In politics, perception is as important, if not more important, than reality. Yes, the stances you take matter; your voting record matters; the successes and failures in your personal life matters. Yet, what people see and how they see you matters too.
And here’s what I see: Bernie Sanders has a race problem.
I know, I know. Your sighs of indignation have become audible. We have a progressive running for the presidency! Why can’t I just be happy? He worked for racial justice in the 1960s! Yes, I know all that; however, he still has a race problem.
Sanders delivered a rousing speech to the most attended rally of the 2016 presidential race to date, and almost all the faces I saw were enthusiastic, boisterous, passionate white people. Sure, there was a black or brown face here and there, but the people in attendance were overwhelmingly white—and this is not an exception. At every major Sanders rally, the attendance has been overwhelmingly white.
When speaking to a room full of progressive activists at the Netroots Nation conference, Sanders was interrupted and forced to go off script. “Black lives, of course, matter,” said Sanders. “I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity.” This statement did not appease those in the audience. They continued to chant “black lives matter” and “say her name” in reference to Sandra Bland, the black woman found dead hanging in her jail cell under suspicious circumstances in Texas.
Sanders did not say her name on that stage. Sunday afternoon Sanders released a statement on his Facebook page expressing solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Sunday night, twitter users targeted Sanders with the hashtag #BernieSoBlack. Black twitter, as they are colloquially called, was vicious.
Again, Sanders has a race problem, and I think there are two primary reasons why.
1: Overreliance on his past work on civil rights.
Sanders has a strong record on civil rights. This is not up for debate. He volunteered with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) as a student at the University of Chicago. He participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He endorsed Jesse Jackson during his 1988 bid for the presidency. Sanders is strong on civil rights. However, here is the problem: he is virtually unknown to black voters. He is polling at 5% with black and Latino voters, and he has name recognition at around 25% with them. He needs to build coalitions with people of color, and that is difficult to do when your top staff is almost all white. [i]
Only recently did he begin addressing police brutality, racial inequality, and criminal justice reform. To be sure, his economic policies will certainly help all these issues in a holistic way, but he has not been clear in his articulation of these truths to minority voters. It is this lack of clarity that gives me pause and leads me to my second concern.
2: Talking about race as if it is only an economic issue.
If Sanders is reticent to speak directly to racial issues, does that mean that he will be hesitant to address the concerns of minorities when he is president? Is he the kind of progressive who thinks tackling economic inequality will automatically eradicate racism? If so, he is dead wrong.
Du Bois in Socialism and the Negro Problem has already pointed out that one can actualize progressive economic policies and leave racism intact. Addressing economic concerns will not address the number of African Americans harassed by police because they make the mistake of driving while black. Enacting progressive economic policies will not automatically address unfair hiring practices due to implicit and explicit bias. And given the dismissive tone some supporters of Sanders have when discussing minorities that take him to task for failing to adequately discuss their concerns, there is a great deal of implicit and explicit white supremacy still influencing the thinking of many people on this issue. If you want to convince those in the #BlackLivesMatter movement to support Sanders, try listening to them instead of speaking condescendingly about them. Remember, if you want Sanders to win the Democratic nomination, you need the Black vote, and we will be unwilling to work with you if we don’t feel #BlackLivesMatter to you.
Remember that while Sanders is speaking to audiences full of white, middle class voters, Clinton has been learning lessons from the 2008 election. She was not nominated that year because she lost the minority vote. Determined to not allow that to happen again, she has been pandering speaking to minority concerns since she announced her candidacy.
Sanders has begun to address race with more intentionality.
Now he needs to build coalitions with people of color—and he needs to do so now.
[i] Thank you Joseph M. Schwartz at Temple University for bringing some of these issues to my attention.