Black voters aren't feeling the Bern: Sanders' problem is bigger than #BlackLivesMatter

The Vermont senator is closing the gap on Hillary, but a segment of his party's base remains unswayed. Here's why

Published September 13, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Elaine Thompson)
(AP/Elaine Thompson)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Senator Bernie Sanders continues to pack arenas and often draws standing-room-only crowds as he vies for the Democratic nomination. Though Sanders trails former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in most national polls, he is closing the gap. One poll shows Sanders leading Clinton in Iowa.

Part of the magnetism drawing supporters to the senator is his populist message that includes eliminating economic inequality, challenging oligarchs on Wall Street and advocating for blue-collar workers. Without question, the insurgent nature of his candidacy is igniting excitement in the Democratic base and among many progressive voters who believe a true liberal can win the nomination, and quite possibly, the White House.

There remains one inconvenient dilemma for the Sanders camp: Most black voters have yet to “feel the Bern.”

According to the latest findings from Public Policy Polling, 65 percent of black voters support Clinton while only 14 percent back Sanders. For a man who is heralded as a civil rights veteran by his legion of supporters, that number is not impressive.

In more than a dozen interviews with political strategists, leading black journalists and activists, there is a common acknowledgement that most African-American voters don’t know who the senator is, and that his messaging to this critical voting base has been poorly executed. For many months, the Sanders campaign did little to make inroads with black voters, in person or online. Another problem observers point out is that there is an arrogant and insulting expectation among Sanders’ white liberal supporters that black people should vote for him simply because he is not Hillary Clinton. Others point to him “marching with Dr. King.” Then too, the senator has also bumbled primetime moments from which he has yet to fully recover.

That said, observers believe Sanders can gain the trust of more black voters (but likely not more than Clinton), though many question his personal resolve to do so.

Sanders Media Stumbles and Challenges Connecting With Black Voters

Sanders' Netroots Nation appearance where he was confronted by Black Lives Matter movement protesters was far from impressive. During his time on stage, activists repeatedly challenged him (they also challenged Martin O’Malley) to narrow his traditional message of economic and social justice to address police brutality. Sanders seemed befuddled and agitated; at one point, he asked Jose Antonio Vargas, the moderator, if he should leave.

Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights, a national organization focused on politically empowering black women, said that was the first sign for many black people that Sanders wasn’t comfortable digressing from his traditional script and dealing with an uncomfortable interaction.

“That is really what I think catapulted people’s concerns," Carr said. “The fact that he wasn’t willing to just pivot off like, Okay, here is an action. Let me address it and move on."

O’ Malley did stumble with his “All lives matter” response to protesters, but he kept his appointments at the event (unlike Sanders), which, Carr says, earned the respect of many people of color.

Sanders' August interview with Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet The Press,” also left questions. When Todd asked Sanders if he approved an email written by Marcus Ferrell, his African-American outreach director, in which he apologized for not meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, Sanders gave a flat response.

"No, I don't. I think we're going to be working with all groups,” he said. “This was sent out without my knowledge."

Lauren Victoria, a political strategist, says the senator’s tone was flippant.

“He’s got to understand that the Democratic Party will not win this election without black voters, period,” she said. “So, the Democratic nominee, whether it is Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else, has to acknowledge that black voters are important. So for him to go out of his way to say to Chuck Todd, ‘Oh, I didn’t apologize.’ That means he didn’t back the plan of his black staffer who made that apology. I am not understanding that level of discomfort when you are running for the Democratic nomination. Running in Vermont, I can understand that. Running nationally? I can’t understand it.”

Elon James White, media director of Netroots Nation, was more direct: “So you basically threw your black dude under the bus.”

White, who is also media director of “This Week In Blackness,” one of the most important independent black media companies in America, believes Sanders doesn’t seem to care how he is being perceived by black voters who have yet to warm up to him.

“I’ve had Sanders supporters say flat-out, 'I like Sanders. I really support him. But he is handling this really bad. I am not sure why. I hope he gets better with it,’” he recalls Bernie supporters telling him. “And the fact is that his platform is getting better, which is why I don’t understand why he wouldn’t want to nip all of this in the bud.”

White admits he was actually a Sanders supporter and wanted him to be the candidate who could beat Hillary Clinton. However, he says he was so turned off by what he feels is Sanders’ dismissiveness and the social media attacks from his supporters that, “I’m at the point where I don’t even want to talk about him anymore.”

Luther Smith, a political strategist who worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, has this take on Sanders’ mindset toward black voters: “Sanders attitude is, ‘I don’t have to be chummy with you. I am talking about the kind of things I think should be important to you and if I am saying the right things on those policy issues then you should naturally gravitate towards me.' I think that is what he is thinking. But that is not how we operate. That is not how most people operate, but that is definitely not how black people operate. We gotta feel you and we have to know that you feel us.”

In 2012, the voter rate for African Americans was higher than white voters for the first time ever. It may also have been higher than white people in 2008, according to some estimates. Black women were the primary reason President Barack Obama won both of his presidential campaigns. Much of Sanders’ narrative challenges economic inequality, but early on his campaign he rarely, if ever, spoke exclusively to black voters about economic racism.

“How irresponsible is it for a major part of your campaign to be on economic inequality and you not weave in double-digit unemployment among African Americans and not weave in the disparities of black women,” said L. Joy Williams, a political consultant who ran the 2013 campaign of New York City mayoral candidate William Thompson.

After Netroots Nation, Sanders’ campaign hired Symone Sanders (no relation), as its national press secretary. An African American who is a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, Symone Sanders doesn’t agree with political strategists who think her candidate’s message isn’t resonating with the black community.

“It’s that some African Americans haven’t heard it,” Sanders said. “On June 16, the polls said 1 percent of African-American voters are familiar with the senator. On September 1, it was 14 percent. We know we still have a lot of work to do in terms of name recognition in African-American and Latino communities and young people as well. Our platform speaks to everyday, hard-working American people whether they are black, white, Latino or otherwise. We are talking about economic equality, but we’re also talking about issues of racial justice. We’re talking about voting rights, pay equity, and climate change, which by the way, disproportionately affects people of color, particularly African-American communities. So I think it is a name recognition thing, but we have to go out there and do the work.”

But if Sanders has been fighting for the civil rights of black people for decades, how come so few of them know about him?

“Think about it: How many people do you really know in Congress that’s not your own congressperson, unless they run for president?” asked Bonita Yarboro, the District 3 coordinator in Connecticut for Bernie Sanders Connecticut, which is not authorized by the campaign. “He’s never run for president before, so it’s not like there is any reason for everybody in the world to know about him.”

She went on to laud Sanders’ economic policies that she feels are very germane to black voters, as well as his anti-war stance. When I asked what Sanders’ anti-war stance has to do with black people, Yarboro replied, “Who goes to war? Think about it. Not the rich people. Poor people. Who are mostly poor? Black people. So you have to look at it that way.” (According to USA Today, "The share of black soldiers is still larger than the 17% of the U.S. population who are African Americans of military enlistment age and education.")

Paul Maslin, who was on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign team in 2000, said Sanders and his supporters are relying too heavily on the assumption that black people will connect with his civil rights record and stance on social justice policies.

“That ain’t good enough,” Maslin said. “This is not a library exercise, or a civics book thing. Of course, people will look at his record and they will be exposed to the record, but the thing that happens first is you get a measure of the person. Is this somebody I can identify with and identifies with me and I believe will fight on my behalf or somebody I could like? I don’t think this is a negative for Bernie Sanders. I just think it is an unknown.”

“Here is some guy who is a senator from Vermont,” Maslin continued. “People may think of him as a socialist. What does that mean? He’s kind of an independent who shows up on my radar and takes on someone we know very well, and we kind of like her and we trust her. At least as of right now. So the burden is on him to first, from a more visceral and emotional standpoint, make some kind of connection. This is not gonna be done in an academic exercise about policy papers.”

Many believe Bernie Sanders is a victim of biased mainstream media. AlterNet published a critique of how mainstream media outlets have either ignored his candidacy or covered him unfairly. Most political analysts and activists interviewed for this story acknowledge that the media has not done a good job of covering Sanders, but argue that he is hardly the only presidential candidate in history who has had to deal with negative and unfair press.

Joy Ann Reid, a national correspondent with MSNBC who previously worked on political campaigns in Florida, said the racist media attacks President Obama endured during both of his campaigns were far worse than anything Sanders has experienced so far.

“He was dealing with attacks on his religion and citizenship,” said Reid, whose new book, Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide delves into this very issue. “They were not only coming from Republicans. The Obama campaign believed some of it was coming from the Clinton campaign. They believed fellow Democrats were deliberately attempting to undermine belief in Barack Obama’s very citizenship and his full Americanness. He had to deal with guilt by association with Jeremiah Wright. So, he dealt with far more vicious attacks.”

Yet, Obama, a black man who did not have deep pockets when he first ran, still found a way to overcome it and win two presidential elections. Yes, Sanders has had to contend with unfair media coverage. But it doesn’t compare to what Obama endured. Sanders will have to figure out a way to fight back against negative press just like anyone else who wants be the leader of the free world.

Is Sanders' Civil Rights Record Being Overlooked?

At least five bills have been introduced in Congress that will fight racial profiling and require police officers nationwide to wear body cameras. While Sanders supports body cameras, he has not authored or co-authored a similar bill that deals with police brutality.

Sanders has released a list of policies he said he would pursue if he wins the general election. When I asked his campaign to provide a list of bills the senator has authored that significantly help black people, it responded by saying Sanders reintroduced a bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 and that he worked with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) to secure $12.5 billion in the Affordable Care Act to dramatically expand access to community health centers.

Sanders was an original co-sponsor of the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA), which seeks to restore voting rights in federal elections to the 4.4 million disenfranchised Americans who have been released from prison yet are still denied the right to vote. His involvement in the Employ Young Americans Act and his legislative efforts to provide low-income heating and cooling assistance are additional policies that would benefit black people.

No one is arguing that Sanders has done nothing. The concern is that there is a belief that his campaign is operating on the assumption that its candidate doesn’t have to do the work of connecting emotionally with black voters and earning their trust. Part of the problem is that Sanders has never had to depend on black voters to win elected office. Vermont is one of the whitest states in America with a black population that reached one percent in 2011. While Sanders was the mayor of Burlington, which has a small black community, that experience clearly was not enough to prepare him for the kind of spirited pushback he has encountered in recent months.

As helpful as his past record may have been for African Americans, much of Sanders' most impressive work has been done in the information vacuum of Congress, where people cannot see it unless they are watching C-SPAN. That is not the same as having to be a senator or representative from a state where one has to foster life-or-death relationships with black movers and shakers to win office or get reelected year after year.

Another unexpected development is that the Black Lives Matter movement is reconfiguring how presidential candidates court black votes. The playbook of white candidates simply getting a few influential black people to vouch for them and pointing to their NAACP rating won’t work in the next election cycle.

Black Lives Matter Movement Redefines How Politicians Earn Black Vote

The protest movement is the factor that may well determine which Democratic candidate wins the black vote. Economic equality is certainly a priority for black Americans, but the number-one issue on most black voters’ minds is police brutality — a subject that neither Sanders nor any other candidate has discussed extensively until protesters have forced their hand.

Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders all have to deal with black protesters as political power brokers, something that has caught them off guard. No national politician has had to deal with such a dynamic since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Clinton’s face-to-face with Black Lives Matter organizers in New Hampshire exposed her lack of reflection over the damaging mass incarceration laws her husband passed as president and she supported as First Lady. Clearly, Clinton has been put on notice, even if she were to eventually win the nomination. Another tricky dynamic in navigating the politics of this movement is that it’s decentralized, challenging candidates to speak with individual protesters and far-flung constituencies whose main organ of communication is social media.

Deray Mckesson, one of the movement’s most well-known protesters, who is not affiliated with any organization, is finalizing plans to meet with Sanders and other presidential candidates. The fact that presidential candidates are being forced to speak with nontraditional black power brokers proves leaderless protesting can be a powerful political weapon.

“When candidates have traditionally reached out to black people, it’s been through traditional organizations and people have been older,” Mckesson said. “So what does it mean to have 19- to 33-year-olds have considerable influence about the perception of black America? It’s because of social media. The movement created that space. No longer is it enough to go to the National Action Network. It’s no longer good enough to talk to traditional organizations and institutions that have traditionally leveraged black people.”

Bernie Sanders' press secretary, Symone Sanders, says the senator is aware of this new political dynamic and has reached out to a wide range of black protesters. He is also setting up interviews with black media outlets and has been campaigning aggressively in South Carolina, a state that has a high black population and will be the real first test of Sanders’ ability to win the nomination.

The Black Lives Matter movement is challenging candidates to directly explain how they would use their presidential power to stop police violence against the black voters they claim to care about.

“The reality of most of these candidates is that they will never be able to connect with the families of Tamir Rice, Mya Hall or the communities that those folks are actually from,” said Elle Hearns, a national strategist for the Black Lives Matter organization.

“That is what the protests and the interruptions are about,” Hearns said. “These folks who claim to be in solidarity with black people and black voters actually aren’t, because they have no idea how to interact with folks who are experiencing pain and rage. So if you, as a presidential candidate, aren’t able to engage with your constituents around the pain that they’re experiencing, then you aren’t fit to be a president.”

Black Voters Warming Up To Sanders, But Barely

In June, only 1 percent of black people had a favorable view of Sanders, according to Public Policy Polling. That number increased to 6 percent in July, and now, it’s at 14 percent. The uptick in favorability is a positive sign because it is still very early in the campaign season. The political strategists interviewed for this story believe Hillary Clinton doesn’t necessarily have the black vote locked down.

Roland Martin, managing editor and host of TV One’s African-American news show, NewsOne Now, says Sanders needs to tailor his economic message and be more consistent about it if he expects to earn a decent percentage of black votes.

“It has to be a strong economic message that speaks directly to black people,” Martin said. “I think what happens is that white progressives want to be able to speak in these general terms and not speak specifically to black people.”

Higher Heights' Glynda Carr says Sanders needs to be assertive in making connections with black women.

“Voters still want some competitiveness in the Democratic primaries and having a different voice,” she said. “If he harnesses that voice and actually uses it, I think he could make some inroads, just because there is that opportunity to have some contrast to the lead candidate. He is making the largest gains in the primaries than the rest of the candidates. So that is an opportunity. Don’t forget in 2008 the bulk of African-American women were still with Hillary Clinton and [candidate Obama] migrated them away from her by investing in talking to them about issues that they care about.”

As for those claiming black people don’t want to vote for an old white guy, Carr has this response: “We were a little more sophisticated in voting for Obama for reasons other than him being a black man.”

But MSNBC's Joy Ann Reid wonders if it is even possible for Sanders to adjust his message to the grand scale required for him to win over a significant number of black votes.

“That is asking Bernie Sanders to be very inauthentic,” she said. “At its core, the Sanders message is that all problems and ills in the country essentially and fundamentally boil down to economic inequality, not racial inequality, and that racial inequality in other areas are a subset of economic inequality. That is his message.”

“I don’t know how he gets away from it, but he has to revise his message in a way that African Americans voters, in a much larger way, become interested in what he is doing,” Reid said. “Otherwise, he is just energizing the liberal white wing of the party. But that is not going to help in South Carolina or Florida. And that is not going to help him when he gets outside of New Hampshire and Iowa. That is his fundamental problem.”

Black Supporters Believe Sanders Has a Shot

Jamaal Green of Portland, Oregon, says Sanders already has his vote and more potential black voters will follow him by the time the primary season begins. Green, who is originally from Washington, DC, knows most black people don’t share his views. Yet that is why he credits the Black Lives Matter movement for challenging Sanders’ civil rights record, something he feels is a healthy exercise for the campaign.

“He was rightly targeted by activists because, number one, he was making public statements and meeting people, whereas Clinton is really big on having private parties with major funders,” Green, a PhD student at Portland State University, said. “Part of why I think people are locked on Bernie is because he is the only one who has put himself out there in the Democratic field to actually be critiqued and exposed and questioned. Whereas, Clinton has been insulated thus far.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 74 percent of black, Latino and other non-white women view Clinton favorably. That is far better than the 37 percent of white women who view her favorably, down from 48 percent in July. For now, it seems like female minority support for Clinton will hold, at least until Sanders can articulate how his vision for the country is better for them in the long run.

One black woman AlterNet spoke with is already convinced. Summer Martin, a 35-year-old African American from Dallas, says if the primaries were held tomorrow, “I’d vote for Sanders without even thinking about it.”

When the senator visited her city in July, Martin says the crowd was very much on the “whiter side,” yet small pockets of minorities were there cheering Sanders on. For Summer Martin, Sanders' message of racial injustice resonates.

“It’s clearcut and it is inclusive of us,” she said. “Particularly as a black woman in America. So what he needs to do now is be better with articulating that message to the country."

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