By Alex Knepper
Black voters have overwhelmingly rejected Bernie Sanders, leaving his supporters reeling and perplexed. What’s going on? Are black people ignorant? Are they brainwashed? Are they simply uneducated? Do we have a Thomas Frank-style situation — ‘What’s the Matter With Mississippi?’ — on our hands?
Let’s see. The people voting for Bernie are largely white, under-40, and pissed off at ‘the system,’ many for the first time: the median Bernie voter is one who was among those screwed the hardest by the still-escalating student-loan scam — including the devaluation of the Bachelor’s Degree — and the financial crisis of 2008, and they have realized that, despite soothing federal statistics, the economy is very far from being ‘back to normal.’ It is arguable that young white college graduates have proportionally lost the most opportunity since 2008. Recent economic struggles have been especially painful for people in their 20s and 30s since we were promised the moon by our parents and by society at-large in the 80s and 90s. If I can sympathize with Bernie supporters, it is to that extent.
For most Southern black voters, though, the sense of being screwed over by historical forces, corporate indifference, and self-serving politicians is nothing new. Indeed, most black people’s sense of American history is radically different than anything most white people are even capable of imagining. It is possible for someone like Bernie Sanders to wax nostalgic about the golden era of unions while conveniently forgetting what conditions were like for black people during that time. He can fantasize about America becoming more like Denmark or Finland without it ever occurring to him that those countries are home to virtually no black people. He can toss around the idea of whether President Obama deserved a primary challenge in 2012, casually discuss progressive ‘buyer’s remorse’ about him, and deem his health-care reforms — which barely passed, even in a strongly Democratic Congress, and were barely upheld by the Supreme Court — and not think about what that symbolizes to a people whose ancestors were brought here as slaves.
Too many pundits are overlooking the fact that President Obama is still a hero to most black voters. They are not disappointed in him, but rather perceive him as doing the best he can against a reactionary Congress acting out against a talented black president who twice electorally slaughtered them. They admire his efforts — and when an elderly Jewish man from a tiny, lily-white Northeastern enclave says that it was Obama’s ‘weakness’ that prevented a ‘political revolution’ from materializing, many of them simply roll their eyes.
Black voters are savvier than Bernie’s supporters give them credit for. They overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama in 2008 despite a history of supporting the Clintons and despite Hillary’s super-delegate lead — but only after he proved in Iowa that he could win in white states. And — sorry, but the knee-jerk white reaction isn’t true: it was not just because he is black. Black voters overwhelmingly rejected Al Sharpton for John Kerry in 2004. Lest we think this is because Sharpton was a fringe candidate, let us remember too that Jesse Jackson won the black vote in 1988. It’s not easy to pigeonhole black primary voters, though they tend to wield their power as a bloc.
In the end, the fundamental error Bernie supporters make is to tacitly assume that class and race are inextricably linked; that if black voters prioritized their ‘true’ interests, they’d throw in their lot with the class warrior. Once we tear down economic barriers, racial barriers will fall with them, so goes this line of thinking. Black voters disagree. And — this bears repeating — black voters are far more used to living with economic disappointment than white voters, as Bernie himself acknowledged when he inartfully suggested that white people don’t know what it’s like to be poor. A high unemployment/underemployment rate, corporate indifference, and political corruption might shock young white people who came of age in idyllic times, but it isn’t new for the majority of black voters. Well-meaning progressives since Lyndon Johnson have made exorbitant promises to them, and have largely failed to deliver. A 25-year-old white progressive inspired by Bernie to get involved in politics for the first time might earnestly believe Bernie is special, that he is different — but the median black voter is a middle-aged woman, and she’s heard it all before and will stick with the devil she knows. At least Hillary is a known quantity — someone who has been listening to black voters regularly since the 1980s — and someone who has a vested interest in upholding Obama’s legacy rather than shredding it and promising to start over from scratch.
Last month, Charles Blow of the New York Times urged Bernie supporters to stop ‘Bernie-splaining’ to black people, and cautioned them to keep in mind that the mentality of black voters has been shaped by “an ocean of tears” — an endless string of disappointments. What’s inspiring to someone is based on their sense of history — and it’s past time for Bernie’s supporters to think more seriously about what that means.