Bernie, Black, and Blue: Reflections on Race in the Democratic Primaries

“GET TO KNOW HIM, Lazy Ass!”

One of the more irritating and disturbing things about some of the older white, middle-class and stereotypically pony-tailed Berniebros I regularly overhear in person and online is the grumbling they do about the difficulties their nominally socialist hero Bernie Sanders has had with the Black vote in the Democratic presidential primaries. “What’s wrong with these Black voters?” they say. “Why would they vote for that racist monster Hillary Clinton? Why don’t they get it that Bernie is their candidate? I just don’t understand it.”

Listen to the complaint of a white middle-aged Sanders supporter who wrote me two days ago from the small and 85% white town of Somers, Wisconsin as follows on Facebook: “Any African-American who would back Clinton over Sanders is a blithering fool! The excuse ‘we don’t know him’ doesn’t fly. GET TO KNOW HIM. It’s your obligation as a voter, lazy ass!”

Correspondents tell me they have heard similar sentiments expressed by younger white Sandernistas. It’s not just an old-guy thing.

Bernie’s Better But So What?

This peevish racial bellyaching is unbecoming. It’s also pretty stupid. To be sure, the smarter Berniebros are right to note that the Clintons’ record on racial justice is terrible. On that you can Google up my own writings along with the findings and reflections of many other left analysts on “the Clintons and”: “welfare ‘reform;’ “mass incarceration;” “three strikes;” “Sista Souljah;” “Ricky Ray Rector;” “Paul Kagame;” “neoliberal racism;” and more. Read Elaine Brown’s powerful book The Condemnation of Little B, especially its brilliant eleventh chapter (titled “Marching From Monticello”). The story of the Clintons and race is not a pretty tale.

Berniebros are right to point out that their hero (“GET TO KNOW HIM”) got arrested protesting racist public school segregation in Chicago not long before Hillary Clinton became a teenage supporter of the racist Republican Barry Goldwater in the white Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. And they are right to note that Sanders’ liberal, social-democratically inclined neo-New Deal agenda would bring far more benefit to the nation’s disproportionately poor and jobless Black citizens than would the noxious neoliberal brew that lurks behind Hillary’s fake-progressive posing. Some smart Black leaders including Killer Mike, Dr. Cornel West, and (more recently and much less forcefully) Ta-Nahesi Coates have been pointing this out. Even Al Sharpton has embraced Bernie.

Along the way, it’s worth noting that Blacks make up the leftmost, most progressive and social-democratic racial component of the U.S. electorate, something that might seem to align them more naturally with Bernie – an actual Democrat in the traditional New Deal sense – than with neoliberal, corporate-Democratic Hillary.

But so what? Try to put yourself in Black primary voters’ shoes. Most of those voters certainly and understandably have little faith that any of the major capitalist party candidates (that description includes the nominal socialist Sanders, who has repeatedly voiced his support for “private ownership of the means of production” and whose not-so new party was once accurately described by Kevin Phillips as “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party”) hold any special or deep concern for Black people and Black issues. Why should they? They have no reason to be all that impressed by the relevance of political and ideological conflicts within the white electorate and in very preponderantly white states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont (the last two states joined with Maine comprise the single whitest part of the nation) of all places, all situated in a still majority white nation that has never really – even in it’s liberal-leftmost long New Deal era (1935-1979) – called off its more-than-four-century (colonial era included) war on Black people. They have no strong historical reason to be impressed by the promises of white progressives, even those of one who calls himself (quite deceptively) a “socialist.”

What’s the typical Black voter’s main goal insofar as the seemingly endless presidential politics of the latest quadrennial presidential electoral extravaganza holds relevance to him or her? It’s a defensive one: keeping out the worst and most racist of the candidates in play. The Left and radical Black political commentator Glen Ford (well to the class and race portside of Sanders, like the present writer) has explained the rationale many black people have for supporting Clinton. As he puts it, their primary concern is defeating the nasty, racist GOP. So they want someone who is electable.

Now, for all the insipid racial awfulness of Hillary and Bill and the nasty long neoliberal Democratic devolution helped trail-blaze, does anyone seriously believe that the KKK-accommodating white-nationalist Trump (whose rallies involve the slugging and pushing of Black protestors) and the far-right evangelical lunatic Ted Cruz do not represent a greater degree of immediate racist threat to Black Americans than Hillary Clinton?

Is Bernie Really More Electable?

Here is where Sandernistas intervene to tell us about the match-up polls showing that that Bernie would do better than Hillary Clinton against the Republican candidate (Trump, barring a coup of some kind at or before the Republican National Convention) in November. But match-up polls in the primary season are worthless, or close to it. The deck gets reshuffled after the primaries and the major party conventions. The bigger reality is that a nomination of the “socialist” Sanders by the Democratic Party would send vast piles of One Percent (well, .01%) and Super-PAC campaign cash that would have gone to the de facto moderate Republican Hillary (especially if Trump is the Republican nominee since he is unacceptable to many rich GOP election investors) over to the GOP candidate (Trump/Cruz/Rubio). The red- and pink-baiting funded by that sure-to-be record-setting election investment could be very effective. It would get no small assist from a corporate media that favors Hillary has been ready to cover The Donald’s every ridiculous word and gesture while downplaying the giant crowds turning out to applaud Bernie’s progressive, social-democratic “revolution.” Along the way, millions of Hillary’s more conservative and older white supporters will never vote for Sanders.

With Hillary as nominee, the Democrats keep their campaign finance largesse. The nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward Herman and David Peterson) and “hidden primary of the ruling class” (Laurence Shoup) prefers Hillary in the White House over a GOP lunatic and wild card like Trump or Ted Cruz. At the same time, the real masters atop the deep state financial corporatoracy love divided government and would like to keep the game going with one party in charge of the White House (the Democrats) and the other party (the Republicans) in charge of Congress.

Culture and Geography

There are also issues of culture and geography to take into consideration. Sanders is a crotchety 74-year-old white Jewish guy from 97 percent white Vermont (home to a grand total of 3,063 Black people) with a Brooklyn accent and a guff speaking style. I’ll got out on the limb to guess that Bernie reminds more than a few Black New Yorkers of a scowling white high school principal, history teacher, police sergeant, or shopkeeper that they have or had to contend with growing up. His brusque, stern. and rasping oratory and stage demeanor are off-putting to a significant number of Black Americans, I am told (They’re irritating to me, God knows: how many times can a candidate say “guess what?” in a campaign speech, debate, or town hall?) It is less than culturally surprising that Sanders – a Caucasian pol most Black Americans never heard of until this or last year – has been having a hard time breaking through the two decade-plus connection the originally Arkansas-based Clinton machine has (yes, perversely) had with the black-bourgeois Democratic regimes that control much of the highly concentrated and vertically organized Black vote in the nation’s segregated urban ghettoes and Black legislative districts,


Note how different this is from the analysis presented by my fellow CounterPunch writer Andrew Levine (something of a late-in-the-day Bernie supporter), a considerably more knowledgeable and erudite white Wisconsinite (to say the least) than the one I quoted at the outset of this essay:

“Newsflash…: it isn’t just white workers that Democrats and Republicans have made worse off; it is the entire working class – black, brown and white. The Clintons have been leading the way for a quarter century….If the facts register differently in the minds of black and brown workers – if large numbers of them still think that Hillary and Bill are on their side — not all the blame lies with their sold-out leaders or with media that misinform and dumb down persons of color along with everyone else…There is also the fact that workers of color are more used to being disserved by politicians than their white counterparts, and therefore less surprised when that is what happens to them. Still, it is disgraceful that, for far too many of them, it is enough that a Clinton ‘feels their pain’ or makes a show of being on their side. White workers, being used to better, expect more” (emphasis added).

Levine is right about the multiracial screwing-over of the proletariat and the terrible role of the Clintons in that late-capitalist process, of course. But what data does Levine cite to support the remarkable assertion that “for far too many” Black working class people “it is enough that a Clinton ‘feels their pain’ or makes a show of being on their side”? None, because no such data exists. And the data doesn’t exist because the “workers of color” Levine imagines are far and few between. (I have never met a single Black American who thinks that either of the Clintons has any genuine concern for them, for what that’s worth). And where, by the way, are all the white workers who, “being used to better, expect more”? Is Donald Trump not making a very big “show of being on their side”? And aren’t many of those white workers, especially older ones, with their supposed high standards, not backing him, and, by the way, Hillary?

The deeper reality is much less disgraceful than Levine thinks. Blacks still continue to make up the leftmost ethnic segment of the U.S. electorate (despite Obama’s efforts to move Black America to the neoliberal and imperil right.) Their tendency to choose Hillary over Sanders in the Democratic primaries reflects calculated electoral pragmatism, above all, not some childish faith in the racial benevolence of the Clintons.

Where’s Bernie’s Great Campaign for the Black Vote?

“Get to know him,” says the Sandernista from Somers, Wisconsin. Okay, well do Sanders and his campaign bear any responsibility for its difficulties with Black Americans? Given the harsh plutocratic and racial realities detailed above and the despicable role of the Black-bourgeois-Democratic misleader class in Black and national political life, a white newcomer and “outsider” candidate (yes, it sounds odd to call a 74 year old guy a “newcomer”) like Sanders would have to make a very special and pronounced appeal to racial justice and Black needs if he seriously expected to woo the Black vote over from Hillary Clinton. He would have to make a special point of calling out the longstanding, deep, and stealth racism of the Clintons and their noxious neoliberal brand of Democratic politics. He would have to go full throttle against U.S. police departments’ regular killing of young Black men (the issue that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement), against the “New Jim Crow” system of racist mass incarceration and felony marking, against the Clintons’ vicious and racist 1996 welfare “reform” (elimination), against the racially coded and regressive standardized testing and related schools privatization mania (Sanders has backed the testing craze, by the way), against the persistent, poverty-concentrating hyper-segregation of Black housing and schooling, and against white America’s refusal to pay (or even consider paying) reparations for centuries endured under chattel slavery (a system that provided the basis for the United States’ emergence as a rich and powerful nation) and a near century of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement, the racial cleansing of hundreds of border state and northern “sundown towns” during the late and early 20th centuries, a century plus of savage de facto segregation and ghettoization in the urban North, centuries of savage labor market discrimination, the four-decade plus crime of mass incarceration and criminal branding.

He would dedicate at least one full speech at a leading historically Black college or university (Morehouse or Howard) to serious analysis and condemnation of contemporary U.S. racism, deeply understood as something embedded in the inner workings of living American history and institutions (and as not something that can be meaningfully erased by putting some Black face in high places, even in the White House). Sanders, after all, has dedicated two full college speeches so far to elucidating his diluted and painfully white, Scandinavia-inspired definition of what he thinks is “socialism.”

Has Sanders done this? Hardly. Sure, he’s made some decent stabs on race. You bet. He went after the welfare “reform” a bit with some Black supporters by his very late in the game – on the eve of the South Carolina primary. He’s said that “black lives matter” and denounced the regular police shootings of Blacks in the streets. He’s gone after Chicago’s racist Democratic and Clintonite mayor Rahm Emmanuel and criticized Emmanuel’s nauseating stonewalling on the vicious and racist conduct of the Chicago Police Department. Good for him – seriously. But, as Black Agenda Report’s Margaret Kimberly, a veteran black and New York City-based commentator, notes in a recent opinion piece: “Has Sanders said how he would end police murder? He hasn’t. Did he present a plan for a strong Department of Justice civil rights division that would take the lead in prosecuting cops? He didn’t. Did he propose any legislative remedies to end police murder impunity? He didn’t do that either.”

Along the way, Sanders and his supporters have left the very distinct impression that they think enough racial justice will ensue for Black Americans from his great color-blind neo- New Deal “revolution” to save “the middle class” from the plutocrats. A rising, social-democratic tide will lift all boats, the (at least implicit) narrative runs.

The U.S. Black historical experience does not jibe very well with that progressive Democratic promise, to say the least: see Ira Katznelson’s brilliant study When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America (2005). Far from levelling the playing field racially, Katznelson showed, the key liberal New Deal and post-WWII programs – the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the GI Bill – actually deepened the gap between white and Black Americans even as they helped reduce aggregate socioeconomic disparities in the majority white nation.

“There is,” Margaret Kimberly writes, “no [seriously anti-racist] leftist among the Democrats. Neither one is in sync with the true political leanings of black America. When all is said and done, whether Sanders was at a particular march with King or didn’t meet John Lewis or is or isn’t liked by Ta-Nehisi Coates is immaterial.”

The very smart white Marxist commentator and Sanders’ supporter Doug Henwood recently wrote that “Hillary clearly has a huge base of support among black voters, and it would be ugly and unproductive of me to type out a lecture on how they’re mistaken in that preference. I don’t understand it, but it’s not my business to second-guess it.” It was wise of him to avoid the lecturing and second-guessing. He’s absolutely right: it’s “ugly and unproductive” (look at the comments of the two white Wisconsin progressives quoted in the present essay). But what’s not to understand? Is Black political experience and consciousness really all that mysterious?

For what it’s worth to Sandernistas, Bernie did far better with Black voters in Michigan than he has done so far in the deep South. It strikes me as distinctly possible that that will also be the case in Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois tomorrow (I am writing on the morning of Monday, March 14th ). The Democratic Party-run governments of hyper-segregated and racially unequal cities like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Cleveland offer abundant lessons on how little corporate machine Democrats in the neoliberal Clinton and Obama mode have to offer Black Americans and the causes of racial and social justice.

I’ve been far Left of the Democratic Party and its recurrent progressive hopefuls since I first started thinking seriously about U.S. electoral politics in 1980 (when I worked and voted for the white male eco-socialist Barry Commoner). The only voting decision I face once every four years is whether (a) to sit the election out or (b) mark a protest ballot for one of the actually Left candidates who can’t win under the U.S. system. Still, I am not going to work myself up into some kind of indignant or condescending leftist huff because the majority of Black voters (not to be confused with all of Black America, by the way) mark ballots for hideous Hillary Clinton in the remaining Democratic primaries and in the general election. It is shamefully misguided for white Berniebros and Berniegals of any age to call Black voters “blithering” and sluggish idiots and/or gullible victims of Clintonite “feel your pain” manipulation because those voters make the practical calculation (rightly or wrongly) that the big name, big money, and longstanding Clinton machine would have a better chance than the old but new, Scandinavia-touting white guy from Vermont of keeping the frothing, racist Republican dogs out of the White House for at least four more years.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).