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Democratic primary finds black feminists conflicted

As the Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vie for the feminist and black votes, women who are both are conflicted.
A woman raises her hand to ask a question to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as she speaks to voters on Feb. 12, 2016 in Denmark, S.C. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)
A woman raises her hand to ask a question to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as she speaks to voters on Feb. 12, 2016 in Denmark, S.C.

Ask a black feminist whether she prefers Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, and you very well might hear "Neither." 

“I long for Shirley Chisholm to be running, to be really honest,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice activist in Washington, D.C.

Alas for Bracey Sherman, the congresswoman who in 1972 was the first major-party black candidate to run for president, and who promised a “bloodless revolution,” isn’t running. (Chisholm died over a decade ago.) But two candidates who vow to make history in their own ways are, and Bracey Sherman, like many black feminists MSNBC interviewed, is ambivalent.

“I’m definitely weighing my options,” she said. “A lot of my beliefs on economic policies fall in line with Bernie Sanders. However, he is not able to connect the way that gender and race intersect with economic inequality the way Hillary does.”

For weeks, Sanders and Clinton and their allies have tussled over who is the genuine progressive, whose policies are more feminist and who can make the most meaningful difference in black Americans’ lives. So far, as the primary has shifted from majority white states to more diverse ones, the feminist mantle and the black vote have been talked about as if they are separate silos.

“An emphasis on not only black women, but black feminists, is long overdue,” said Lori Adelman, co-executive director of Feministing. “So often, black women’s support is taken for granted.”  

The candidates are both concertedly seeking the votes of black women, long a crucial base of the Democratic Party. Both have hired prominent black women, including feminist activists, to represent their campaigns, though Clinton’s inner circle has long been more diverse. Over the weekend, entrance polls showed Clinton winning black voters in Nevada, and polls of South Carolina, which votes Saturday, show Clinton enjoys a broad advantage among African-American voters there too.  But in interviews, black feminists with influential perches in activism, journalism and academia critiqued both Democrats.

“I’m glad for any feminist who feels confident that their needs will be met by Hillary or Bernie’s presidency,” Shanelle Matthews, lead communications strategist for Black Lives Matter, wrote in an email. “As a black feminist, I’m not there yet. And frankly, I’d like to stop being lectured by white feminists who would boorishly call themselves my ally while also paternalistically scolding me for not bending toward their political ideologies.”

Black feminist critics of Clinton cite in particular past support of her husband’s policies on criminal justice and welfare reform, which exacted a disproportionate toll on African-Americans. They recoil at how in 1996, Clinton referred to "super predators" who needed to be brought "to heel," which many saw as dehumanizing language that targeted black children in particular. “If Hillary wants to court black women, she should start by apologizing for all the ways she has hurt our families and us,” said Matthews.

University of Pennsylvania professor Salamishah Tillet, who described herself as undecided but leaning Sanders, said, “It’s hard for me to champion a Clinton prosperity narrative as proof of electability of another candidate when I feel like it decimated the black community and criminalized black men."

Still, Tillet said, she thinks Clinton has been far more adept than Sanders in using an approach pioneered by black feminists. “I’m increasingly becoming impressed with how Clinton is invoking an intersectional framework,” she said, referring to the term coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to invoke how overlapping identities shape marginalization.

Clinton even came out and used the word in her speech in Harlem last week, quite possibly a first. "We face a complex set of economic, social and political challenges,” Clinton said. “They are intersectional, they are reinforcing and we've got to take them all on."

And the candidate's recent refrain that she is not a single-issue candidate, implicitly an attack on Sanders’ relentless focus on economics, seems to evoke a much quoted line from the black lesbian poet Audre Lorde: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” 

RELATED: In South Carolina poll, younger blacks lean toward Clinton, not Sanders

That resonated with Jamia Wilson, a feminist writer and activist who is supporting Clinton. “Those of us who are asked to wait our turn rarely get our turn when other things are prioritized," she said.  

Sanders, who won women voters in majority-white New Hampshire, has sometimes been clumsier in deploying feminist arguments. Asked at MSNBC’s Nevada town hall Thursday about whether he, as a white man, understood “the intersectional identities that people of color face, especially when entering high positions of power within business or government,” Sanders said he was a strong feminist and spoke about the broader pay gap for women of color but never really engaged the question. (He also joked that Gloria Steinem, a Clinton supporter, had once called him an honorary woman.)

And earlier that day, Sanders had said of Clinton’s appeals to shattering the glass ceiling, "I don't go around, no one has ever heard me say, 'Hey, guys, let's stand together, vote for a man.' I would never do that, never have."

His words irked many feminists, including Imani Gandy, a senior legal analyst at RH Reality Check and co-host of the podcast TWIB Prime. After all, no one has ever had to rally men to vote for men -- it’s simply the norm.

Gandy was a fervent Barack Obama supporter in 2008 who now thinks she will sit the primary out. “I'm fed up with the Sanders campaign, frankly,” she said. She cited Sanders’ contention in the same interview that Clinton is pandering to the black vote. “While I still have questions about Clinton's credibility,” she said, “I do appreciate that she is at least trying to connect to black voters.”

That Clinton would be the first female president was rarely mentioned in interviews. Tillet wonders if the experience of the Obama presidency has complicated Clinton’s bid for history-making as the first female president. “There has been a contradiction with the idea that we’ve had this African-American president, but there’s still been a deep resentment towards African-Americans in so many spheres of public life,” she said. “Being the first doesn’t always mean that the material conditions for that group will change, though I think there is a long-term change we will never be able to measure.” 

Sanders supporters have argued he is the feminist choice because his economic policies, if implemented, would benefit low-income women most. He himself has said that electing “somebody with my views” -- a socialist -- would be “of some historical accomplishment.” 

The irony that the most “revolutionary” candidate is a white man isn’t lost on black feminists. Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University, observed on Facebook, "It's just interesting to me that progress in the last election was being able to have a black male (centrist) president and vote for him, especially if you were black. Now progress in this election seems to be 'feeling the freedom' not to vote for a (centrist) woman if you're a woman. It's all very odd.” 

RELATED: African-American group based in Nevada's largest county backs Bernie Sanders

Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor at Ebony who interviewed Sanders while wearing a Chisholm sweatshirt, wondered, “Will it take having an older white guy to have a revolutionary president? Just imagine if Barack or Hillary, but particularly Barack, said the things Sanders said about overthrowing things.” She added that when it came to Clinton, “It’s hard to see the sexism against her. It does make me protective of her in ways I’m not used to being.” (Lemieux declined to say which candidate she will support.)

After a bruising period during which two highly visible black intellectuals, Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, came out with a blistering critique and an intention to vote for Sanders, respectively, Clinton’s recent focus on intersectionality may be reaching its desired audience. 

Bracey Sherman, for one, heard a lot of what she has been waiting for in Clinton's Harlem speech. “I believe I'm seeing the shifts in her campaign that I have wanted to see, where she's speaking clearly about the systemic racism and disinvestment in black communities,” said Bracey Sherman, including disproportionately high infant mortality rates and the crisis in Flint, Michigan. “She touched on black women's entrepreneurship and the re-segregation, and disinvestment, of schools, which are complex issues that I haven't heard candidates speak openly about, and that's a huge shift.”  

Still, fatigue was the overwhelming sentiment expressed in interviews. Obama is a hard act to follow. “Compared to the last [presidential] election, it’s hard to summon that kind of excitement," said Lemieux. 

“At the end of the day, I think both of them have problems," said Gandy. "But one candidate is being sold to me as a savior and the other one is being sold to me as business as usual." She added, “I just don’t really have a dog in this fight, I just want it to be over. And I don’t want Republicans to win.”