Are Bernie and Hillary enabling that "national conversation" on race we forgot to have?

Black and Latino voters will almost certainly decide the outcome — and whoever wins, it's a turning point

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 20, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders (R) meets with the Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, February 10, 2016.   (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
Bernie Sanders (R) meets with the Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, February 10, 2016. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Less than 10 minutes after CNN called the New Hampshire primary for Bernie Sanders, Tad Devine, the veteran Democratic operative who is the Sanders campaign’s chief strategist, was standing in the gym of Concord High School talking to reporters about the importance of the black vote in South Carolina and the Latino vote in Nevada. There was nothing remotely surprising about that: Whether the Sanders surge is an exclusively or predominantly white phenomenon is the $27 question, ha ha. Everything Devine said was entirely predictable too, and came straight from the script that Sanders’ people have been delivering for months: Voters of color in other regions of the country are going to love Bernie “once they get to know him.”

I didn’t hear any conscious condescension in those banal talking points, which may well have been uttered word for word by Devine in 2004, when he worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign. He would apply the same insider-baseball formulas to a question about the Jewish vote in Florida or the labor vote in Michigan. (Or the fabled suburban moms of election cycles gone by.) But admittedly, I might not be well positioned to hear such condescension. I can understand why some African-American and Latino observers have objected to a tone of paternalism or “Bernie-splaining,” to the implication that their communities require a remedial course in economic injustice, delivered by some hirsute white male undergrad from UMass or Oberlin.

How well Devine and his candidate understand that issue, and how well they adjust to it, may well determine the outcome of this campaign. The first chapter of the unexpectedly dramatic contest between Sanders and Hillary Clinton has emphasized a wide gender split, and an even wider generational split, within the largely white electorate of Iowa and New Hampshire. Those factors will continue to be central to the drama, without a doubt. As I wrote in this space last week, the complicated and sometimes tormented gender politics of the Hillary-Bernie showdown have permeated the entire spectacle, with progressive and feminist women (who represent a majority of the Democratic electorate) engaged in unprecedented levels of internal debate.

Now the plot thickens. Clinton’s national lead over Sanders in opinion polls has dwindled or, in some surveys, disappeared entirely. Will those gender and generational divisions replicate themselves in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, where at least one-third of the Democratic electorate is Latino? Or in the South Carolina primary next week, where roughly half the Democratic electorate is African-American? Or in the long list of diverse and delegate-rich states across the South, Midwest and Southwest who will vote in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1? Those are known unknowns, but here’s a known: African-American and Latino voters will prove decisive in selecting the Democratic nominee, and quite likely the next president. Everyone in both campaigns would agree about that.

What used to be called the “minority vote,” which until recently mostly meant African-Americans in big cities (too often understood as an undifferentiated bloc), has long been an important factor in Democratic politics. You can go back at least as far as the 1968 campaign, amid a year of near-revolutionary chaos, and see Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey trying to attach themselves to the legacy of the martyred Martin Luther King Jr., and seeking endorsements from civil-rights leaders and prominent black preachers. You can go back a lot further, if you stretch the point: As early as 1908, when the Democratic Party overtly supported white supremacy in the South, William Jennings Bryan — who was pretty much the Bernie Sanders of his day — tried to attract African-Americans to his populist uprising, and won the endorsement of W.E.B. Du Bois. (Actual black voters, an infinitesimal group at the time, stuck with his Republican opponent, William Howard Taft.)

Bill Clinton, of course, thrived on his perceived comfort level with African-Americans, and won an Obama-level proportion of the black vote during his two campaigns. One could discern a minor-key preview of the Clinton-Sanders race in the 2004 primary contest between Kerry and John Edwards, who competed vigorously for African-American support across the South. But in all those cases, Bill Clinton included, the black vote was perceived as a unitary interest group, which tended to hold cautious, conservative views on all topics except racial justice. The pitch was essentially that Democrats were the party of civil rights and wanted to consolidate and extend those historic gains, in the face of a crypto-racist Republican opposition that was eager to roll them back.

But this year — at least to this middle-aged white observer — feels different. Whatever demographic shorthand they may employ, and whatever messaging missteps they may commit, no one in either the Clinton or Sanders campaigns believes that African-American and Latino voters can be won over this time around with a few church sermons, a few celebrity endorsements and a few Spanish-language commercials. MSNBC reporter Trymaine Lee recently delivered an amusing riff on Chris Hayes’ show about the longstanding tendency of Democratic candidates to show up in black churches shortly before Election Day, armed with Biblical quotations and sounding more down-home, more cadenced, than at any time previously or thereafter.

Don’t get me wrong: We’ve already heard those speeches and seen plenty of such packaged events, and the whole spectacle is just warming up. (How many Al Sharpton photo-ops can one primary season stand?) Clinton has Kerry Washington and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC in her corner; Sanders has Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. But I sincerely doubt that the family members of African-Americans killed by police have ever previously been coveted endorsements: The mother of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas, is standing with Hillary; the daughter of Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York, made a moving TV ad for Bernie.

We have never seen a national campaign conducted between two white candidates that so vigorously and aggressively sought to reach voters of color on the issues, as well as through symbolism and emotion and vague slurs delivered by proxies against one’s opponent and all the other tactics of electioneering. It’s an extraordinary turn of events and a historical opening. It’s almost as if Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, of all unlikely people, are enabling a spontaneous version of that “national conversation” about race that we never had under Barack Obama.

I’m as cynical as anyone about the dysfunctional state of American electoral democracy in general and the Democratic Party in particular. Nothing could exemplify that better than the bizarre fact that the so-called party of the multiracial, diverse American future is torn between two Social Security-age white folks, each of whom comes with abundant question marks and significant potential for electoral catastrophe. (One of the ingredients in Bernie Sanders’ secret sauce, and I’m serious about this, is that he’s not another boomer candidate. He’s too damn old! He was born three months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.)

But I believe this campaign offers extraordinary possibilities and an extraordinary sign of hope, no matter who wins. I just made 100 percent of everybody crazy-angry, and I’m sorry. But I mean it. (Yes, I’m still dubious about Sanders’ chances, purely on analytical grounds. But, boy, has the ground shifted! Can you feel me starting to hedge?) I think the fact that Sanders and Clinton are working so hard to position themselves as spokespeople for racial justice and as the best possible candidates for African-Americans and Latinos — and that voters in those communities will pretty much get to pick the winner — is far more important than the outcome.

That’s infuriating to loyalists on both sides, no doubt. I’m definitely not saying that there are no significant differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, on issues of racial justice or on many other things. They represent widely differing views of American society and the global economy, and stand on opposite sides of a yawning ideological gulf within the left-liberal spectrum of American politics that can no longer be papered over or rationalized away. I’m not impressed by the blithe party-unity argument that they’re both wonderful and that “we” will be in great shape come November. Of course many Bernie supporters will yank the lever for Hillary if they have to, and vice versa. But neither side will feel all that great about it.

If you want 2016-grade cynicism, I can do that: If Clinton is elected president, the bad stuff she does will pretty much cancel out the good stuff (if not worse), and nothing fundamental will change. If Sanders is elected, he will enact very little of his ambitious agenda on much of anything, and nothing fundamental will change. Their presidencies would feel enormously different and might possess all sorts of symbolic importance — but would also, almost certainly, be weird and maddening and depressing.

But this campaign is a different story. Our zany comedy duo of improbable senior-citizen candidates has spoken eloquently and directly to audiences of color (and to the rest of us) about mass incarceration and police violence, about reforming unjust drug laws that target black and Latino youth and reforming a broken immigration system that has consigned millions of people who pay taxes and perform essential low-wage jobs to lives of fear in the social shadows.

A few minutes after Tad Devine’s impromptu press conference, I ran into Symone Sanders (no relation to Bernie), who is the campaign’s press secretary and its most prominent African-American voice, standing in a Concord High corridor providing sound bites to a reporter from Swiss-German radio. Her troops, she assured European listeners, were ready to take the gospel of Bernie into black churches, barbershops and restaurants across the South. There was nothing especially surprising about her presence or what she said either. Every campaign hires “outreach coordinators,” people of color tasked with crafting messages for specific communities. Even Republicans do it (the ones whose names don’t start with “T” and end with “rump”), if only to keep up appearances.

But Symone Sanders is the press secretary, not a specialist in racially coded messaging. She’s near the top of the Bernie brain trust, and the optics of an African-American woman in her mid-20s delivering the campaign’s talking points are obviously different from Devine’s boys-in-the-back-room bluster mode, even if the message was the same. Symone Sanders is more representative of the Bernie team than you might think: Even in the nearly all-white context of New Hampshire, it was striking how quickly the Sanders campaign has staffed up, and how many black and brown faces you saw in the group. Its organizing effort in Nevada has largely been Latino and bilingual; its ground forces in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states are heavily African-American.

I’m sure the same thing has happened on the Clinton side, although you get the clear impression that her team was surprised by the speed and agility with which the Sanders operation has reinvented itself (especially after its clumsy interactions with Black Lives Matter protesters last year). This may be oversimplifying things, but Sanders is essentially betting that young Latinos and young African-Americans are more similar to young whites, in their interests and concerns, than different. Economic inequality, universal healthcare, debt-free college and a $15 minimum wage are not “white” issues, in the Sanders calculus.

Clinton is betting on a more traditional model of Democratic coalition-building and identity politics, in which communities of color still perceive themselves as distinctive social groupings focused on specific benchmarks of progress and a seat at the table of power. She hopes to capitalize on her long association with civil-rights leaders and institutions, and she hopes that African-Americans and Latinos are more comfortable with a modest, pragmatic reform agenda -- bracketed by the accepted assumptions of neoliberal economics -- than with Sanders’ sweeping vision of revolutionary social change.

Which of these perceptions is closer to being correct in this election? No doubt Tad Devine and Robby Mook, his counterpart on the Clinton campaign, have devoted many terabytes of computer modeling and many reams of pseudo-scientific data to this question. They could bore us at great length with hypotheses, but they don’t know the answer. The question itself, and the transformed landscape that lies beneath it, is the important part. People of color are now and forevermore central to the political future of the Democratic Party and the political future of America. Not as an undifferentiated mass to be driven to the polls by fear and longing, to vote for the less bad option, but as a culturally, economically and intellectually diverse group of citizens. In other words, as full participants in democracy at last. Whoever prevails in 2016, there is no way back to the old politics of empty symbolism and polite condescension.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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