Bernie Sanders' Race Problem: Why People of Color Aren't Feeling the "Bern"

Bernie Sanders' "huge crowds" are embarrassingly white.

Bernie Sanders' "huge crowds" are embarrassingly white.

Discalimer: Certainly, I don't speak for all people of color. I can only speak for me. But I am an American of color, and I have seen my president be maligned by his foes and disparaged by his supposed "friends" even as he has become the most transformative leader in a century. I base my views here on the true history of the struggle for equality as I have understood it personally on two fronts - on the basis of race and on the basis of sexual orientation. In this essay I offer my view informed by that history and animated by my observations and experiences (including in writing here).

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has been drawing a lot of crowds, a lot of cheers, and a lot of media attention. His followers are adamant that not only can he win the Democratic primary, he can be the next president of the United States. National polls - which mean exactly nothing in primary contests - are showing him gaining on Hillary Clinton fast.


I mean it. Sanders has been drawing crowds, and large ones at that. But the composition of his crowds could make the Republican National Convention look diverse by comparison. Very few faces of color occasionally get captured on the cameras within seas of white - generally older - faces. While his supporters cheer his ability to draw large white crowds in large white cities and states - including the "first in the nation" and very very white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, this is a problem for the self-described socialist.

Why? The last two elections have conclusively shown that no Democrat - and probably no candidate - can win the White House without large, and preferably overwhelming, support from minorities. The reason this is particularly important for the Democratic nominee is that regardless of the palpable white (older) liberal adulation of Sanders, 55-60% of whites are likely to vote for the Republican nominee in November of 2016. Mitt Romney, as you may recall, not only won 59% of the white vote nationwide, he won the white vote almost everywhere in 2012.

Support among minorities is even more critical in the Democratic primary. With only 25% of whites identifying as Democrats, the Democratic party is more diverse than the Americans as a whole. Without deep appeal that brings minorities to the voting fold for Sanders, it may end up being the Vermont socialist who ends up "feeling the bern" in the end.

But why isn't Bernie Sanders able to get minority support in his gigantic rallies, despite beginning to incorporate race and civil rights to his stump speech? Why aren't people of color - who flocked to Obama's vision of change eight years ago - running to embrace Bernie, who is talking about a "political revolution" of epic proportions and huge changes to the system?

Bernie's problem isn't his stumps per se (except in the are of trade, to be discussed soon). Few Democrats can oppose the idea of relieving student debt and a free college education, taking money out of elections, or Sen. Sanders' description of and contempt towards gaping economic inequities.

Sanders' problems are three-fold: one, for all his high-flying rhetoric, he has little to show for his quarter century in national public office (Sanders first came to Washington as a House member in 1991). Secondly, and more importantly, Sanders is too interested in portraying himself as a drag-out "fighter" than a pragmatic doer. Third, his contempt for President Obama's painstakingly negotiated trade deals is a direct insult to minorities.

Let's take these one at a time.

On his own campaign website, Sanders brags about having opposed trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA. Yet we live under NAFTA and CAFTA. In fact, none of the bills Sanders brags about having proposed or sponsored on his website is law, and pretty much all Congressional action he trumpets having opposed is law. Bernie may be good at making a point, but he, almost by his own admission, has been a terribly ineffectual legislator.

There's a reason results are important to minorities - often more so than to whites. Because we are the ones that get the short end of the stick too often. We are the ones who suffer the most when politicians promise the world and deliver nothing. We are the ones that have to live with the systemic and institutional prejudice that Sanders likes to talk about.

And so for many of us, leveling the playing field isn't about the adulation of those already privileged. It's about getting results, about bending that arc of the moral universe towards justice. It's about doing so patiently, because we know the arc is long. And when someone wants to talk about "revolution" and all these big changes they are going to make without proving a shred of it in their illustrative 25-year career in Washington, it rings hollow. It rings tailor-made for privileged white audiences who like the talk of revolution more than they care for the tough legwork it takes to make change happen or the compromises it takes to get something done.

It's no coincidence that Sanders' loudest supporters - if the etherwebs are any indication - are the same "liberals" who are monumentally "disappointed" in Barack Obama's inability - nay, unwillingness(!) to podium pound his political opposition into submission and the compromises he has had to endure in order to bring key policy initiatives into live. These are the same provocateurs that bemoaned the strongest overhaul of America's health insurance system - the overhaul that is now responsible for insuring 90% of Americans, incidentally - as corporate giveaways, the strongest banking regulations since the 1930s as weak-kneed capitulation and have most recently been fearmongering against the most progressive trade pact in history while it's still being negotiated.

The white liberal response to trade pacts like the Transpacific Partnership - which are for the first time incorporating enforceable labor and environmental standards into a trade agreement - has been vitriolic, unforgiving and yes, racist.

For one thing, the TPP is not only the most progressive trade agreement to come down the pike in history, raising those standards in TPP partners in Latin America and Asia is key to TPP. The Sanders-Warren-white-union-leadership led scaremongering about the loss of American jobs to exactly those Latin American and Asian partners - in essence pandering to white people that they will lose their jobs to brown and yellow people - is especially offensive to people of color who are looking forward to their families across the globe having the same opportunities and economic rights we enjoy in the United States.

That it is the agreement with Asian and Latin American countries that is getting most of the vitriol when a nearly-identical pact being negotiated with Europe is garnering little attention from these "revolutionaries" only serves to further confirm the perception that when people like Sanders talk about American jobs, they are really talking about white jobs.

Because of the necessary realities of surviving and thriving in a society that still has and gleefully overlooks white privilege (among many others), people of color are less interested in dogma and revolutionary rhetoric and more interested in real results for real people. By and large, we don't have the luxury of pining for revolution while demeaning real progress. Sanders, however, shows a real knack for doing just that. In a rather sorry attempt to talk about race, this is what he had to say:

”All of you are aware of the tragic history of racism in America,” Sanders said to a predominantly white audience on around 10,000 people. “But for a very long time, African-Americans and their white allies came together and they struggled and they stood up for justice and they stood up to lynching and they stood up to segregation and the stood up to a nation where African-Americans couldn’t even vote in America.”

Sanders added, “And change came about, not as much as we would want.”

No, Senator. I would wager that other than reading about it in history books and and tweeting #blacklivesmatter hashtags from the comforts of their very white neighborhoods, most of your white audience is tragically unaware of the history - and even more importantly, present - of racism in America, in the real sense of that it means to be aware: to know in the bones, to stare it in the eye, to survive it and thrive despite it. But you couldn't very well tell them that truth and still be their darling, could you?

No, your super white audience isn't aware of it, and for you to casually declare their awareness is pathetic, even more so when you add that the change wasn't enough for what you and your white audience wants without a true appreciation for what it took to bring that change.

"Standing up" isn't all that it took to change the ugly history of legal racism in this country. It took the bloodshed of nonviolent people who endured it all, it took the marchers who understood the meaning of one step at a time, and it took a movement that took one step at a time and kept moving rather than a cadre that demanded revolution. To neglect to honor that reality of painstaking, pragmatic, compromising progress is no less a white-washing of American history than any other.

But Sanders can't talk about that. Because he cannot admit that every brick of progress was laid by pragmatists and has compromise written on it. He cannot admit that real change involves more than bringing overwhelmingly white audiences to their feet.

The Sanders campaign may wish to consider a few questions, if they truly believe in the message of their candidate: what does it say that their candidate, known for his electrifying rhetoric about economic inequalities can hardly capture the imagination of those affected most adversely by it? What does it say about a candidate who talks about the banks' powers but remains sadly uncaptivating to those most victimized by the excesses of the financial industry?

Candidly, it either says that people of color are dumb and stupid and don't know what's good for us, or it says that those who have suffered the worst brunt of social ills Bernie speaks of view him as an empty suit. I go with the latter.

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