After months of struggling to make inroads with African-American voters, there appears to be a few encouraging signs for supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders that the Vermont lawmaker may be starting to crack the crucial demographic of Democratic voters.
Influential author and Atlantic correspondent Ta-Neshisi Coates came out in support of his candidacy on Wednesday, despite publicly critiquing the senator’s opposition to reparations for the African-American community to address the injustices of slavery in the past. He called Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday “awesome” during an appearance on “Democracy Now” and said he was “very concerned” about Hillary Clinton’s record, particularly when it comes to some of the crime measures signed into law by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in the 1990s. Many experts believe those measure have been disproportionately detrimental to the black community.
“Not having this being a coronation is a good thing,” Coates said, also referencing concerns about Clinton receiving speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. Coates is also skeptical of Sanders’ universal approaches to income inequality, health care and other social justice issues, because he believes they are inherently flawed if they fail to directly acknowledge race and the role of white supremacy in inhibiting social programs. He said that he "expected more" of Sanders on the reparations issue. Still, Coates said he will be voting for Sanders. Later on Twitter, he explained: “This ain’t ‘feelin the Bern.’ I’m just trying to be a decent citizen and as transparent as I can be."
Meanwhile, "The New Jim Crow author" Michelle Alexander, while stopping short of endorsing Sanders' candidacy, argued in a new column for The Nation that black voters of conscience cannot back Clinton, because of policies her husband enacted while he was president. In the blistering piece, Alexander questions why black voters have remained largely loyal to the Clintons for decades, especially when the incarceration of African-Americans, housing discrimination and the gap between the rich and poor were all, in her opinion, exacerbated by the Clinton administration.
"Some might argue that it’s unfair to judge Hillary Clinton for the policies her husband championed years ago. But Hillary wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures. That record, and her statements from that era, should be scrutinized," she writes.
Although Alexander takes Sanders to task for also supporting the 1994 crime bill (which the former president himself has since disavowed), she applauds his opposition to the war in Iraq, bank deregulation and welfare reform. "In short, there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it," she writes.
Sanders, who met with Rev. Al Sharpton on Wednesday, has also secured the backing of hip-hop star Killer Mike, scholar Dr. Cornel West, actor Danny Glover and civil rights icon Harry Belafonte. What these African-American supporters largely have in common is that they have all been outspoken critics of President Barack Obama in the past, especially when it comes to his penchant for preaching the politics of personal responsibility. And while Hillary Clinton has tied herself closely to both protecting and advancing the Obama agenda, Sanders has called for a political “revolution,” which would, in theory, result in a far more ambitious upheaval of American democracy, particularly on economic matters.
However, it was Sanders' almost tunnel-vision-like preoccupation with his radical economic agenda that initially turned off many black voters. At the start of the 2016 campaign, Sanders was already at a disadvantage, hailing from Vermont, which is historically the whitest state in the country. He was largely an unknown to black voters, despite his championing civil rights causes since his youth.,his awkward early interactions with Black Lives Matter activists on the stump didn’t do him any favors. Meanwhile, despite a contentious, racially charged 2008 Democratic primary fight, the Clintons have long enjoyed high approval with African-Americans, with Bill Clinton sometimes affectionately referred to as the "first black president."
But, as Sanders' candidacy has gained momentum, so has his efforts to connect with people of color. He now regularly works references to criminal justice reform into his campaign rhetoric and although the relatives of gun violence victims Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis pointedly threw their support behind Clinton’s candidacy, the daughter of Eric Garner (who was killed by an apparent chokehold while in NYPD custody in 2014) is backing Sanders. "Of all the presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders is our strongest ally. Black Americans — all Americans — need a leader with a record that speaks for itself,” Erica Garner said in a column for The Washington Post published last month.
Clinton has made Sanders' history of not supporting gun control measures (he has cited his state’s rural populace as a defense) a major line of attack in the Democratic primary race, but it’s unclear whether it has permeated the consciousness of black voters in any significant way.
The most recent South Carolina polls suggest that Sanders is trailing Clinton by double digits, due in part to her significant advantage with the state’s black Democratic voters. But Sanders supporters could be buoyed by the fact that Clinton also held a 14-point lead over then-Sen. Barack Obama in the state back in December 2007, and that quickly eroded in less than two months. Obama ended up winning the state handily. In a way, Obama had the opposite problem that Sanders has. He needed to prove he could win over a majority of white voters in a primary or caucus, which he did early on in Iowa.
As South Carolina and Nevada become the next pit stops on the Democratic side, Sanders will need to prove that he can convince minorities that his campaign is viable.