Why Bernie Sanders Lost, Part I: He Was Unrealistic About Race
Now that Hilary Clinton is the official democratic nominee for president of the United States, I can honestly – and freely – say that I never expected Bernie Sanders to win.
And not because I didn’t want him to win, but because I always felt that Sanders was running for a version of America that just doesn’t exist.
In spite of the momentum around his run, particularly among young and mostly White adults, there were many signs that his campaign was doomed from the start.
Today I would like to talk about one of them and that was his relationship – or lack thereof – with communities of color. It should have been an issue that Sanders’ team didn’t consider their candidate’s documented history of avoiding the race question.
While Ferguson burned and marches against police violence and systematic racism raged on in the streets, Sanders was still talking about poverty and championing the cause of getting everyone jobs as a solution to everyone’s problems. In fact, back in June of 2015, New York Times ran a piece about Sanders’ non-existent relationship with the African-American community, in which his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, acknowledged by saying:
“We’re reaching out, but it’s no secret that Bernie represents a state that is heavily Caucasian, and his decades of work on issues of importance to African-Americans aren’t known amid the national conversation on race that is underway. I don’t think it’s presumptuous of him to speak out on these issues. And his message — the need for more good-paying jobs, and opening up higher education regardless of wealth and family background — will have strong appeal with African-Americans and many other voters.”
However, it was unclear then what the Sanders campaign was actually doing to better connect his populous working class message with the African-American community who, in spite of having economic commonalities with working class Whites, lives lives that are vastly complicated by race. And when confronted by Black Lives Matter activists at the Netroot Nations convention in July of 2015 and given an opportunity to speak directly to those connections, Sanders, again, chose to only talk about economic inequality.
It was a move that could only be seen as defiant. And as noted in this July 2015 piece in Vox:
“This isn’t an accidental oversight. These simply aren’t issues Sanders is passionate about in the way he’s passionate about economic injustice. When my colleague Andrew Prokop profiled Sanders last year, he pointed out astutely that Sanders’s career has been ‘laser-focused on checking the power of the wealthy above all else.’ Sanders believes in racial equality, sure, but he believes it will only come as the result of economic equality. To him, focusing on racial issues first is merely treating the symptom, not the disease.”
Of course, that would all change after Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford disrupted his campaign in Seattle in August of 2015. (The Sanders campaign claims that awakening occurred prior to the Seattle disruption). Now the subject of national attention, Sanders would adopt a more concrete and visible racial justice platform that included such hot topics as mass incarceration and police brutality.
His more definite and left-of-moderate stance on race got him a lot of national exposure. The addition of Killer Mike as a campaign surrogate would score him major points with younger Black voters, particularly those who felt maligned by the two-party system. But in spite of the change in rhetoric and added hip-hop flare, various polling numbers suggested that there had been very little momentum among Blacks most likely to vote.
A huge part of the reason for this was the lack of on-the-ground organizing. As previously noted in a piece I wrote on the subject (and admittedly more anecdotally), President Barack Obama had volunteers on the ground in key urban populations like Philadelphia at least a year in advance of the primary season. Sanders campaign ads and coalition building efforts with Black leadership and African-American canvassing didn’t specifically start happening until the South Carolina primaries became relevant (and it barely happened in my hometown of Philadelphia at all).
And when it did happen, it was haphazard and clumsy at best. It included an ill-advised and awkward press op with a non-committal Al Sharpton in Harlem two weeks before Black voters would begin to take to the polls in the Southern states as well as the addition of Dr. Cornel West as a campaign mouthpiece, even as his long history of fiery attacks of President Obama had left a bad taste in the mouths of many in the Black community.
The Sanders campaign madcap scramble for Black votes, as well as the support of any kind of Black leadership, not only seemed to highlight his status as an outsider to the community but the hollowness of his message that Black lives were important to him too. Point blank: you can’t claim to be an alternative to politics as usual as well as the voice of the working poor if all of the working poor have no idea who you are or where you have been in the last 30 years.
It’s a point that would become harder to ignore when a number of Black activists and community leaders in Sanders’ home state of Vermont had gone on record earlier this year to contradict his newer, more race-nuanced image and basically declared him missing in action on a number of local African-American issues. And again, during a number of public gaffes and blunders – including this one during the Democratic debates in Flint in which he stated: “When you are white, you don’t know what its like to be living in a ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor.”
Although Sanders had spent the majority of his career fighting and championing issues that were, at the very least, relatable to the lives of many in those communities, he often did that work in spaces far removed from the very people for whom he said he was supposedly championing. And that might not seem like a big deal, however it is hard to come up with solutions for problems when you are not quite sure – or even honest – about their root causes.
And, to me, that is why Sanders lost. He was just too damn unrealistic.
Sanders is a man who wants us to be like Denmark. He is a man who wanted to believe that race didn’t and shouldn’t matter and that it was all economics — a rising tide should lift all boats. But the problem is this is America and not some homogeneous nation like Denmark. We are a country built off of some pretty wicked oppression, which still exists to this day. A rising tide does not lift all boats because there are some folks, particularly us Black folks, who have been systematically prohibited from venturing on the beach, let alone the water. And in spite of everyone’s desire to categorize all folks as the same, the research has shown that being poor and Black in America is vastly different from being white and poor.
As such, race matters.
And if Sanders truly believed that race played a factor in our criminal justice system, and in our police departments, and in all other facets of life – like he was trying to convince us he believed during his campaign – you have to admit that it was pretty naïve (or even delusional) of him to think that race would not be a factor in the election season.