Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has made an impressive showing thus far in the 2016 Democratic Presidential primary season. Last summer, he was considered an incredible longshot–a guy with no chance in hell of securing the nomination. To have come from behind and shaped himself into a real contender is admirable.
It is not, however, without its downsides.
Most of Sanders’ support comes from white people. It has been claimed that there is a gender gap between Sanders and Clinton supporters, but this isn’t true: about half of Sanders’ supporters are women, same with Clinton. The main difference there is broken down by age. Millennial women support Sanders by a wide margin. This suggests that the proportions are flipped for Clinton–older women are much more likely to support her. Given that Clinton is essentially the establishment candidate, and Sanders has positioned himself as the outsider leading a revolutionary movement, it comes as no surprise that his supporters would slant younger.
But why are they so white?
Much of this likely stems from Sanders’ message, which was thoroughly colorblind and has only gradually evolved to include specific racial justice reforms. It’s understandable that Sanders wouldn’t focus much on race issues–he represents a state, after all, that is 95% white. Though his supporters are quick to bring up his participation in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, and he is known to be in favor of Affirmative Action programs, the bottom line is that he has done little to engage the black community directly, nor has he focused on problems specifically facing black Americans during his Congressional career. Links abound that supposedly establish Sanders’ civil rights bona fides, but few of them involve anti-racism and one would be hard-pressed to say that racial justice has been an evident theme in either his career, or in the early months of his primary campaign.
Black Democrats overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton, largely because she and her husband have spent decades cultivating relationships with black leaders and the black community. The Clintons’ record on racial justice is undeniably mixed, with destructive policies like welfare reform and mass incarceration disproportionately impacting black Americans. However, the Clintons have also gone out of their way to involve black leaders, organizations, and voters in their campaigns, initiatives, and other political activities. This is a trust and respect built up over decades, something Sanders does not have and cannot produce overnight.
Some Sanders supporters, however, express frustration with this state of affairs, baffled as to why black Democrats aren’t flocking to the self-styled socialist and social justice candidate. It’s as if Sanders’ inept response to being interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists should be so quickly forgotten, to say nothing of the racist paranoia displayed by some of his supporters. In fact, Sanders’ supporters are at least half the problem. Sanders himself may present a perfectly fine racial justice platform, and I don’t doubt that he is sincere in wanting to improve the standing of black Americans. His entire platform consists of raising up all downtrodden Americans, from the poverty-stricken white communities of Appalachia and the Ozarks to the black urban centers of Detroit and Atlanta. But Sanders sees racial disparities as an economic problem rather than a cultural one, and proposes primarily economic solutions. The core of his message is that too many Americans have been left behind while a few got rich–and that’s true, as far as it goes, but Sanders has shown himself unwilling to make racial justice a central plank of his campaign. It is instead a sidebar, something he put together after being confronted. He is also willing to talk about racism on the day federally appointed for it, but offers little that would appeal to the black voters he is attempting to court.
In fact, when recently presented with an opportunity to make clear his commitment to issues important to black Americans, he stated unequivocally that he does not support reparations for slavery because they are “too divisive.” He could not have had a better chance to stake out a firm position on an important (however unlikely to be accomplished) racial justice issue, and he made the safe choice that wouldn’t alienate his overwhelmingly white supporters. As much as his white supporters play up Sanders’ supposed racial justice record, he has proved once again that, when it comes down to making the right choice for social and racial justice, he will come down in favor of whatever best placates his white working class support base. Meanwhile, these are the same people who promise that Bernie cares about black Americans and would serve them well as President. He very well might, at that, but it is obvious that their needs would be subordinate to the desires of his white supporters–and that’s the core of the problem.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in The Atlantic:
Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy. What he proposes in lieu of reparations—job creation, investment in cities, and free higher education—is well within the Overton window, and his[platform](https://berniesanders.com/issues/racial-justice/) on race echoes Democratic orthodoxy. The calls for community policing, body cameras, and a voting-rights bill with pre-clearance restored— [all are things](http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/29/politics/hillary-clinton-police-body-cameras/)[that Hillary Clinton](https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-goes-on-the-attack-over-voting-rights-in-alabama/2015/10/17/dbef615a-7373-11e5-9cbb-790369643cf9_story.html)[agrees with](http://web.archive.org/web/20170127185025/https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/criminal-justice-reform/). And those positions with which she might not agree address black people not so much as a class specifically injured by white supremacy, but rather, as a group which magically suffers from disproportionate poverty. This is the “class first” approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. Housing discrimination, historical and present, may well be the [fulcrum](http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/) of white supremacy. Affirmative action is one of the most disputed issues of the day. Neither are addressed in the “racial justice” section of Sanders platform.
The rest of Coates’ piece is absolutely worth reading, as well. I want to be clear that my intention here is not to speak for black Americans–they can speak for themselves perfectly well. Instead, I am attempting to illustrate the gulf between what Sanders and his supporters believe they are offering black voters, and what the particulars of Sanders’ campaign and his supporters’ behavior actually demonstrates about their goals and intentions. As Coates says, Sanders is a “class-first” politician. This is an intractable flaw in one who wishes to pursue racial justice, as it ignores the depth to which white supremacy is written into the DNA of our country.
Sanders doesn’t refuse to support reparations because they’re implausible or impractical–Sanders’ entire campaign is a litany of near-impossible progressive fantasies–but because the idea is, as he says, “divisive.” If he wanted–if he was serious–he could attempt to bring his white supporters around to seeing the reasoning behind a reparations policy. But he won’t, because he doesn’t believe in such a policy, because he doesn’t believe that racism is the underlying issue. In short, as progressive as Sanders is, he remains blinded by his white privilege.
By no means is my intention here to smear Sanders while letting Hillary Clinton off the hook. Despite her impeccable qualifications for the Presidency, she is a thoroughly establishment candidate and a garden variety neoliberal. She may well be more hawkish even than Obama, and would likely pursue an aggressive foreign policy all but indistinguishable from that of her two predecessors. But what she has done is put in the work of building bridges to the black community, to listen to them when no one else would, to give them a voice when no one else would. And she and her husband did this freely and of their own volition, at a time when the Democratic Party shied away from directly appealing to black voters. That gamble has paid off, and the goodwill it represents has not been forgotten.
If Sanders truly wants the support of black voters, then he’ll have to take some risks, too, like speaking to racial justice issues when and where it is unpopular to do so, and to stake out the right positions even when they won’t please his white supporters. He would have to understand and acknowledge that race is at least as important to the American story as class, if not more so. He doesn’t have decades to pull this off, but months–or mere weeks, at this point. Now is no time to play it safe.