As Democratic primaries and caucuses in more diverse states approach, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are locked in a complex battle for the black vote.
Both candidates find themselves with powerful allies. The former head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, threw his support behind Sanders, saying in a recent interview black voters need to compare the candidate records:
In the 80s, [Clinton] chaired the Children’s Defense Fund, but then in the 90s the CDF came out with the “super predator” theory, which said there were some kids who were so sociopathic by age six months that they were beyond redemption… And [the theory] was not used against young white men in Columbine, it was almost always used to explain the actions of young urban black men…
It comes down to the trio that MLK referred to as the triplets of evil: racism, militarism, and greed. Bernie Sanders has been very consistent in fighting racism, in fighting stupid wars–Vietnam or Iraq, [and] he has been very consistent in fighting greed. When you take those with Hillary, it just gets confusing, confusing.
Jealous also pointed to out at the same time Sanders was involved in the civil rights movement in Chicago, Clinton supported Barry Goldwater, a Republican.
Others condemned Clinton’s support for actions Bill Clinton took during his time in office. On Wednesday, Michelle Alexander, author of the famous The New Jim Crow, wrote a scathing article in The Nation entitled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”
While stressing “this is not an endorsement for Bernie Sanders,” Alexander says legislation like Bill Clinton’s crime bill and welfare reform, which Hillary Clinton supported, “decimated black America.”
She marvels at how fellow blacks are “eager to get played,” at their support for Clinton and her husband:
What have the Clintons done to earn such devotion? Did they take extreme political risks to defend the rights of African Americans? Did they courageously stand up to right-wing demagoguery about black communities? Did they help usher in a new era of hope and prosperity for neighborhoods devastated by deindustrialization, globalization, and the disappearance of work? No. Quite the opposite.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me and a famous article in The Atlantic called “The Case for Reparations,” said on Wednesday he would be voting for Sanders (but rejects the term “supporter”).
Coates (a critic of Sanders’ opposition to reparations), while noting Sanders also voted for Bill Clinton’s crime law, said Clinton’s support for the law and her Wall Street ties were concerning, and that he supports Sanders’ push to guarantee free college tuition for all and fight inequality and poverty.
Civil rights activist and actor Harry Belafonte, actor Danny Glover, rapper Killer Mike, and democratic socialist Cornel West, author of Race Matters, have endorsed Sanders. While Black Lives Matter has yet to endorse either, the lawyer for Walter Scott’s family recently switched his support from Clinton to Sanders, and Eric Garner’s daughter endorsed Sanders, starring in a powerful new video explaining her decision. Walter Scott and Eric Garner were killed in altercations with police.
Sanders met with Al Sharpton this week, but has yet to get his endorsement.
But Clinton has powerful support as well. On Thursday, the political action committee of the Congressional Black Caucus, comprised of 20 politicians and lobbyists, endorsed Hillary Clinton. Civil rights legend John Lewis questioned Sanders’ civil rights activism, declaring:
I never saw [Sanders]. I never met him. I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved with the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery and directed [the] voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President [Bill] Clinton.
Supporters of Sanders, such a writer for Mother Jones, were quick to point out Sanders’ civil rights work was indeed “brief and localized” when compared to Lewis’, but considering Sanders was involved with the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Chicago–whereas Lewis worked in Southern states–they were unlikely to meet. Further, the March on Washington, which Sanders attended and Lewis spoke at, comprised hundreds of thousands of people. Sanders protested and organized sit-ins against police brutality and segregation during his time at the University of Chicago.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus that may lean toward Sanders noted the political action committee of the Caucus is a separate group. Congressman Keith Ellison tweeted emphatically that the Caucus itself “has NOT endorsed” a candidate and that the PAC decision was made “withOUT input from CBC membership, including me.”
The CBC as an organization represents the black members of Congress. U.S. Uncut, a popular liberal website, implied opening the decision to members might have helped Sanders, quoting The Intercept as saying,
Every major union or progressive organization that let its members have a vote endorsed Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, all of Hillary Clinton’s major group endorsements come from organizations where the leaders decide.
Some members of organizations that backed Clinton, like those of the Human Rights Campaign, rose up in rebellion over leader decisions.
But Clinton also has black actress Angela Bassett, famous for performances in What’s Love Got to Do With It? and most recently American Horror Story and Chi-Raq, speaking at campaign rallies for her. At a recent event at South Carolina State University,
Bassett said Clinton does care about black families, pointing to her work with the Children’s Defense Fund and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The actress also said Clinton is ready to have conversations about incarceration and the role of the government pertaining to black families.
As the candidates vie for support, this week Charles M. Blow of The New York Times condemned Sanders supporters for what he perceives as condescending attitudes toward black voters. His articled was called “Stop Bernie-Splaining to Black Voters.”
Frustrated by the “black people are voting against their interests [if they choose Clinton]” argument, Blow writes:
If only black people knew more, understood better, where the candidates stood — now and over their lifetimes — they would make a better choice, the right choice. The level of condescension in these comments is staggering.
Sanders is a solid candidate and his integrity and earnestness are admirable, but that can get lost in the noise of advocacy.
Tucked among all this Bernie-splaining by some supporters, it appears to me, is a not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage that I find so grossly offensive that it boggles the mind that such language should emanate from the mouths—or keyboards—of supposed progressives.
Blow believes this reflects old, racist ideas “that black folks are infantile and must be told what to do and what to think.”
For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.