Who “Must” Black Democrats Vote For?

by Sarah Pearl Heard and Sebi Medina-Tayac

Following a tremendous push in Iowa, Senator Bernie Sanders blew past most projections and nearly tied the first Democratic caucus this cycle, a frenzied early indicator of the primary outcome. Coupled with his victory New Hampshire, the media is for the first time toying with the possibility that Sanders could win the primary.

New Hampshire and Iowa are important indicators that Sanders stands a chance… With white liberal voters.

Iowa is the seventh-whitest state in the nation and New Hampshire, also in Sanders’ backyard, is the third-whitest. His dismal performance in South Carolina Democratic polls reveal a broader issue with his campaign’s ability to reach Black voters, who overwhelming support Clinton, especially in the South.

The reasons for this are complex. Sanders’ track record and public statements, from mass incarceration to social services, indicate a greater willingness to tangibly improve the lives of Black Americans. But to merely dismiss pro-Clinton Black voters as misinformed or, worse, “deluded” into supporting the less-progressive candidate completely ignores the history of Black voter disempowerment.

Clinton needs your fear

Challenges to Black American personhood and citizenship have historically sprung from efforts to obstruct their voting power: Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and threats of and acts of violence from the KKK. Modern day voter discrimination continues in the form of gerrymandering (rearranging) districts to create racially homogenous blocks, mass incarnation combined with the inability of convicts to vote, and the requirement of voter IDs. On the 50th anniversary of the hard-won Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Times laments the ongoing huge efforts to barr Black voters from the ballot box.

The corporeal threats posed by willfully ignorant but influential Republican politicians in the South is reality for many Black Americans. Black Southerners carry the pain and fear of this dark tradition in living memory. GOP caucus-winner Ted Cruz himself was born of this Southern conservative political legacy, which has been destructive to Black communities.

Voting for a more established Democratic Party candidate, with a greater chance of beating the Republican nominee, is a pragmatic decision resulting from their magnified vulnerability to conservative politics at the federal level. Black political existence is in many ways defined by the hard-fought right to vote, and voters especially in the South may not be eager to wager it on a Northern white socialist’s “political revolution.”

This is not to say that Black voters don’t criticize Clinton for her track record on mass incarceration and her problematic comments concerning her support from white voters in running against Obama back in 2008. She also does seem to expect Black feminists (and all feminists, for that matter) to vote for her, which again, given her track record, feels absurd.

As Harriet Tubman, and more recently Viola Davis said, “green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to us … but we can’t seem to get there no-how. We can’t seem to get over that line.”

As long we continue to show in the polls unflinching support for Clinton, we lose our ability to leverage and challenge her policies. Black women will never “get over that line” as long as we keep grasping for her half-extended arm.

We do not live in a post-racial society where we can divorce our consciousness from race.

Rather, we must read and think critically, about all candidates and ideologies, and not let Clinton capitalize on our fears and insecurities. This takes tremendous bravery, which goes totally unacknowledged as pundits talk about black voters like a chunk of meat to be fought over.

The white progressive’s entitlement complex

Meanwhile, among the throngs of young, white progressive voters “feeling the Bern,” coalescing into rallies and fundraisers as white as Donald Trump’s, there has sprung widespread incredulity, and even hostility, toward Black Democrats falling into Clinton’s camp. Their economic-justice messiah, Sanders, wants to reform law enforcement, they plead; he’s a democratic socialist, they plead; HE MARCHED WITH DR. KING!, they shout.

This tension precipitated on August 9 when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted and eventually shut down one of his rallies in Seattle, drawing massive pushback from his (largely white) supporters and commentators, at best calling it a strategic mistake and at worst belittling and condescending the movement against police brutality by making the absurd claim it can somehow be solved by liberal, economic reforms.

Sanders and his supporters do seem to have a problem accepting the fact that economic justice and racial justice are not always done by the same mechanisms.

“[Sanders’] is the “class first” approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his frustrated response to Sanders’ dismissal of reparations as a legitimate political goal. The shouting socialist from Vermont running for president called Coates’ Pulitzer-winning Case for Reparations “divisive” and impractical.

“But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates,” Coates continues.

We would expect Coates’ to present mountains of evidence stressing the need for a distinct anti-racist platform.What was unexpected was his last paragraph, claiming he reached out to Sanders for a conversation on the matter, and his campaign did not respond. It’s important to note that he did not reach out to the Clinton campaign.

Coates, like the BLM protestors in Seattle, made the key decision to actually engage Sanders. In their direct criticisms, these members of a radical Black liberation movement might be revealing a tentative faith that Sanders could reimagine his “racial justice” platform to go beyond affirmative action.

And there do seem to be positive results of this engagement. Following the Tactical Error in Seattle, Sanders followed up with a series of tweets and statements in support of several BLM figures, including Sandra Bland, which he would not have done if he did not felt directly accountable to the movement.

Roast ‘em both

The reality is that Sanders policies and voting history are better than Clinton’s; he has spoken more forcefully against private prisons, the War on Drugs, and ex-convict disenfranchisement. Plus, while Clinton makes us all cringe through her robotic display of the “dab” on Ellen, Sanders has formed an unlikely friendship with rapper Killer Mike, talking socialism, drugs, and poverty. The interview is actually pretty cool.

The point of criticizing Sanders on his inability to radically confront white supremacy in the political system is not to claim that Clinton is any better. It’s to assert that Black voters don’t owe the most progressive candidate on the Democratic ticket their full allegiance. It’s to assert that racism can very well exist in a more economically just America. And it might be to show a genuine faith in Sanders’ ability, more so than Clinton’s, to do better by black voters–as soon as he and his supporters stop taking them for granted.

Stop arguing over “who Black people should support” or whether or not they are acting in their own interest.  Instead, recenter the conversation around the agency of Black voters and their ability to think for themselves, whether they vote Clinton, Sanders, Republican, Green or The Rent Is Too Damn High.

The empowerment of Black voters is ultimately more important than any competing policy arguments about economic justice or law enforcement. The empowerment of Black voters to participate beyond the exhausted Two-Party system. For all their differences, neither the Democratic or the Republican Party was founded on Black enfranchisement. Within either, our position is inherently uncomfortable and at times contentious.

Empowerment begins with reasserting our political autonomy, and the right to unflinchingly criticize all candidates and the institutions they represent.