Black Voters Aren’t Feeling The Bern — Here’s Why

Bernie Sanders is right. The system is rigged. But its not because Wall Street decided that all of our money and jobs belong to the 1 percent. The system is rigged because of white supremacy. The system is rigged against black and brown people because of racism, period. Even the poorest white person has a plethora of societal benefits that aren’t accessible to well off black folks. Poor white people don’t get followed into department stores, and they don’t have to worry about an encounter with the police turning deadly. Bernie Sanders would have you believe that poor blacks and well off blacks have nothing in common. Nothing could be further from the truth. What they have in common — their blackness — means that whatever their economic class, they will be treated as a threat in the United States. That’s why Thabo Sefolosha, wealthy NBA millionaire, had his leg broken by the NYPD last year. If discrimination was only based on class, as Sanders believes, then the police should have left him alone because of the size of his bank account. Unfortunately, the legacy of white supremacy in the United States means that blacks of every economic class know to fear the police. It means we can’t play with toy guns outside, no matter how much money our parents have. It means that we’ll still get higher interest rates than our white counterparts, even if we have more money than they do.

What Bernie Sanders doesn’t want to come to terms with (and many white liberals do not want to admit this) is that just being white makes you part of America’s ruling class. Poor whites are more respected, more likely to get a job, less likely to be arrested, less likely to be convicted, less likely to do significant time if they are convicted — then well off blacks. White privilege bestows a host of rights that are worth far more than a nice salary. For example, even though blacks and whites smoke marijuana at similar rates, blacks are arrested far more. Unlike what Bernie says, black and white poverty are not the same. Poor whites live in significantly nicer neighborhoods with more resources than poor blacks. And when it comes to jobs, a black college grad has the same odds at the same job as a white high school grad. Without coming to terms with how white supremacy creates these economic disparities through racism, Bernie cannot hope to seriously help poor blacks, even if we enacted some of his policies. Even as whites are a smaller percentage of poor Americans, they still get a disproportionate share of the government benefits. That’s because socialism isn’t a stronger force than white supremacy. No economic system is. This isn’t a system of the 1 percent fleecing everyone else. This is a system of white privilege that discriminates against minorities regardless of their class.

What Black Voters Actually Want

First off, let’s admit why black voters are in the Democratic Party. It’s because the Republican Party hates us and is actively working to harm black people and their interests. That’s it. Many white liberals are surprised to find out that black people actually aren’t liberal. In fact, blacks are the most religious group in the country. 70 percent of blacks read the Bible outside of church, compared to only 44 percent of whites. Because of the strong influence of Christianity, blacks are much more socially conservative than their white liberal Democratic party-mates. It is no surprise, then, that the black church is such a strong political force. It is one of the pillars of the black community, and it shapes our political outlook.

As a historically marginalized group, blacks are always looking for better economic opportunity. We want to have better access to jobs, and lower unemployment. Black people fondly remember the growth of the black middle class under the 1st Clinton administration, and significant drop in black unemployment (despite what Michelle Alexander says, this wasn’t due to mass incarceration. I could go on, but that’s a topic for another day.). Under Clinton, black people prospered economically, and those are economic times that we’d like to return to.

Black voters also want to address gun violence. Ask any black person — rich, poor, middle class — we all know a friend or a relative who was a victim of gun violence. Black people have been organizing to stop gun violence in our communities for years, and we’re looking for politicians that share our views. That’s why when we hear that Bernie has voted with the NRA against the Brady Bill, and that the NRA used tens of thousands of dollars to help him get elected to the Senate, we raise our eyebrows.

And of course, we want to tackle police brutality and racial injustice. We want someone who will acknowledge that racism is why black people have faced such dire economic straits. We want politicians who’ve been with us before, who we’ve built relationships with over the years. We need to feel that you know our issues and are invested in our struggle.

Black people have long been taken advantage of by white men with lofty promises. That’s why it takes us a long time to trust politicians. Simply showing up to a black church, when you haven’t been there for 50 years, and attempting to get support for an election in two weeks doesn’t fly with us.

Why White Liberals Don’t Get Black Voters

Many white liberals mean well. But there’s a reason why there was such a disconnect over their expectations on Bernie’s share of the black vote in Nevada, versus the reality. Most white people don’t have black friends. In fact, three quarters of whites don’t have any nonwhite friends. There’s a massive disconnect in what white people (even well meaning liberals) think black people are like, and what they are actually like. Bernie’s base is virtually all made up of young whites and white independents. This means that much of Bernie’s base does not interact with black people on a regular basis. Perhaps that’s why Bernie supporters were trying to learn how to talk to black women. Many white liberals don’t understand the needs of black voters because they don’t regularly interact with black people (television and the internet don’t count). Because Bernie doesn’t have very many black people in his base (Hillary won Nevada blacks 76/22!) the campaign and its surrogates are having issues with knowing how to connect with blacks and what issues matter to them. It doesn’t help when privileged white “Bernie Bros” are shouting down black people on online who dare to offer a critique. In fact, it plays into the same old themes of white entitlement and the old bigoted idea that whites know, better than blacks, what’s best for black people.

Why Black Voters Aren’t Feeling The Bern

So why aren’t more black people “Feeling The Bern?” After all, black people are the poorest segment in the United States, with a median net worth of 11K compared to the white median net worth of 141K. Well, the biggest reason is that Bernie Sanders has never courted us. Never in his 70+ years has he been elected by a diverse electorate. He never built relationships with black leaders — in fact, the black leaders in Vermont suggest he ignored them and their needs. Despite Sanders rhetoric about mass incarceration, he has done nothing to help curb the massive increase in black incarceration in his own state. And of course, his recent snafus (reparations for white people, screaming he said black “50 times”…at the #BlackForumMN set up by his congressional surrogate no less) only further the appearance that he has never seriously engaged with black people or their issues.

The first line of defense for Sanders supporters is that he marched with MLK. They reference a fuzzy photo from 50 years ago as proof. This only turns off black voters by attempting to equate Bernie’s one mere arrest with MLK’s massive Civil Rights resume. In the effort to prop up Sanders, his defenders have also tried to tear down the very real Civil Rights resume of John Lewis, who was savagely beaten while fighting for the rights of black people. This is patronizing, and it makes black voters feel as if Bernie supporters think he is entitled to the black vote because he attended a speech 50 years ago. What has he done since? From 1965–2015? What legislation has he passed in Congress that has helped black people? What, specifically, has he done for Vermont’s black community? Where was he at during Ferguson? After Trayvon Martin’s murder? I have rarely gotten answers to these questions.

There is a very real reason why black voters didn’t hear about Bernie Sanders before 2015. He didn’t care about our issues, and he didn’t care to reach out to the black community. We knew who Jim Clyburn and John Lewis were. Sanders’ surrogates disparaging them will not make black people turn to Sanders, it will make them turn against him. Black people have a legacy of protecting our own. That’s why Bernie’s attacks on President Obama are so damaging for his campaign. Black people love Obama — the realization of a black President was the realization of a dream for many black Americans. To say that Obama wasn’t good enough — to say he should be primaried or should have been a one term President — only turns our distrust of Sanders into outright hostility. Bernie and his surrogates obviously don’t understand the significance of black political leaders to black people. We respect and admire black politicians who have “made it” and fought for us. We don’t care if Wall Street funds their campaigns. They are shining examples of success in the face of a white supremacist system.

Hillary Clinton is promising to build on Obama’s legacy, not tear it down in the attempt to create a faux socialist utopia. Hillary has a plan to fund both public and private HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) while Bernie’s public college plan would let private HBCUs fall into disrepair and close down. Black politicians and black institutions — public and private — are something that black people take pride in. There are black people who got an education at an HBCU that couldn’t be provided to them at a major public institution. Bernie doesn’t understand that, because he doesn’t understand the black experience in America. He’s never had to in Vermont. It’s exactly why black voters are looking past him at the ballot box. And its why he’ll continue to lose diverse states, in March and beyond.

If you want to read more of my work, check out my website — weekendpolitics.com.