Thursday, March 3, 2016

Acceptable Blacks: Bernie Sanders And Race

"Up North they don't care how big I get, as long as I don't get too close. Down South they don't care how close I get as long as I don't get too big".
“In the North, the issue is mainly proximity. In the South, the issue is mainly power. Get it?"                        
Dick Gregory

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an Uncle Tom as: 1 : a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals). Politically, this derogatory term was almost exclusively used to describe the 5-7% of African Americans who identify as Conservative or Republican, but lately it's being used to describe African Americans who support Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders' inability to win over black voters in the south has caused some of his supporters, irrespective of race, to choose the easier path of Ad Hominem attacks to explain this electoral rejection instead of finding the disconnect and working to fix it. Bernie, like anyone "new" to the southern political scene, was going to have a hard time taking support away from Hillary Clinton. Yes, for the 1,378th time, I know he was part of student protests in Chicago and marched in Washington during the 60's; I know he publicly supported Jesse Jackson at a time when it wasn't politically advantageous to do so, but where has he been since then? This isn't a rhetorical question. Bernie's political career as a mayor, congressman, and senator happened in a state with virtually no racial diversity. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, will black voters in the south support Bernie Sanders?
I’ve heard people say Bernie would have done better in the south if he were black; simply put: he would have. Not because of some nefarious, unspoken racial code. Black people won't support a candidate just because they're black: ask Ben Carson. If Bernie were black he would have started his 2016 presidential campaign with a higher profile in the black community. Being a member of the Congressional Black Caucus would have made him a more familiar political commodity among people in his age group. The fact that Bernie does better with African Americans under 30 than he does with African Americans over 60 is a symptom of older southern voters not being familiar with him. In South Carolina Hillary Clinton won 96% of the 65 older African American vote. These are people who lived through the civil rights movement of the 60's, the crack epidemic of the 80's, and mass incarceration during the 90's. They don't place all of the blame for mass incarceration on the Clintons. During the 90's these voters were raising kids and paying mortgages. It's easy to use 20\20 hindsight 20+ years later to critique mistakes made in real time. Southern voters remember being scared to buy their children Air Jordan's; they remember watching the news and seeing the gang violence in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Miami; they didn't forget that the crack epidemic (which created the atmosphere for this violence) started during the Reagan years. The crime bill had tragic consequences for communities of color; much like 911 America overshot the response to a traumatic situation, but this part of the Democratic base doesn’t blame Hillary Clinton for it.
The fringe of the Republican party has been so blatantly disrespectful that subtle instances of disrespect on the left are often overlooked. It's disrespectful and condescending for northern progressives to blame Bernie's shortcomings on a part of the Democratic base they’re isolated from. Virginia went blue the last two presidential elections, North Carolina went blue in 2008. Most northern liberals don’t know that Georgia and South Carolina  are states we could move into the purple column by 2020. There’s an enthusiasm gap this primary season that isn’t fixing itself. Bernie’s had the largest crowds, but unlike Donald Trump’s campaign those large crowds haven’t turned into "Yuuuge" vote totals.
I hope my northern friends will open their eyes and see how awfully naive it is to diminish an electorate that routinely sends southern progressives to the House of Representatives. The lesson moving forward should be active engagement. If you want to come to the south and get support you have to come to the south and give it. If Bernie had been more visible during the 90’s and early 2000’s we’d probably be having a different conversation, but his progressivism happened in a racial vacuum. His campaign is aspirational and inspirational, but it’s failing to connect with people who ceased dreaming. Older black voters have never experienced instantaneous legislative success. Brown vs. Board of Education was settled law in 1954, but over a decade later members of this electorate were still going to segregated schools. None of the advancements people of color have made came overnight. Northern isolation has insulated some progressives from the racial realities in the south. Insinuating that black support for Hillary is due to some racial Stockholm syndrome is a function of this isolation. This may come as a surprise, but most black Democrats don't spend a lot of time worrying about what's politically acceptable to our northern allies. Politically, socially, and economically speaking blacks in the south may be making a mistake with their allegiance to Hillary, but aren't southern whites making a bigger mistake with their allegiance to Donald Trump. One of these issues is far more concerning to me than the other.