Should African-Americans Vote For Sanders?

Priyanka Prasad
With Nevada and South Carolina primaries approaching, Bernie Sanders desperately needs to acquire more black voters—but should they vote for him?

bernie sanders

After a virtual tie in the Iowa Caucus and a resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary, this is where things get tough for Bernie Sanders.

The next two states to vote on the Democratic candidates will be Nevada on Feb. 20 and South Carolina on Feb. 27. Although there is no up-to-date polling information for either of these states that takes into account the results of Iowa and New Hampshire, previous aggregate polling by FiveThirtyEight indicates that Sanders is 22 points below Clinton in Nevada and 31 points behind in South Carolina—these are difficult numbers to overcome.

The reason many attribute to Sanders’s less than favorable standings in these states is the minority vote. Sanders currently polls at 17 percent with African Americans, compared to Hillary Clinton at 74 percent; in 2008, only 65 percent of Nevada voters were white and an even smaller 43 percent in South Carolina. Acquiring the minority vote is critical to the futures success of Sanders’s campaign.

The question lies in whether African Americans should actually switch their vote to Sanders.

Sanders has made strong attempts to connect with the African American community within the past few months. On Wednesday morning he met with prominent civil rights activist, Rev. Al Sharpton, as they had breakfast in Harlem, which, as NPR notes, “was a not-so-subtle recognition of Sanders' pivot to South Carolina and Sanders' effort to broaden his appeal to the state's decisive African-American voters.”

He has met with Black Lives Matter activists and other leaders of the black community, but doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. He received endorsements from former NAACP president, Ben Jealous, and Erica Garner (daughter of Eric Garner), but Clinton has the support and endorsements of almost all the African American leaders in Congress. It will be incredibly difficult for Sanders to combat these circumstances, despite the fact that he has been fighting for racial justice since the 1960s when he participated in the March on Washington.

However, certain black activists and scholars have recently come out strongly against Hillary Clinton. Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” wrote an essay for The Nation, boldly declaring her thesis in the headline: “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve The Black Vote.”

Alexander outlines how Bill Clinton’s criminal justice and welfare policies in the 1990s disproportionately targeted black communities and led to mass incarcerations of black people in federal prisons: “?in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs.”

Her conclusion summarizes exactly how harmful Clinton’s policies were: “By the end of Clinton’s presidency, more than half of working-age African-American men in many large urban areas were saddled with criminal records and subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and basic public benefits—relegated to a permanent second-class status eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow.”

While she acknowledges that Hillary Clinton is not the same as her husband, and that the Clintons have admitted they regret bills they passed during the 90s, she remains firm that Hillary wielded power and influence during Bill’s administration, and that the current economic vision she has for the future will cripple black communities.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an acclaimed writer, activist, and speaker, also came out on Wednesday in favor of Sanders over Clinton (though not through specific endorsement). In an interview with Democracy Now!, Coates noted that he is “thrilled to see an actual radical, left-wing, you know, uniquely left-wing option in the Democratic Party,” although he has been critical of Sanders in the past.

Specifically in an essay titled “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?,” Coates claimed that “Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy.” When asked if he was in favor of reparations for slavery, Sanders responded that he was not because he believed it would be “divisive.”

Alexander agrees with Coates’s assessment, stating that “the [way the] Sanders campaign handled the question of reparations is one of many signs that Bernie doesn’t quite get what’s at stake in serious dialogues about racial justice. He was wrong to dismiss reparations as ‘divisive,’ as though centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination, ghettoization, and stigmatization aren’t worthy of any specific acknowledgement or remedy.”

Holistically, it is realistic to say that neither Sanders nor Clinton are all that committed to addressing issues of racial justice, nor are they the progressives they classify themselves as in terms of race.

However, given what we know about both candidates, it might be beneficial for African American voters to consider Sanders further, as his economic policies are geared toward helping the majority of Americans, regardless of race: middle class and low income voters.

It is an issue that Sanders has not necessarily considered the need to address intersectionality in his economic policies; Curtiss Reed, the executive director for Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, has said that “[Sanders’s] message is remarkably consistent in that it is devoid of any conversation around race.”

Yet neither has Clinton, really. Alexander contemplates this, too, explaining that, “Bernie, like Hillary, has blurred vision when it comes to race [which] is not the same thing as saying their views are equally problematic?…there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it.”

Black voters are not a monolithic entity—they comprise of millions of distinct voters who all have various values and priorities. To say Clinton does not deserve the black vote is not a blanket statement that can be made, but to say the black voters of South Carolina, Nevada, and the U.S. should pay closer attention to Clinton’s actual involvement in black communities and Sanders’s lengthy history of being an ally is something to reflect on.

History has shown that the Clintons, once viewed as champions of black people, actually enacted policies that terribly impacted black communities. Sanders has not been profoundly invested in discussing or focusing on racial justice.

But his radicalism may hint that he is more willing to listen.

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