Despite wins in Missouri and Michigan, Bernie Sanders still trails Hillary Clinton by a decisive margin—especially among African-Americans. After competing in 31 primaries, the most Sanders has been able to clench of the Black vote was 29 percent— even with the support of prominent civil rights activist and fellow leftist Cornel West, who contends that “Brother Bernie is better for Black people”. But the long history of anti-Blackness in the American political left may be to blame for Sanders’ inability to earn the trust of the Black community.
Sanders’ “class, not race” approach of addressing the issues has drawn the ire of many Black intellectuals from The Atlantic writer Ta-nehisi Coates to University of Chicago political science professor Michael C. Dawson, who describes his feelings towards Sanders as “regrettable, but not surprising” given the exclusion of Black interests by leftist groups such as the Communist Party of America (CPUSA) and the Socialist Party.
Dawson’s book Blacks In and Out of the Left, describes in detail the myriad offenses 20th century leftist groups committed against their Black members, who helped fortify chapters in major urban areas like Chicago, Detroit and Harlem. In our interview, he recounts a situation in which union leaders discouraged Frederick Douglass’ son from using their platform to reference lynchings directed towards Black communities for fear of being perceived as “divisive”. Given that labor unions were infamous for their rallying cry of “No jobs for n*ggers until every white man has a job” that reverberated throughout union marches, that “divisiveness” is more easily understood.
This strains of white supremacy within mainstream leftist groups, coupled with the unwillingness of the leadership to utilize their platform to address the intersection of class dominance and racial oppression eventually drove out Black leftist leaders like Bayard Rustin, who would later mobilize the hundreds of thousands of Black people into attending the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The same March on Washington Bernie Sanders attended as a young college student, which his supporters incessantly wave as a symbol of his commitment to the Black struggle.
But whatever steps young Bernie made in showing the world he was “down for the people” seem to have trailed off in the last 50 years of his political career.
For Dawson, much of Sanders’ rhetoric still resembles that of the old guard, in which addressing class issues was viewed as the answer to solving racial inequities. While Dawson believes in the importance of addressing issues at the intersection of race and class, it is the “systemic discrimination and bias that cannot be tied to economic inequality” that Sanders struggles the most with grasping. Disparities in issues such as political opportunity, and even health, are most prevalent within the Black community. In fact, a 2012 study among primary care physicians reveals that doctors who hold unconscious racial biases are less likely to listen to their Black patients, which minimizes their involvement, satisfaction, and overall efficacy of their treatment plan.
How will “breaking up the banks” amend that?
Until recently, Sanders’ relationship with the Black church, which many would deem the key to the Black community, has been virtually nonexistent. His prioritization of cultivating support among White progressives has caused many Black churchgoers to question his willingness to fully commit to tackling the key issues they face.
But even further, how does one expect to organize a successful “political revolution” while marginalizing one of the most prominent mobilizing institutions America has ever known?
Bernie Sanders has yet to right the wrongs of his leftist predecessors, and in many ways perpetuates them. And for that, the most support his campaign will receive from the Black community will come in the form of a flicker, and not a Bern.
Photo by Warren K. Leffler
Photo by Michael Vadon