Bernie Sanders Doesn't Have a Black Problem—He Has a Pundit Problem

Stop trying to make him racist.

Politics Features Bernie Sanders
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Bernie Sanders Doesn't Have a Black Problem—He Has a Pundit Problem

You’ve probably already heard: Bernie Sanders is white. Of course, all of the nationally recognized Democratic primary candidates had this in common, but Bernie’s whiteness—or, more specifically, his perceived appeal to white voters—has been a chief criticism used to undermine the substance of his movement.

Last week, an article by Terrell Jermaine Starr of The Root picked up the mantle. Sanders, Starr claims, has a “black woman problem.”

Starr is one in a long line of writers making this accusation, though he’s one of the first to narrow the criticism to focus on gender (perhaps as an attempt to negatively distinguish the most popular politician in America, among both blacks and non-blacks, from a more centrist contender for the 2020 ticket, former prosecutor Kamala Harris, who received glowing press last week for her Bail Reform bill). In his recent piece, Star argues that Sanders’ inability to develop wide support among black voters in the 2016 primary disqualifies him from consideration for the 2020 presidential ballot. Starr draws particular attention to Sanders’ particular failure to connect with voters in the south, where the large concentration of African Americans in those states played a significant role in his primary loss. This last fact is undisputed.

But the tone of Starr’s critique, and indeed, the critiques of dozens of others who highlight Sanders’ low black voter turnout, goes beyond the uncontroversial observation that his campaign was shortsighted or ineffective in its approach. Rather, the critiques hint at something deeper—something personal and value-laden—and the popularity of these articles indicates a desire to convey something more than the uncomplicated and unchanging fact that Sanders failed to secure the black vote.

Sen. Sanders, Starr writes, did not simply fail to solicit and secure black votes. His supporters—and, by implication, Sanders himself—“refuse to [consider] the voting power of black women.” That Starr chose the word “refuse” is no accident: it suggests he interprets Sanders’ error as reflective of willful indifference rather than mere political error. According to Starr, Sanders is just another out of touch white politician indifferent to the needs of the black community.

Myriad hypotheses have been developed as to why Sanders’ campaign failed in the south, including the theory that Sanders never thought he could win. In mid-2015, Sanders’ name recognition was at a mere 10 percent among the American public. A poll from October 2015 gave him a 13 percent chance of winning the primary compared to Clinton’s 77 percent—odds that did not begin to shift until after the first primary debate. Recall that the results of the Iowa primary contest, in which Sanders forced the closest margin in the history of the Iowa state caucus, came as a surprise. No campaign allocates resources evenly. To mount a 50-state campaign would have seemed a fool’s errand—not to mention a colossal waste of campaign funds. Remember: Sanders’ undergirding goal was always about spreading his democratic Socialist message—not necessarily attaining the presidency. That being the case, Sanders reasonably anticipated that his concession would come long before the March 1st Super Tuesday primary contest that revealed his weakness in southern states.

But Starr never acknowledges this or any alternative theory for Sanders’ campaign strategy. Nor does Starr limit his complaint to Sanders messaging gaffes—gaffes which also dogged Hillary’s 2008 campaign, and from which her 2016 run was not immune. Rather, he paints Sanders as ignorant of the fact that black voters—particularly women—are the most consistent Democratic voting block, and are crucial to the success of the democratic coalition. Starr exploits his readers’ skepticism that a liberal career politician like Sanders could be so ignorant—implying instead cruel apathy toward the needs of black Americans or, at best, a disqualifying level of incompetence. The implication is clear: whether ignorant or indifferent, Bernie Sanders doesn’t care about black people (to paraphrase Kanye West’s famous Bush-era diagnosis).

Starr, referencing his own reporting, writes that Sanders’ senior black staffers referred to Sanders’ top campaign staffers as “white boys” who did not take Super Tuesday seriously, and who “were convinced that fighting for black Southern voters was pretty much a lost cause.” By emphasizing that black staffers (implying all and only black staffers made this observation), Starr distorts Sanders’ failure to campaign sufficiently in the south into something malicious, characterizing it as a decision to neglect black people specifically.

Of course, the majority of voters in the south, as in the rest of the country, are white. Clinton could not have won the southern primaries without swaying the majority of white voters as well. Yes, for historical reasons, the land of Dixie is still home to more black Americans than northern states, but a failure to campaign in the south is better explained by the Sanders campaign’s limited ambition. (Remember, too, that none of Hillary’s much championed victories in the southern primaries manifested as general election wins.)

Contrast Bernie’s lack of a ‘southern strategy’ with Hillary Clinton’s failure to campaign in the Midwest—a significant factor contributing to her crushing general election loss. As lamented as it is in some circles, Clinton’s error is not repeatedly resurrected as evidence of her indifference to Wisconsinites: She is not accused of having a “Midwestern problem.” Admittedly, Clinton is at times criticized for abandoning organized labor, but that sin is more often attributed to her husband and the self-described “New Democrats” who consciously abandoned unions in a bid for center-right votes. According to mainstream Democrats, Clinton is not actively antagonistic toward, or contemptuous of, the people whose votes she did not garner. (At least those within her party—sorry “deplorables.” So why single out Sanders?

At the root of my frustration is the basic illogic of concluding that the demographics of a politician’s supporters, without further evidence, are a proxy for—or worse, proof of—a politician’s personal allegiances. The error is understandable. The Republican Party has, since the 1960s, relied on antipathy toward the Civil Rights Movement and social justice initiatives to form a white, anti-black coalition that receives, at best, 5% of the black vote. It is easy to interpret the black vote as a bellwether of sorts which predicts racial animus. It’s particularly tempting to do so during an election season in which dog whistling was replaced by explicit racial attacks more polarizing than those seen since the days of Bull Connor.

But the dog whistling that once only suggested that Bernie was anti-black (because his supporters were allegedly mostly white) has blossomed into the explicit accusation that Bernie “dismissed” black voters and that he is ‘bad for blacks.’ Given the importance of Sanders’ economic message to future of black America, that is an accusation that I have difficulty ignoring.

In his article, Starr accuses Sanders of something much more insidious than simple campaign miscalculations. He writes that Sanders “never seemed to understand” the importance of the black female vote, and implicitly, their concerns. “For some reason,” Starr speculates, “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.”

“Seemed” is perhaps the operative word. Starr provides no evidence for his claims: tautologically, the Bernie Bro narrative has become evidence of itself. Certainly, Sanders’ record does not evidence an indifference to black women—quite the contrary. His anti-poverty initiatives would disproportionately aid black women, as 46% of those in poverty are black families headed by single black women. Sanders famously had to fight the democratic establishment to sign on to raising minimum wage to $15 an hour, and while Sanders might reasonably be faulted for not highlighting the extent to which his agenda disproportionately helps specific identity groups, women comprise the majority of minimum wage workers, and black women, who make up 6% percent of the population, comprise 23% of minimum wage workers. Heck, Bernie’s bona fides even stretch back to 1963, when footage shows him being arrested during a civil rights protest, chained to one of the black women whose interests he “seems” indifferent toward, according to Starr.

So what gives? Why do Starr and others feel the need to insinuate that Bernie’s poor performance among older blacks (it’s important to note that he won the majority of the black vote under 30 years old) reflects a lack of commitment to black issues? Hillary Clinton also lost the overwhelming majority of the black vote in the 2008 primary. Does she have a “black women problem” too?

The shift from campaign criticism to insinuations of racial antipathy “seems” to have been a defensive move instigated by Hillary’s campaign team that persists today. Absent substantive policy critiques of Sanders, who ran well to the left of Hillary, the perceived whiteness of Bernie supporters was used to redirect negative attention Hillary received for a string of racial slights (from her “super predator” comments in the ‘90s, to her haughty dismissal of a ticket holding Black Lives Matter protester from a $500-per-plate fundraiser).

Bernie Sanders can certainly be faulted for awkwardly handling racial issues—highlighting the non-economic needs of diverse communities is something he should continue to improve upon—but beyond gaffes, critiques of his record on race are not only scant; they are dwarfed by the missteps which haunt his political alternatives.

Sanders became active in the Civil Rights Movement in his teens and continued to advocate for social justice causes throughout his career, including giving an impassioned congressional speech against precisely those draconian provisions of the Crime Bill the Clintons supported, demonizing black children as “super predators” in their effort to do so. Starr was right about one thing: The Democratic Party does treat black women “like side pieces.” So there should be no rush to defend them against a man seeking to disrupt that trend—a man able to offer an alternative to a politically captured and underserved demographic group.

I suspect that absent Clinton’s own history of racial faux pas (which Starr dismissed summarily as though the lives destroyed by the Crime Bill were an annoying blip “forced . . .down our throats” by Hilary’s critics), Sanders’ whiteness, and the whiteness of his supporters, would not have become an issue in the last election. It seemed to go unnoticed that both candidates were white. But Hillary’s supporters realized that by weaponizing Sanders’ white maleness, they could perniciously suggest he couldn’t be trusted. Meanwhile, Hillary could use her name recognition and relative popularity with the black community as a shield to deflect scrutiny from her checkered record on racial issues.

Star’s misrepresentation is galling not just because it constitutes an unsubstantiated attack on a person’s values, but because it is made against someone who has worked, and who continues to work, assiduously in favor of goals ostensibly shared by Starr. It’s made in service of mainstream Democrats—the very Democrats who would continue to dismiss and ignore black voters who have nowhere else to go. This narrative exists for no other reason than to insulate the Democratic party from being exposed as possessing the exact quality that Starr unwarrantedly ascribes to Sanders: disinterest. Here’s one black woman who thinks that’s a problem.

B. Gray is a lawyer, podcaster, and writer intent on increasing the visibility of leftists of color. You can find her podcast and vlog, SWOTI (Someone’s Wrong on the Internet) on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher and YouTube, and her read writing at Progressive Army. Follow her on Twitter, and find additional media links at SWOTI.