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Senator Bernie Sanders doesn’t get race!  He gets economics, he gets Wall Street, he gets trade, and he gets distribution.  He just doesn’t get race.  Perhaps one of his lowest moments in this campaign happened about a month ago (February 13) in Minneapolis.  A woman asked him to directly address “black people and reparations”.  He replied by pulling some lines from his stump speech, talking about wealth inequality, child poverty and investing in poor countries.  From the audience, someone hollered, “say black”, and Saunders, in a fit of pique, declared that he’d said “black” fifty times,  “Alright,” he said, “that makes it fifty-one”.  How churlish!

His crass response to an honest concern made it clear that Sanders thinks that race matters are less important than economic issues.  He’d hit a home run if he ever decided to acknowledge the ways the two are intertwined.  Our capitalist economic system was buttressed by the use of people as property and it still is.   Profits in the prison industrial complex are determined by the number of people our paramilitary police forces can incarcerate for crimes major or petty. Some of the companies that incarcerate use African American male population to project their capacity and profits years into the future.  Race is a social construction designed to maximize the potential for capitalistic exploitation of a subset of the population.  Even as all working people are exploited (and Bernie gets that), African American workers and the unemployed are all the more exploited.  The reality of black joblessness facilitates the exploitation of working class whites that fear that African Americans (or immigrants) will “take” their jobs.

Senator Sanders gets joblessness, homelessness and hopelessness, but he is nearly clueless when it comes to race.  He belongs to the rising tide school, the same one both President Obama and Secretary Clinton belong to.  If economic conditions improve, they think, then black folks will be better off, too.  Better off, I say, but still behind, and with a huge income and wealth gap.  And if the economic system changes, as democratic socialist Sanders would advocate, African Americans would be better off.  Would that deal with the gap?  You can’t deal with economics without dealing with race if you hope to address the concerns of African American people.  Senator Sanders testy show of impatience when a woman asked him to speak to race in Minneapolis labeled him as clueless.

While Sanders is clueless, Secretary Hilary Rodham Clinton comes off as smugly condescending.  She knows race matters, she knows black folks, and we are her friends.  Beginning with her association with Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, and moving through her more than three decades in public life, she has been an advocate for children, for civil rights and for women’s rights.  But then there is that prison thing.  She regrets, she says, her 1994 support of the Omnibus Crime Bill that fast tracked so many African Americans to long-term incarceration.  She backs away from incendiary language when she described people as “predators”.  But she presents with a tone of entitlement.  She expects the black vote, and she counted on that vote to get her through Michigan.  It didn’t happen.

Secretary Clinton enjoys the support of most African Americans over 50; the young’uns aren’t bound by tradition.  They don’t owe Hilary, and they want her to work for their vote.  Working and condescending isn’t the same thing.  Those who are under 30 or 40 don’t want to hear what you did “back in the day”.  They want to know what you are doing now. They don’t want pandering or “Hispandering” (a great term lobbed at Clinton by Univision anchor and debate moderator Maria Elena Salinas).  They want a candidate they can trust.

African Americans need to wake up and smell the coffee, though.  We should not expect any candidate to feel our pain or to “get” race.  Afropandering (after much resistance, you decide that maybe the #Black Lives Matter activists have a point) can be expected from both “friends of long standing” (Hilary’s term) and friends of scant acquaintance.  Vermont black folks don’t have much to say about Senator Sanders, positive or negative.  That ought to say something.

More than twenty years ago, author Kenneth O’Reilly wrote Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton. Too often, according to O’Reilly, presidents sacrificed civil rights for white votes.  Thus, President John F. Kennedy, revered for his civil rights stance (because of a telephone call to Coretta Scott King when Dr. King was incarcerated) may really have been a “civil rights minimalist”.  President Lyndon Johnson’s championship of civil rights was swallowed by the huge cost of the Vietnam War.  The cover of the book shows then-Vice President Spiro Agnew sitting at a piano at the annual Gridiron Club event, cracking racial jokes at Nixon’s behest.  And President Clinton, the man Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison described as “the first black president” was only “black” because he played to the stereotypes – playing the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, talking about his undies in public (boxers or briefs – none of your business).  While he had great “black” affinity, he threw black folks under the bus with welfare deform and the crime bill.

Bottom line – neither Bernie Sanders nor Hilary Clinton is going to get it right on race, and we should not expect it.  Heck, President Barack Obama didn’t get it right, and he could have.  Now we are stuck between a know-it-all who is condescending on race, and a myopic Vermonter who is clueless.  And then there are these gaggles of Republicans who are positively and pathetically out of touch.  Which do we prefer?

Dr. Julianne Malveaux

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a member of the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), an economist, author and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University at Los Angeles.