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Gray writes: "Sanders's frequent focus on universal programs seems less an evasion of our nation's obligation to remedy the harms it has inflicted on marginalized groups, and more an effort to provide the redistributive remedies people of color have long demanded. If he can convince more people of color that he's right, he might surprise the Democratic Party again in 2020."

Senator Bernie Sanders joins with others during an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee. (photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)
Senator Bernie Sanders joins with others during an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee. (photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)


Bernie's Mission to Help Turn the South Blue

By Briahna Joy Gray, New York Magazine

13 April 18

 

ast week, I joined Bernie Sanders in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Sanders was overwhelmingly well received by both passersby and the local audiences who came to hear him speak. But so far, the media coverage of his trip has revolved around a brief aside, in which Sanders faulted the Democratic Party for its recent legislative failures:

“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” said Sanders. “People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama. He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy. But behind that reality, over the last ten years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”

Twitter erupted immediately, and critics, like former South Carolina representative Bakari Sellers, accused Sanders of “arrogance” and of “dismissing” President Obama. But Thursday’s critiques were only loosely tethered to Wednesday’s words, which, on their face, were fairly uncontroversial: Who could defend as successful the “almost unprecedented” loss of legislative seats over the last ten years, or Hillary Clinton’s defeat to game-show host Donald Trump? In Mississippi, when Sanders called the Democratic Party a “failure,” the audience erupted into applause. And of course, President Obama was a uniquely charismatic and brilliant president.

In fact, if Beale Street could talk, it would tell a very different story about Bernie Sanders than the now-familiar critique that he is insufficiently sensitive to racial issues. As I walked with Sanders down Memphis’s famous thoroughfare, his popularity, including among the predominantly black crowd attending the commemorative festivities, was self-evident. The senator was stopped every few feet by selfie-seekers and admirers. Yes: Perhaps this is to be expected of any politician with a national profile, but given his poor showing in Mississippi during the 2016 Democratic primary, in which he secured less than 17 percent of the black vote, I had thought the senator and his small cohort might go unnoticed. I was wrong.

A group of 40-something black women were among the first to spot the senator as he exited a parking garage, followed quickly by a black teenager, who endearingly apologized repeatedly to “Mr. Sanders” as he snapped a selfie. Later, at a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, two black receptionists chatted substantively about the senator after he went upstairs to change for the evening’s event, remarking that Sanders hadn’t forgotten the people who had voted for him — the people he was fighting for. Unlike other politicians, they agreed, “Bernie hasn’t proven himself to be that way yet.”

Even though a recent poll found Sanders’s support among African-Americans and Hispanics to be strong, I was surprised. Although I, a black woman, was a supporter of Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, on some level, I had succumbed to the persistent narrative that Sanders has a “black problem.” The claim is that Bernie Sanders, who does indeed appear more comfortable explaining how class-based programs can benefit “the 99 percent” than discussing the struggles endemic to historically marginalized communities, simply doesn’t get us.

So I asked Sanders what he thought about critics who say he seems to care more about white voters than people of color. “It’s just not true,” he said. Sanders explained that he believes his agenda, which includes Medicare for All and free public education, will have an especially “profound and positive” effect on communities of color. And he’s right: Blacks and Latinos are, respectively, two and three times more likely to be uninsured than whites. And although black Americans are about as likely to enroll in college at a higher rate than any other racial group, we are less likely to matriculate — in part due to difficulty paying for college.

“Having said that,” he continued, “is racism a very significant and powerful force in American society that has got to be addressed? The answer is absolutely. Will a Medicare for All or single-payer system end racism in America? No, it won’t. So above and beyond moving forward on strong national programs, we’ve got to pay a special attention to communities of color, which are especially hurting right now.”

Sanders went on to cite the racial wealth gap, the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans, and the unequal public education system which plagues many low-income communities. “So it’s not either/or,” he explained, rejecting the race versus class framing that has become popular since the 2016 presidential election. “It’s never either/or. It’s both.” He continued: “It is making sure every American has high quality health care as a right — the right to excellent education. But it is also addressing the special problem of racism, of sexism, of homophobia, etc.”

When I asked for examples of identity-specific problems that cannot be resolved by class-based initiatives, Senator Sanders identified the need to improve access to homeownership, which plays a key role in the racial wealth gap, as well police reform. He specifically praised the work of Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney Larry Krasner, who now requires that incarceration costs be stated on the record at sentencing. And he emphasized the need for police reform: “What we have got to do is have national police training which says that lethal force is the last response and not the first response.”

Wednesday evening’s summit in Jackson with the, dare I say, “charismatic” 35-year-old black progressive Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, was designed to further cement the “class and race” theme by reminding the audience of Dr. King’s emphasis on economic matters toward the end of his life. King’s economic message — “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” — hung over the discussion both literally and figuratively, and the panel opened with a chorus of young black students demanding, “What does economic justice look like on southern soil?”

During the discussion, it was difficult to ignore the parallels between late-period King’s focus on economic equality and Sanders’s own priorities: “You have to appreciate that while [King] was [challenging President Johnson on the Vietnam War], suddenly the money for his organization starts drying up,” Sanders said. “And then in the midst of this … he said, we gotta attack racism in all its forms, but we have to deal with economic justice. I’m gonna to organize, he says, a poor people’s march – a poor people’s campaign. We’re gonna march on Washington. We’re gonna have low-income African-Americans, low-income whites, low-income Latinos, low-income Native Americans, we’re gonna stand together to demand that the United States change its national priorities — man, what courage that was.”

Over dinner afterward, Mayor Lumumba elaborated on the unique conditions of his state to Senator Sanders, highlighting why economic justice matters: The per-capita income in Mississippi is only about $19,000 per year. It is one of five states with no minimum-wage law, and despite the efforts of Democratic lawmakers, who filed 1,151 bills last year, conservative legislators blocked the vast majority of them — only 36 passed.

The city of Jackson’s infrastructure is so badly compromised that a cold snap last January froze and burst pipes, cutting off water to city hall, where port-a-potties had to be installed to service the city’s legislators. And during the half-a-day I spent in Jackson, I heard no fewer than five separate jokes about the number and depth of potholes — none of which failed to land with locals.

But few, if any, Democratic politicians have paid much attention, much less a personal visit, to the struggling state – despite the fact that, in addition to being red, Mississippi is also blackest state in the union, with a population that is 37 percent African-American.

Sanders is pushing a return to the 50-state approach to elections that Howard Dean used to help flip Congress in 2006: “When Obama ran in 2012 in Mississippi, he got approximately 44 percent of the vote … [I]f you had a Democratic Party that was a 50-state party, which was paying attention to Mississippi, and South Carolina and Georgia, as well as Kansas and Montana and Idaho, if you had a party that was putting resources and energy into every state in the country, there is no way on earth that you will not get 20 or 30 percent of white Mississippians voting for a candidate like Obama.” Combined with higher voter turnout from their large African-American populations, Sanders believes many southern states like Mississippi could soon turn not just blue, but could lead the charge of progressivism.

But in order to ensure that black voters turn out, Sanders understands that people need something to vote for, not just someone to vote against. They need to feel heard.

Mayor Lumumba’s closing remarks at the panel reinforced the theme that identity alone is not enough: “There was a time,” he explained, “where our fight was to get leadership that looked like us. Now our mission must be to have leadership that thinks like us.”

Framed this way, Sanders’s frequent focus on universal programs seems less an evasion of our nation’s obligation to remedy the harms it has inflicted on marginalized groups, and more an effort to provide the redistributive remedies people of color have long demanded. If he can convince more people of color that he’s right, he might surprise the Democratic Party again in 2020.


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+27 # DongiC 2018-04-13 13:22
Come on, you Southern Democrats. Look at the light and see Sanders as your one and only hope. He is the one who will make America great for all its citizens, rich as well as poor.
 
 
+21 # margpark 2018-04-13 18:50
Many Southerners feel that Sanders might have prevailed in the general election I voted for him in the Primary.
 
 
+8 # pushingforpeace 2018-04-14 09:18
I voted for him in the primary too, here in Orinda, California, but my vote got tossed out, as did 140 of my neighbors. I will never be able to trust the Democrats again. We filed a complaint immediately with Kamala Harris. Absolutely nothing happened.
 
 
+11 # vicnada 2018-04-13 19:03
This is among the most hopeful articles I have read in a long time. Of course, Bernie figures prominently. And his message that will continue to resonate is: “So it’s not either/or,” he explained, rejecting the race versus class framing that has become popular since the 2016 presidential election. “It’s never either/or. It’s both.”
 
 
-14 # Aliazer 2018-04-13 19:47
Nobody will rescue America or Mississippi,nei ther Sanders, the democrats or republicans.

No national leaders for the people has risen in this country since Franklin Delano Roosevelt!!

Obama was a phony, so will be Sanders once the powerful will dictate and tell him what to do!!!
 
 
+1 # Robbee 2018-04-14 19:48
Quoting Aliazer:
Nobody will rescue America or Mississippi,neither Sanders, the democrats or republicans.

No national leaders for the people has risen in this country since Franklin Delano Roosevelt!!

Obama was a phony, so will be Sanders once the powerful will dictate and tell him what to do!!!

- the good is not the enemy of the perfect
 
 
+8 # Adoregon 2018-04-13 21:42
Sanders is the litmus test that determines if U.S. voters are able to think clearly and vote in their own self-interest.
 
 
-13 # rprichard 2018-04-13 22:52
It's very painful to see that this author and these posters don't care that this strategy would again split the Democratic vote, severely weakening the ultimate Democratic nominee and likely lead to the hard right's retention of power.

Sorry to say, I believe that's Bernie's real goal, conscious or not. Even if Bernie promised to write minority voters nice personal checks, I don't see the possibility of him getting more than 25% of the Southern vote because average people will see his promises of government largesse as pie-in-the-sky.

Bernie has enormous appeal for some Dems who don't actually have any skin in the game, and who can't resist the chance to make a statement about their moral superiority.

In my lifetime, such pied pipers (e.g. McCarthy, Nader, Edwards, and Bernie of course) -- coupled with completely unqualified splinter candidates -- have brought us to the brink of losing all the social, economic, environmental gains since FDR.

There is no rational way to argue that Bernie's narcissistic insistence on staying on the attack for months after he had no chance of winning the nomination didn't cost Democrats the White House and many other offices nationwide.

Yet here we are watching in horror as our collective future nosedives - but Bernie and his cult are fixing to make another self-indulgent play for glory.
 
 
+12 # LionMousePudding 2018-04-14 08:08
Ok, you tell us what to do to turn around the 1,000 seat loss. Just make no changes? Not a very useful strategy.
 
 
+7 # Benign Observer 2018-04-14 11:19
Hillary Clinton split the vote when she stole the nomination and went out of her way to antagonize progressives. She was unfit for office. Maybe that had something to do with why the Democrats aren't thriving.

Or maybe the fact they've lost over a thousand seats in the past ten years.

Government largesse? How about basic government functions, like making sure the citizens of the richest country in the world aren't living in third world conditions?

The people who support Sanders DO have skin in the game. Why would you say they don't?

Ha, Sanders' narcissism? He is fighting for the DP unlike Hillary, who is still reliving her loss every day and wandering around whining to anyone who will listen -- while Bernie fights for the feckless Dems. No wonder his people want him to start a third party. ! You pretend YOU'RE the rationalist when you're spouting a whole lotta bs. Do here's an idea -- just stay out of our way.

The truth IS painful sometimes but it prevents one from making laughable and ludicrous statements like yours. You should try it..
 
 
+4 # PCPrincess 2018-04-14 12:21
@rprichard: If you and those like you would all 'JUST DO IT' and vote for the 'ethical' candidate, I think that you will be surprised and elated. From this point on, there will NOT be a 'lesser of two evils' approach. And I'm sure as hell not going to stand for it here. I am going to point it out until my fingers bleed.
 
 
+6 # Stilldreamin1 2018-04-14 04:40
Clinton cleaned his clock throughout the south. This fact made for a lopsided vote count each received during the primaries and left the impression Clinton was the dominant candidate. But Clinton had HUGE victories in states that would eventually give all their electoral votes to tRump. So those victories in the primary were meaningless- unless you're an actual contender in the south in the general. Clinton wrote off all those states from the beginning- along with half the rust belt states. She had her first 10,000 person rally on period Nov. 5. Having failed to generate excitement and real enthusiasm and running a low-energy, low excitement campaign gave us the worst if the worst.
 
 
+7 # Wise woman 2018-04-14 08:07
I've always believed that Brooklynites speak a common language so if anyone can reach a southerner, it will be Bernie.
 
 
0 # rogerhgreen 2018-04-18 11:59
Good going, Wise Woman, whoever you are! I was born in Brooklyn General Hospital myself. And Fiorello LaGuardia signed my birth certificate. Good going Bernie, and all us Brooklynites!
 
 
+9 # LionMousePudding 2018-04-14 08:14
I don't know why I seem to be the only one to remember history as unmarred by the gateway media. Yes, we have been told over and over that Sanders has a Black problem.

After all, he only got 17% of the vote. Obvious, right?

NO! He was not shown in ANY mainstream media before the South voted. They had never heard of him! He had been on CNN for a total of ten seconds.

How smart people fall for this crap instead of using their own heads I do not know.
 
 
+4 # Benign Observer 2018-04-14 11:07
Trump's pollster has said Bernie would have beat Trump. Noam Chomsky has said so. But nothing is more convincing than this awesome video by Matt Otafeo about Sanders' support from the black community:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JACq7Tg-J3M

He was endorsed by Spike Lee, Killer Mike, Nina Turner, Cornel West, Harry Belafonte, Erica Garner ....

He was gaining minority support because of his economic message but, as you say, he wasn't known in the early days when the contest was South-loaded -- as intended.
 
 
-2 # Robbee 2018-04-14 20:33
Quoting LionMousePudding:
Yes, we have been told over and over that Sanders has a Black problem.

NO! He was not shown in ANY mainstream media before the South voted. They had never heard of him! He had been on CNN for a total of ten seconds.

- nonsense!

before there was barak, folks often referred to bill as the "first black president!"

moreover, bill could thump the bible like the best of repuke thumpers!

to say that blacks knew nothing of bernie's good heart is absurd! to say that bernie could compete with the clinton mystique down south among blacks is equally absurd!

robbee prays dems have had their fill of hillary and hillary has had her fill of politics! blacks will always cherish clintons! it's not a fair fight! - 96% of black women, however, voted in the first dem senator in modern alabama history - and his name was NOT clinton!

in sum robbee says - if bernie can't turn the south blue? no one can! - go bernie!
 
 
+3 # lfeuille 2018-04-15 00:27
He was slow to catch on with Black voters, but by the end he pulled .and he ended up winning the Black youth vote outright. I think he just ran out of time. He had to make decent showings in Iowa and NH or he would have been out and those states are mostly white. He started with very little name recognition. But now he is the most popular politician in the country. If he runs again, it will be different. Though I don't trust the establishment Dems to play fair, it will be harder for them to cheat him this time.
 
 
+6 # MaggieB 2018-04-14 12:57
This story, from New York Magazine, is a very balanced, helpful, hopeful report. Very glad to see it. Bernie IS the modern FDR.
 

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