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Head over to Bernie Sanders’s campaign website and you will find the unbridled economic populism of the first self-proclaimed socialist this side of Eugene V. Debs to have a legitimate shot at making waves in a presidential election. In his, “On The Issues” section, Sanders outlines his vision for what he has styled as a political revolution in American politics, detailing the need for a number of progressive reforms that range from instituting a $15 an hour minimum wage and reducing income inequality to overturning Citizens United and jump-starting a new, green economy. However, what you won’t find anywhere on Sanders’s site—or in his campaign appearances, for that matter—is much meaningful discussion of anything that falls outside the purview of his economic wheelhouse. Foreign policy? Not discussed. Gun control? Not important. And race? Nothing but eerie and incongruous silence.
On his site, Sanders and his campaign only mention race twice: the first time in his candidate bio, describing how a 20-year-old Sanders worked with the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the height of the civil rights movement and the second time while talking about higher youth unemployment rates for blacks and Hispanics. Ask any diehard Sanders supporter about their candidate’s failure to address issues specifically effecting communities of color and there’s a decent chance he or she (but, most likely he) will point out his work during the civil rights movement as proof of his aptitude for taking on racial injustice. Now, while it is certainly laudable that Sanders was involved with the civil rights movement, it doesn’t mean that much today because it happened over half a century ago. It says something about the man’s character at that time in his life, but it has no more bearing on his contemporary positions on racial injustice as President Obama’s fondness for bud in college influenced his policy regarding the decriminalization of marijuana.
However, it is not the lionization of Sanders’s past, but his obtuse refusal to address racial issues on their own terms in the present that will prove the largest obstacle for the Vermont senator to overcome in attracting votes from black and brown Americans in the upcoming primary elections. When he was confronted by #BlackLivesMatter activists at this year’s Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix this past weekend, Bernie’s response was not to, like former Maryland Governor Martin O’ Malley, listen to the protestors concerns and allow them at least a perfunctory space at the table for the day’s discussion, but to passive aggressively threaten to leave the event and try to talk over the din of activists beside the stage, proceeding with the same stump speech on economic inequality and American oligarchy that he had been delivering to packed stadiums all across the country in recent weeks. Eventually, when Sanders did address issues related to the black community, he only did so within the economic talking points that have become the hallmark of his campaign, focusing almost exclusively on the need to reduce youth employment among blacks.
Thus we arrive at the biggest impediment to a Bernie Sanders presidency—Bernie Sanders. Unfortunately, the 73-year old has been acting his age on the campaign trail, displaying a level of stubbornness that is prohibitive to his winning his party’s nomination. Giving stadium speeches to thousands of adoring supporters about the gross inequity in 21st century American life and the need to overturn Citizens United is all well and good, and it certainly looks impressive, but preaching to the choir doesn’t win elections, especially when that choir is predominantly male and almost entirely white. Sanders has gotten to where he is today because of his dogged support of the American worker and his consistent and often more or less unaccompanied opposition to the powers that be on Wall St and in big finance. But, if Bernie truly wants to win this election, he’s going to have to step outside his comfort zone and talk about the tens of other issues that matter deeply to his constituents.
Despite what he might believe in his heart of hearts, all of society’s problems cannot be remedied through economic solutions alone. Sandra Bland made her way through school, managed to survive the onerous burden of student debt and had just gotten a job so fantastic that she was willing to move all the way from Naperville, Illinois to her historically black alma mater in Texas to get it and it didn’t save her. A $15 an hour minimum wage is a wonderful and much-needed thing, but it didn’t stop local police from body-slamming her to the pavement over an illegal lane change and eventually, through either cold-blooded murder or neglect, turning her jail cell into a gallows. Just like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, John Crawford, Natasha McKenna and an ever-lengthening list of black men and women in this country, Sandra Bland didn’t need an economic solution. She needed reforms that directly tackled the myriad ways in which black lives are oppressed, abused and cast aside by a society that demands they content themselves with the gristly, table scraps of the American Dream that are left after whites have picked it clean.
If Bernie Sanders is content with being the Ron Paul of the disjointed American Left, barnstorming across the country, giving speeches in front of throngs of supporters and competing with Hillary in primaries that take place in small, almost exclusively white states like New Hampshire and Iowa, then he doesn’t need to change a thing about his campaign. However, if he is actually serious about winning the Democratic nomination, he needs to make concerted efforts to reach out to communities of color and to speak to them on their terms, not his. A recent NBC/Wall St Journal poll showed that 95 percent of non-white voters could see themselves voting for Hillary Clinton, while only about 25 percent said they would consider voting for Sanders, and those numbers may well have fallen since his performance in Phoenix.
Bernie Sanders is never going to close the distance on Hillary by giving stump speeches about the evils of the 1% and taking a big tent economic approach to issues that disproportionately effect blacks and Latinos in this country. That approach might have worked in Vermont, which is not coincidentally the whitest state in the unionv, but it’s not going to work in a national election. After her loss to Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton knows better than anyone how crucial the black vote is for a Democratic presidential hopeful and, in the early days of this presidential race, she is matching effort with adaptability and is learning from her mistakes on the campaign trail on issues of race.
Shortly after the shootings in Charleston, Hillary gave a speech at a black church in Florrissant, MO, just outside of Ferguson and made the same mistake Governor O’ Malley made at Netroots this past weekend by trying to hedge her bets and tack on a tepid, “all lives matter” at the end of her assertion that “black lives mater.” The response from most of the black Missourians attending the event and the black community writ large was swift and it was direct: “all lives matter” ain’t going to cut it. Fast forward to this week and Clinton, in response to Facebook question from The Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery about whether she would advance an agenda of racial justice should she win The White House said simply and unequivocally, “Black Lives Matter.”
Sanders has already, on multiple occasions, stated that he believes that black lives matter, but if he wants to beat Hillary in 2016, that simply isn’t enough. Bernie is playing catch-up in a big, big way and if he’s going to get the nomination, he is at the very least going to have to split the non-white vote with Hillary, something that simply cannot happen if he continues to treat racial injustice as a secondary issue in his campaign. Yes, Sanders’s economic reforms—should he be able to garner enough support to pass any of them—would give millions of blacks a better chance at escaping the clutches of poverty, but it wouldn’t be addressing any of the concerns that are unique to their experience. Essentially, the argument that Sanders’s broad economic program should be enough to meet the needs of black Americans is the fiscal policy equivalent of saying, “all lives matter.” A rising tide may lift all ships, but it doesn’t do much good if your ship has a huge hole in the hull. If Bernie wants to win, he has to reassure the black community that he has a plan for patching up the hole that has left them hauling water out of their ship bucket by bucket for the entirety of our nation’s history.