Bernie Sanders is no Barack Obama. My bet is most black voters will not care for the comparison some in the national media keep making.
We have watched for seven long years as the first black president has been slurred as a “socialist” by his opponents, supposedly for pursuing standard Democratic policies.
Now Sanders is coming along and embracing the term “socialist” – though he and his supporters will quickly tell you a Democratic Socialist like him is different from a regular socialist. Still, a lot of black voters will feel like, with all Obama went through, why is this suddenly OK now? What was it all about?
Well, honestly, we know what it was about.
How black voters perceive the Vermont senator will be critical in his heated primary fight against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After Iowa and New Hampshire, which are both as lily-white as Sanders’ home state of Vermont, the race moves to South Carolina on March 27. In that primary, as many as 60 percent of voters will be black. Later, on Super Tuesday and beyond, the path to the nomination runs through other Southern states that also have large numbers of black, Democratic voters, including here in North Carolina on March 15.
This calendar could pose serious problems for Sanders, whose struggle so far to attract black support has led to lopsided deficits against Clinton in polls down South.
Most of that can be attributed to his lack of name recognition in the black community – whereas Clinton’s is about 100 percent.
But despite what some Sanders supporters believe, there is no clear indication black voters will cotton to Sanders even when they find out what he’s about.
The senator’s message is that of Occupy Wall Street, the bring-down-the-banks movement that shined brightly but briefly in 2011 and 2012. Black voters don’t have any particular warm and fuzzy feelings for Goldman Sachs. But in many of our most economically hurt neighborhoods, the problem is not the big banks on Wall Street but the little bank down the street that won’t give folks a loan. Or banks that will “redline” minorities and charge them higher interest rates or deny them mortgages. (Yes, that still goes on, and several banks over the past few years have settled massive lawsuits for discriminating against black and Latino applicants.)
Then there are the urban neighborhoods with no banks at all. Or grocery stores. It’s difficult to see how melting down Goldman Sachs will fix any of that.
Sanders’ campaign believes in the “rising-tide-raises-all-boats” approach, and that’s one I’ve heard before. Even Republicans have a version of it, to justify to themselves why they do hardly any minority outreach at all. Kill the government, they believe, and everybody, including the blacks, will have more money in their pockets.
Sanders’ and the Occupy Wall Street version goes like this: Once corruption, political cronyism and Wall Street crumble before the mighty will of the people, money will flow to the middle and lower classes in the form of college, jobs, better health care and opportunity. That will take care of most of the ills of blacks in dire circumstances.
But I recently read somewhere the most succinct response to this belief: Sandra Bland had a job.
Bland is the 28-year-old who was pulled over for a minor traffic violation by a Texas state trooper and arrested. After days in jail, she was found dead of an alleged suicide her family has always questioned.
The point is that the black experience does contain unique challenges.
In a nod to this reality, Sanders has done a good job of incorporating into his standard stump speech a harangue against mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects black Americans. It also gives him an opportunity to subtly highlight a Clinton weakness, in that it was during her husband’s administration that many of the zero-tolerance policies that led to mass incarceration came about.
But even in talking up his policies, Sanders can get into a pickle with some black voters.
The night of the Iowa caucus, an acquaintance of mine, an older black woman, called to ask if I was listening to Sanders’ “victory” speech – he had narrowly placed second, behind Clinton.
“Who does he sound like?” this woman asked.
I tried to come up with a celebrity or politician who maybe had the same tone or inflection as the 74-year-old senator. I drew a blank. Turns out, she was talking about something else.
“He sounds just like Barack. He’s copying Barack!”
Also not lost on me is that when Obama gave his Iowa victory speech, he had won the state handily over Clinton, who finished third, and John Edwards.
I suppose this kind of charge – copying another candidate – can be leveled against any candidate on either side, since presidential candidates cleave close to their party’s established set of ideas.
Clinton on the stump can sound like Obama, too. But the former secretary of state makes sure she positions herself as wanting to extend Obama’s legacy and carry it forward – not blow it up.
Sanders, with his revolutionary fury, can sometimes give the impression he will get things done, whereas Obama failed. He was used in a blurb for liberal radio host Bill Press’ book, “Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama let Progressives Down.” Sanders was also going around Iowa with Cornel West, a prominent academic who is black and has emerged as one of the president’s most vocal critics.
Those kind of messages won’t resonate with most black Democratic voters, the Cornel Wests of the world notwithstanding. I suspect black Americans tend to believe first, that Obama has done a good job after being handed a lousy hand by Bush, and second, where he has come up short, it has been because of an unreasonable and often racist opposition.
To be sure, Sanders can still pry away black voters from Clinton – but his approach will need to be more sophisticated and sensitive than what we’ve seen so far.
Columnist Myron B. Pitts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3559.