black Caucus (when it had associate memberships) in the 1990s, yet has only recently offered a bill on ending federal funding of private prisons and signed on to a racial-profiling bill authored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that has been around for years.  


There's no doubt that both Sanders and Clinton have focused on issues that affect black communities more than all of the Republican candidates who have competed, other than Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Kasich of Ohio. Neither Sanders nor Clinton is likely to be able to push the key points of a black agenda through an obstructionist Congress, however, just as President Obama could not get the No. 1 issue on the Hispanic agenda—immigration reform—through Congress.

Plus, neither candidate was a standout legislatively on black issues. Black voters will have no choice but to piece together much of what Sanders and Clinton have done over the course of their careers, searching for indicators of what their priorities would be as president of the United States. 


Lauren Victoria Burke is a Washington, D.C.-based political reporter who writes the Crew of 42 blog. She appears regularly on NewsOne Now with Roland Martin on TV One. Follow her on Twitter