Column: Sanders will not win Democratic nomination without black support

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a town hall meeting, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Grinnell, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Let me preface this by saying, I like Bernie Sanders. In a primary nomination pitting Goliath versus an insignificant handful of Davids, he is the closest vehicle for success against Hillary Clinton – the embodiment of the dynastic, oligarchic clout that pervades American politics like an inexorable cancer.

Considering this built-in adversity, it’s nice to see a grassroots candidate gain as much traction as he has. Between May and July, the Sanders campaign raised $15 million, with 87 percent of the donations being $250 or less. A segment of the American people are undoubtedly engaged.

Considering his steady rise in the polls in Iowa and lead in New Hampshire, the Vermont senator has nowhere to go but up, so long as his campaign continues its momentum and Clinton’s implodes from the e-mail scandal or something of that ilk.

What’s curious about the Clinton campaign is she still enjoys comparatively high ratings among her competition, all the dubiousness of her past behavior and general divisiveness notwithstanding.

Among African American voters, she leads Sanders 65 percent to 14 percent as of August. Holistically, YouGov has him polling at 5 percent of the black vote. As a voting bloc that comprises roughly 25 percent of the nation’s electorate, Sanders needs to do a better job of courting African Americans if he wants to win the Democratic nomination. 

It is unfortunate to see him languish with the demographic, though, because many of his policies involve amending racially biased laws and institutions, many going farther than Clinton’s proposal. For one, Sanders wants to end the reign of the DEA and the completely futile “War on Drugs,” a program that has predominately sent African Americans to jail. Fifty percent of people in the United States incarcerated for drug crimes (usually nonviolent) are black.

Clinton, however, has made no indication of interest in ending the federal drug war. Additionally, although I seriously doubt how plausible this is, Sanders plans to ban for-profit prisons if elected. This is obviously entwined with the War on Drugs since African Americans are affected at disturbing rates. Clinton, again, has remained silent on the issue. 

So, then, why is Bernie Sanders not translating with African American voters more so than Clinton? I can think of a couple reasons: There are obvious demographical barriers which serve to hinder Sanders, namely him being an old white guy from a state with 6,277 black people – about 1 percent of its population.

To add some perspective, Baltimore, the city where Democratic competitor Martin O’Malley served as mayor, has more black first graders than Vermont has black people. That elicits a strange, somewhat misguided kind of minority empathy toward Clinton; while white, her status as a woman in the boy’s game that is Washington distinguishes her from her competition on that basis alone. Moreover, Clinton is just more visible than Sanders in the mainstream media. She is established as the establishment and this probably comforts voters who aspire to have another Democrat in the White House. Thus, when scandals transpire, she gets treated a little more leniently. 

Sanders, on the other hand, doesn’t have as much wiggle room with voters as a media-crowned “fringe” candidate. Though he has outlined a comprehensive racial justice platform on his website and since hired Symone Sanders (no relation), an African American woman who serves as the chair of the nonprofit Coalition of Juvenile Justice, to be his press secretary, his past remarks on race relations have been subpar, to say the least.

Here is a quote from his interview with George Stephanopoulos in June: “I think the issues that we are dealing with, combating 51 percent African American youth unemployment, talking about the need that public colleges and universities should be tuition free, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, creating millions of jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure. These are issues that should apply to every American.”

I think the biggest mistake he’s made is equating black issues to solely economic ones. Make no mistake, the two are inextricably involved with each other, but the struggle extends beyond that. Hence, why Black Lives Matters protesters have gotten on his case at his rallies recently.

There are poor white Americans, but they’re not worrying about getting killed over failing to signal a lane change. Until Sanders fully addresses these issues, he will not emerge as the Democratic candidate for African Americans.


Stephen Friedland is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at stephen.friedland@uconn.edu.