Why Bernie Sanders’s civil rights activism doesn’t (really) matter

A few weeks ago Shaun King published an article on Jacobin magazine’s website entitled Why Bernie Sanders’s history of racial justice activism matters.. Of course his racial justice activism “matters.” It mattered to Black students who wanted to inhabit the University of Chicago’s dormitories on a non-segregated basis. It mattered to Black Chicago Public Schools students who felt their city, state and country owed them more for classrooms than sweltering rat traps in the summer that doubled as freezing rat traps in the winter. It also matters that Sanders was not among the Whites who viciously assaulted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to Chicago. All of it matters. The question is rarely whether or not any part of history “matters.” The question is how much and why? Shaun King argues that Sanders’s civil rights activity says much of what we need to know about Sanders as a person. It does say much, but there is more that needs to be said, because what Bernie Sanders was doing in the five decades between 1968 and 2016 matters too.

Sanders leading a protest at University of Chicago

Bernie Sanders was living and politicking in Vermont. Vermont is 94% non-Hispanic White, and .87% Black. This is the most diverse Vermont has ever been. Every political office Sanders has ever held has been held in Vermont, which means that for the entirety of his political career, before running for the Democratic nomination; he never had to grapple electorally with the opinions of non-White voters. With regard to his civil rights record, it means that while Sanders certainly demonstrated a clear commitment to racial justice in Chicago, and whatever sense of commitment he may have continued to have after he graduated; in the all important year 1968, when the time came to fight for the perilously held fruits of the civil rights revolution; Bernie Sanders, child of Brooklyn, Chicago agitator, departed the frontlines of America’s fraught racial landscape to settle far behind the sidelines. As Nixon’s southern strategy and a massive White backlash turned hope into despair and faith into fear; as the reactionary “silent majority” ensured that the work of activists in cities like New York and Chicago ran up against a viciously racist onslaught, Sanders felt no pressing need to steel himself and fight back. If Sanders’s civil rights work speaks volumes about his personality, what does this say?

Identity politics 7

My purpose here is not to scrutinize Sanders’s life choices circa 1968, residency decisions are made for any number of reasons, personal, political, arbitrary. When Sanders moved to rural Vermont, I don’t know if he had any sense that he would ever run for mayor, much less senator, much less president. He might have meant to be leaving politics for good, it doesn’t really matter.

My point is, that if Sanders’s civil rights activism is to be treated as indicative of some deep commitment to the fight for racial justice, what lessons are we to draw from the years between 1968 and 2016 when Sanders was largely invisible to Black America? May we suppose Black America was invisible to him? He certainly didn’t need our votes, which is typically the only thing that gets politicians to pay attention.


Which brings us into the 21st century. In 2014 Sanders did an interview for NPR’s Morning Edition. When Steve Inskeep asked Sanders about the Democratic party’s losses among the White working class, Sanders seemed to insist on a version of history in which the White working class left the Democratic party because the Democrats weren’t standing up for them. It beggars belief to argue that millions of working class voters would stop voting Democrat because they felt the Democrats didn’t stand up to Wall Street enough, and then turn to the party of union busting and corporate tax cutting. It affronts credibility to argue that even though the working class voters the Democrats lost are mostly White, even though the poor and working classes are disproportionately not White; that the post civil rights movement White backlash isn’t a major ongoing culprit. While Sanders didn’t explicitly deny the influence of Nixon’s Southern strategy and Reagan’s dog whistling, he effectively ignored this dynamic even going so far as to say:

“And the African-American community is very, very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. And that’s kind of natural. You got a situation where the Republican Party has been strongly anti-immigration. And you’ve got a Hispanic community, which is looking to the Democrats for help. But that’s not important. You should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, how is your family doing?”– Bernie Sanders

In response to Steve Inskeep pointing out that the Democrats were effectively maintaining the support of the non-White working class, Sanders ignored the five decades of Black voters supporting White Democratic candidates to characterize their support as a “natural” response to Barack Obama, and assured the Hispanic community that their concerns about xenophobia were “not important,” before presuming to tell these communities that they are voting “based on” “color.” These are not the words of a racist, these are not the words of somebody irrevocably unfit to be the standard bearer of a progressive movement; they are the words of a professional politician who has never in that capacity had to respond to a non-White constituency and its concerns. I was introduced to Sanders through this interview, and I suspect I’m not the only one. To say the least, it wasn’t a great a introduction.


His rhetoric certainly got less jarring as the cycle wore on; he still won only 26% of Black voters to Clinton’s 75%. It should not surprise that a candidate who has spent most of his political career isolated from non-White voters had trouble connecting with them, a problem compounded by the raw power of the “Clinton machine.” It seems unlikely that Sanders will have overcome this deficit in time for the 2020 primaries. But more importantly, why should we put ourselves in a position where that’s what this movement has to depend on? Surely Sanders is not the only human being in this country capable of arguing for universal healthcare, a $15 minimum wage and free college. Moreover, what sense does it make for the progressive faction, as it seeks to capture the Democratic party’s nomination, to tie itself to a candidate who has already demonstrated an inability to connect with the most loyal and fastest growing portion of the Democratic electorate?

Cable-news wisdom aside, the Democratic nominee is not chosen in Iowa and New Hampshire, no matter how much the scoop-hungry media chooses to fixate on these contests. The Democratic nomination is won or lost in South Carolina and in the South where, among Democrats, Black voters reign supreme. Iowa may have made Barack Obama seem viable by showing he could win White voters, but, it was South Carolina that turned Barack Obama from a surprisingly effective dark horse into a juggernaut. Obama won 33 state contests to Clinton’s 23; 8 of the states that broke for Obama were in the South. The Black, Southern electorate’s solid support even allowed Obama to overcome Clinton’s solid establishment support, as in Virginia where the support of a sitting governor and senator availed her little. Clinton initially enjoyed the support of many prominent Black politicians, the Black masses turned to Obama and sent these would-be power brokers scrambling after the people they claimed to lead. Obama’s ability to outrun the Clinton machine was further aided by a greatly expanded primary electorate, reflecting the unmatched excitement he inspired among Black voters. In 2004, about 210,000 voters participated in the 2004 Democratic primary in South Carolina; in 2008, 530,000 turned out. 2016 saw an electorate which remained larger than that of the 2004 primary, still, turnout had shrunk to 368,000. What this shows is the power that accrues to a candidate who knows how to mobilize Black voters. What the progressive wing of the Democratic party has to ask itself is how much are we willing to wager on Bernie Sanders having become that candidate? Sanders’s manifest disadvantages overall and among non-White voters in particular were compounded by his strange unwillingness to do the, admittedly monumental, work that might have allowed him to stage an upset.

Sanders won voters under 30 by a sizeable margin (72% to Clinton’s 28%) and it was among this age group that Sanders had his strongest foothold with Black voters. While he lost Black South Carolinians 30 and under by 14 points, compared to his 72 point loss with South Carolina’s Black voters overall, this counts as a near miss and reflects his message’s powerful resonance with young voters across racial lines. Any candidate would have needed to fight powerfully to turn this small advantage into a game changing one. The conventional wisdom, including among his Black outreach staff, is that Sanders didn’t. The key to Black youth outreach would logically have been historically Black colleges which, in addition to holding massive symbolic power, tend to be situated at the center of Black communities. Bernie Sanders did hold rallies at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, South Carolina and Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee; there was just one important element missing: Bernie Sanders. In both cases he allowed surrogates to hold rallies while declining to be present himself. Clinton, on the other hand went to Orangeburg’s Claflin University in 2015 and then held another rally, in absentia, a year later headlined by Angela Bassett, not a bad substitute. 2015 also saw Hillary Clinton giving a Nashville speech in Fisk University’s gymnasium. All of this served to enhance Clinton’s already prodigious lead with Black voters.

None of this erases, mitigates or modifies all the reasons Hillary Clinton was, at most, the second best candidate for the Democratic party’s nomination for president in 2016. What it does reflect is Clinton’s vastly greater skill and comfort in mobilizing and winning Black votes, which shows that a profoundly innovative platform can be overwhelmed by superior politicking; while Obama’s triumph over Clinton in 2008 shows that Black voters are highly mobilized by the prospect of electing someone they would expect to be deeply committed to anti-racism, not historically, but in the living present.

Claflin University

In 2016, nobody else who came within 1000 miles of winning the Democratic nomination was willing to advocate for what Sanders advocated and there was no reasonable chance that anybody would in time for the November election. For all his flaws and mistakes, Sanders has changed the game. As of July, 2018, there are 28 months until the next election. We have time. While Sanders has earned his place in the ongoing history of socialist politics, there is no reason that place should constrain the movement’s possibilities going forward. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that Hillary Clinton will run for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Five of the potential contenders on The Hill’s shortlist from 2017 are White men, the other five are women or non-White, one of them is both. The debate around demographic representation in government can be had in another place, but, suffice it to say; political activists have a limited ability to tell voters what they should treat as important, and an even lesser ability to decide what will excite voters. Moreover, to be a man in a patriarchal society is to rarely have the opportunity to be governed by people who are not male; to be White in a White supremacist society is to rarely have the opportunity to be governed by those who are not White. Those who don’t know what it is like to not be able to take your symbolic presence in the seat of power for granted should remember that, even when offering cogent analysis of where such representation falls short. Furthermore, speaking specifically of voters of color and women, insofar as they have had the vote in the history of this country, they have shown their pragmatic willingness to vote for White men whose commitment to the endlessly arduous work of racial and gender justice is questionable at best. (Which is not to obscure that White women have a much more mixed record) A strong progressive candidate who will fulfill and build beyond the promise of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, one who is a demonstrated, committed fighter for racial and social justice is therefore not too much to ask or seek. What is more, it will be necessary.


Even if Sanders would be that candidate, is it worth rehashing the bad feelings left over from the 2016 primaries? (An argument I might make against nominating Clinton if there weren’t so many other ones.) Put simply, for reasons pragmatic and symbolic, practical and aspirational: We need a candidate who can wage the fight for fifteen and the fight against White supremacy at the same time and with equal vigor.  All-importantly, we need a candidate who can compellingly make the case that they are that candidate to the entire left leaning constituency. To fend off one likely, though problematic, criticism; I’ll concede that there is no particular reason such a candidate could not be a White man. Steve Cohen of Memphis has represented an 80% Black city for years, if he commits to a broad based plan for achieving economic justice, he could be the kind of candidate that I am calling for. Though the most obvious choice to fill this role would be a person of color, especially a woman. Despite this, as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Barack Obama show, demographic affinity doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness or ability to wage the hard battles. The greatest lesson from the 2016 primaries is that political imagination still counts for something, and I think progressives can and must deploy a surplus of imagination to making sure that nothing can stop The Revolution this time around. We’ve a world to win.

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