Sanders and Black America: Has Bernie Finally Found His Mojo?

This is the Bernie Sanders many progressives have been waiting to see.

Recently, Sanders spent time at Liberty University, a school founded by the late evangelical Jerry Farwell. This is a place where the goal is to cultivate the next generation’s conservative leadership. Sanders showed up and disrupted all that. He unapologetically told hard truths about the reality of economic inequality and racial disparity in this country. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall. I’m confident there were more than a few grunts of disapproval as those in attendance uncomfortably shifted in their seats. This is exactly what Sanders needed to do for two reasons

Families

While he is gaining ground on Clinton in the Iowa polls, if he wants to win the Democratic nomination, Sanders will need the support of women. Clinton is positioned to be the first female President of the United States, so Sanders must make a convincing case if he wants their support. He was just given an opening.

Clinton is losing support with Democratic Women. Her support fell from 71 percent in July to the low 40s in September. A major reason for this decline is the controversy surrounding her use of personal email to conduct official business as the Secretary of State.

As Sanders’ numbers grow past Clinton supporters in New Hampshire among likely Democratic women voters, he took it upon himself to address economic inequality in a way that centers the conversation on issues women say they care about while visiting Liberty University. “I want to tell you what was in the Republican budget that passed some months ago,” he said. “When you talk about issues of children, understand the Republican budget threw 27 million people off of health care, including many children, at a time when many families cannot afford to send their kids to college…At a time when children in America are going hungry, the Republican budget cut billions of dollars in nutrition programs, including money for the WIC program, which goes to low income pregnant women and their babies. “ This is what Sanders needed to do.

He talked about his stance concerning income inequality in a way that turns it into a discussion about how to help families make ends meet. The voters do not need to see Sanders as a cranky activist. He needs to be a compassionate advocate for American families. The fight for the female vote will be difficult, but Bernie’s willingness to go to Liberty University and speak hard truths communicates his willingness to tackle difficult subject matter in an inhospitable environment. He is positioning himself as the Democratic nominee willing to fight unequivocally for American families.

Race

In the past, I’ve been critical of Bernie’s approach to American racism. Before he was interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter activists in Phoenix and Seattle, his top staffers were all white and he talked about race almost exclusively in economic terms. Since then, he released his plan to address institutional racism, he hired the brilliant Symone Sanders, he was endorsed by Cornel West, and he is more intentional about reaching out to minority voters. This had to be done.

As Charles Blow reported, Sanders spoke to a conspicuously bare gymnasium at Benedict College in South Carolina. The college is historically black, but the audience was largely white. Considering the massive crowds he attracts elsewhere, the size and makeup of those in attendance should be concerning to his supporters.

A gallop poll in August found that Sanders has favorability with African Americans in the low 20s while Clinton is in the low 80s. The celebratory fervor over Sanders outpolling Clinton misses the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white. If Sanders wants the nomination, he needs the support of black voters. With that in mind, Sanders headed to Liberty University and told the truth about racism to a conservative university that once controversially refused to recognize the Democratic Party club.

In response to a question from the audience, he said America is “A nation that in many ways was created — I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back — on racist principles, that’s a fact.” He also addressed the current crisis in America concerning the death of black men and women either at the hands of the police or while in police custody, “When you have unarmed African Americans shot by police officers, something which has been going on for years, that is also institutional racism and cries out for reform.” This kind of truth telling about the racism foundational to American society and the insidious nature of its institutional manifestations is what black progressives have been pushing Sanders to articulate. His willingness to do so in an environment full of white conservatives is just icing on the cake.

Sanders is making strides; learning from his mistakes. This is the Sanders that black and female progressives have been waiting for, the Sanders that America needs.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.