Bernie Sanders Reached Out to Black Voters. Why Didn’t It Work?

By March 11, 2020 Commentaries/Opinions
Bernie Sanders

The democratic socialist champions underrepresented groups. So far they’ve voted, en masse, for his rival.

By Adam Harris, The Atlantic

Two years ago, Bernie Sanders journeyed south to trace the history of a past revolution, and to imagine a new one.

On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., thousands of people gathered on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, for a rally and a march. Sanders was one of the speakers. He took the stage and gripped the podium with one hand, the microphone with the other. “Dr. King was not just a great civil-rights leader,” Sanders, who had not officially announced that he would run for president again, said. “He was a nonviolent revolutionary!” The crowd broke into applause as he paused for a moment. “He was a man who wanted to transform our country morally, economically, and racially.” It wasn’t enough to simply remember King, Sanders explained: People needed to follow in his footsteps.

Later that day he traveled farther south, to Jackson, Mississippi, where, in June 1963, the famous civil-right activist Medgar Evers—who led economic boycotts and voter-registration drives in the state—was murdered in his driveway by a white supremacist after an NAACP meeting. The city’s mayor is now Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a 36-year-old who wants to make Jackson the most “radical city on the planet.” Onstage at the Thalia Mara Concert Hall, the pair had an hour-long conversation about economic exploitation—one of the three evils King railed against—and economic justice.

Each stop on Sanders’s journey through the South doubled as early outreach to a demographic he would desperately need if and when he sought the presidency again.

Sanders’s agenda—dismantling broken systems and replacing them with ones that benefit working-class people, regardless of race—is intimately bound up with the nation’s civil-rights legacy. But, some argue, Sanders has struggled to clearly articulate that connection in a way that earns black voters’ support.

When Sanders first ran for president, in 2016, he excited white progressives who were not interested in Hillary Clinton’s brand of moderate politics. His base was young and energetic, but it was light on black support. Sure, a small majority of black voters under 30 supported him, but they made up just 3 percent of the black electorate in the primary. Black activists argued that his campaign did not pay enough attention to racial violence and inequities in the criminal-justice system. His speeches were frequently interrupted by members of Black Lives Matter, who sought to push candidates to be more aggressive on racial issues. They attempted similar protests of Clinton but were stymied. (At least on one occasion, they were blocked at the door by Secret Service agents.) Clinton’s events were stage-managed to the finest detail; Sanders’s were more DIY and raucous.

Sanders has admitted that his 2016 campaign was “too white.” Indeed, his inability to excite a large group of voters beyond his majority-white base led to a pummeling across the South. Older black voters knew Clinton; Sanders was the one rolling the boulder uphill. He lost the black vote by 90 percent in Arkansas, by 86 percent in South Carolina, and by 89 percent in Tennessee. In Missouri, where he lost by the slim margin of 0.2 percent, he lost the black vote by 67 percent.

For many voters, the 2016 election was their first introduction to the Vermont senator with the unkempt hair and radical ideas. He knew more people would know his name if he ran again in 2020, but he needed to do more: He needed to hire a more diverse staff, attend events at historically black colleges and universities, speak to black media and black people directly, and, perhaps more than anything, listen to black voices.

He did all that. But despite his efforts, the support never quite materialized. From the South Carolina primary through Super Tuesday, among black voters, Sanders was trounced by former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders offered a revolution; voters rebuffed it. The black people who did support Sanders tended to be younger—and young people tend to vote at lower rates than older people do.

Tonight, exit polls showed that Sanders lost the black vote in Mississippi by 71 points—84 percent of black voters supported Biden, and just 13 percent supported Sanders. Sanders’s performance among black voters was just 2 percentage points better than it was in 2016. Cable networks called the race as soon as the polls closed: another decisive victory in the South for Biden.

The stagnant numbers raise interesting questions: Does Sanders’s revolution simply need more time? Did voters not know enough about what his policies could do for them? Or, more plainly, did they simply prefer Biden? If the Sanders movement—Not me. Us—is going to win, either now or in the future, it needs to figure out a way to sway southern black voters to its cause.

Some black people in the South are already on board for radical change, though, and they are trying to bring others with them.

Lumumba, whose beard is just beginning to show flecks of gray at its ends, is a rising star of progressive politics. And he’s seen the limitations of politics as practiced.

“No matter who’s been president, no matter whether we’ve been told that the economy is thriving or we’re in a recession, we’ve still been at the bottom,” Lumumba told me during his layover in Atlanta on Friday. He was headed to Detroit to join Sanders for a rally before the Michigan primary. “People may participate in the pageantry because they don’t believe that it’s really going to affect their lives in a grand way.”

Voting becomes pageantry when those who do so aren’t able to actively engage with the candidates, their staffs, and, most important, their ideas, he said. A contender shouldn’t become the candidate through an exercise less participatory than procedural, he argued. He hoped that the people of his city—which is more than 80 percent black—would be able to experience the political process more deeply this time around.

In mid-February, Arekia Bennett, an organizer with Mississippi Votes and the Movement for Black Lives, staged a “people’s caucus,” which involved more than 100 residents of Jackson. The event gave voters a chance to hear directly from staff members representing several candidates, including Biden, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg. Sanders won the caucus’s mock vote overwhelmingly, and Lumumba based his endorsement on that result.

It was an intimate experience, the kind of thing Lumumba had imagined when he and three other southern black mayors wrote an open letter to candidates last September. The letter outlined the roadmap for 2020 Democrats to win not only their support, but the support of their communities. “We didn’t want it to be a perfunctory experience,” he told me. “It needed to be substantive.”

But a little over 100 people is hardly representative of all of Jackson, a city of roughly 170,000. “My fear in Jackson, just like my fear around the nation, is that not enough people get a chance to experience that,” Lumumba confessed. “That was a small sample size of the city in an atypical situation not only for Jackson to get to experience, but that most other southern states don’t get to experience.”

The primary process is such that candidates spend inordinate amounts of time and money in very white states—Iowa and New Hampshire—trying to convince voters that they are the right candidate to address their issues. That creates a lopsided process in which voters in places like Sumter County, Alabama, and Leflore County, Mississippi, have very little interaction with the presidential nominating contest. That does not mean voters in these states are uninformed; rather, they are not able to engage with contenders in the same way as they would if they lived in a place like Sioux City, Iowa. “People feel more comfortable when you can stand toe-to-toe with them and let them know what you stand for,” Lumumba told me. “That’s their opportunity to kind of gauge your sincerity.”

Sanders has been criticized in recent weeks for skipping events where he might have had the opportunity to engage with more southern black voters. He did not attend the Bloody Sunday march in Selma after losing to Biden in the South Carolina primary, and canceled a rally in Jackson—where he was expected to appear with Lumumba—in order to campaign in the vital primary state of Michigan. (“I can’t imagine the demands of a national campaign,” Lumumba told me, and Sanders is not a stranger to the city, having held events there in the past, “so we understand.”)

When I asked Lumumba about how the primary process could have gone differently for Sanders, he stopped for a moment. Then he considered how Sanders performed in caucuses rather than primaries; perhaps if there were ranked-choice voting, as in the Jackson people’s caucus, Sanders would have won a larger share of black voters. But he kept coming back to a central theme: If only more people knew how radically different their lives could be—perhaps then they would join the revolution.

Sanders’s movement believes that progressive politics can fundamentally change lives by raising wages and making college affordable and health care more accessible. This is the message Jesse Jackson preached when he ran for president in 1984 and 1988. And it’s the one that led Jackson to endorse Sanders on Sunday. “A people far behind cannot catch up choosing the most moderate path,” Jackson said.

If Jackson’s endorsement had come prior to Super Tuesday, it might have helped Sanders’s stock among older black voters. “It really anchors the progressive movement to a long-standing civil-rights agenda,” Katherine Tate, a professor at Brown University who studies black-voter behavior, told me. Her research has shown that black voters have become less liberal since the 1970s, and that they often take cues from elected officials who are willing to compromise on moderate policies.

Christopher Towler, an assistant professor at Sacramento State who runs the Black Voter Project, a public-opinion-survey outfit, agrees. His research has found that black voters are most enthusiastic about candidates whose messages are framed by racial progressivism. “African Americans prioritize their racial identity more often than not, especially when it comes to politics,” he told me. And that’s particularly true of older black voters, “because everything that has been political in their lives has also been racial.”

When Representative Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip from South Carolina, endorsed Biden, he explicitly made that connection. Barack Obama’s election is synonymous with racial progress, and Biden is inextricably linked to Barack Obama. “Joe will build on President Obama’s legacy,” Clyburn said as he announced his endorsement. Obama remains the most popular Democrat in America, and several candidates—now including Sanders—have used his purported stamp of approval in ads as a way to gain support not only among black voters but among Democrats more broadly.

But Jackson’s endorsement could have potentially served as a counterweight to Clyburn’s, potentially blunting the beating in South Carolina and preventing the Biden wave on Super Tuesday. (A spokesperson for Jackson, Shelley Davis, told me that Jackson did not endorse sooner because he had been in active conversations with Elizabeth Warren, who departed the race after Super Tuesday. The Biden campaign, he said, did not contact Jackson seeking his support.)

Still, even with Jackson’s endorsement, a revolution was not what black voters were after this time around, Tate suggested. “Had this been any other election without Donald Trump in the race, we would have seen a more earnest battle between the more progressive and moderate elements in the black electorate,” she said. That may be why the most diverse field in history has been winnowed to two white men in their 70s.

Trump is a powerful motivator, but he shouldn’t be the only one, Lumumba said. “I certainly agree that [Trump is] important, but I want it to be substantively different for people living in Mississippi,” he told me. “And just being focused on [Trump] does not serve that end.”

He paraphrased a quote from the Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin: “We can’t just dismantle the world that we don’t want to live in,” he says. “We have to be the most active participants in creating the world that we do.” Sanders, Lumumba, and other progressives, much like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. before them, are convinced that means radical change.They just have to find a way to convince black voters, too.

Sanders’s movement will outlast him. And its next leaders are unlikely to be elderly white men from Vermont. Lumumba is 36, old enough to run for president. And Sanders’s most important and effective surrogate, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will turn 35 in 2024. “In order for us to win, we have to grow,” she told 10,000 Sanders supporters in Michigan on Sunday. “We must be inclusive. We must bring more people into this movement.”


This article was originally published by The Atlantic. Featured image by Scott Olson, Getty.

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