Most discussion of the Black Lives Matter intervention at Netroots Nation among Bernie Sanders’s supporters has focused on whether it was justified or not, or on the disingenuous posturing of the Clinton campaign. But that avoids the major challenge facing the Sanders campaign: how to broaden its appeal beyond an existing base, disproportionately located among white progressives.
Sanders has rightfully framed his presidential campaign as a crusade of the 99 percent against the 1 percent; but to expand his coalition, and build a real movement for change, he and his campaign staff must gain the trust of progressive activists of color by bringing them into the heart of the campaign. Bernie will not get a hearing in communities of color based on issues alone; he must develop partnerships with black and Latino activists in communities to which the longtime resident of Vermont (a state where 95 percent of the population is white) has few organic ties.
Bernie’s July 25 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Council demonstrates that he is more than capable of making an informed, passionate analysis of how institutional racism creates mass incarceration, police brutality, and voter suppression. He also just added much-needed statements on structural racism and immigration reform to the invitations for his July 29 fundraising house parties.
But both the twelve-point program on his Senate website and the campaign themes on his official presidential campaign website still fail to mention racial justice issues and are silent on immigrant rights and reproductive rights. Nor does his campaign’s fundraising letter address these concerns. It’s clear that Bernie advocates progressive policy on these issues, so he needs to follow through by foregrounding them when he presents himself to the public
Not doing so has left room for Hillary Clinton to outmaneuver Sanders, and sell a false picture of herself and her intentions to the black, Latino, and feminist voters to whom she appeals. If Bernie is to build the broad rainbow needed to win the Democratic nomination, he is going to have to work harder to demonstrate his empathy with black, Latino, LGBTQ, and feminist activists who experience racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, exclusion, and violence on a daily basis. His critique of corporate power simply doesn’t encompass these experiences.
While national polls remain fairly imprecise at this point in a presidential run, none show Sanders doing better than 9 percent among likely Democratic primary voters of color — and, at best, he only polls at 5 percent among African Americans.
In contrast, he hovers in the low to mid-20s among likely white Democratic primary voters and approaches 50 percent support among likely primary voters who are white and self-define as liberal or progressive. Clinton polls well over 60 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters of color. A low overall level of voter recognition is a factor for Sanders, but doesn’t explain everything.
Given the above realities, it’s time for Bernie supporters to nail the following ten theses to the door of Sanders’s national headquarters and demand they be addressed. Not only is it good strategy for the electoral campaign, it’ll put Sanders supporters on a better footing to build diverse, powerful movements after it’s all over.
1. Acknowledge problems
Some Bernie enthusiasts want to deny that the above problems exist. Yet even if simply for reasons of electoral math, Bernie has to take these issues to heart. Clinton’s clear electoral strategy is to win among white working-class women and self-identified liberal feminists and to clean Bernie’s clock among blacks and Latinos, well aware that blacks and Latinos constitute 35 percent of the national Democratic primary vote. The political capital of the Clinton brand has enabled her to gain endorsements from many mainstream black and Latino Democratic elected officials.
Bernie needs to counter this power by pushing his core activists to build local grassroots coalitions that embrace people of color. If he can’t build more of a rainbow campaign he may turn out like the 2016 Howard Dean, who did well with the white, liberal, college-educated middle strata in Iowa and New Hampshire, but died in major states with large populations of people of color.
2. Hire a diverse staff, and reach out to communities of color
Politics is about trust and social relationships. Issue-oriented speeches, no matter how good, do not inspire enough people, or build constituencies. Sanders needs to engage in serious consultations with progressive activists of color who can help him build ties to their communities. He needs a solid group of endorsers from the black, Latino, feminist, and LGBTQ communities, and to bring credible spokespeople from these constituencies into the heart of the campaign.
Recently retired Communication Workers of America President Larry Cohen’s volunteering full-time for the campaign has helped spur the nascent Labor for Bernie effort. But in politically tone-deaf manner, Bernie has yet to appoint a person of color or a woman to a senior staff position. Hillary Clinton’s staff, meanwhile, is multiracial and gender balanced; one-third of Clinton’s staff are persons of color; only 10 percent of Bernie’s much smaller staff (less than 50) are non-white.
A month ago, Bernie’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said the campaign would add key staffers to reach out to communities of color, and the Sanders campaign has recently appointed an outreach coordinator for the black community. But he has to do more. Polls show that only 25 percent of likely primary voters of color say they know enough about Bernie to make a political judgment about him; in contrast, over 80 percent of likely white Democratic primary voters say they know enough about Sanders to judge him.
Meanwhile, 90 percent of likely Democratic primary voters of color say they know enough about Clinton. Outside the white progressive community Bernie is essentially unknown. He needs to consciously cultivate a staff and volunteer leadership that can introduce him to communities that are open to his message but have yet to hear it.
3. Outline a plan to tackle key issues
Clinton has given separate, dedicated speeches addressing mass incarceration, police brutality, voter suppression, and immigrant rights. Those speeches offered only moderate neoliberal solutions (e.g., more flexible sentencing guidelines). But she gave those addresses to black and Latino organizations, which had the effect of strengthening people’s perception of her resolve and desire for change. Prior to the SCLC address, Bernie had only done this on one occasion — when he gave a speech primarily devoted to immigrant rights to the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza.
The Clintons are smart opportunists. It’s time for Bernie to give well-publicized addresses exclusively devoted to each of these topics to predominantly black and Latino audiences. The SCLC speech should be just a start.
4. Figure out how to win support after the early primary states
Polling shows that Sanders’s core base of support is within the white progressive community, with a strong showing from young people. This is a good base to build from, but it needs to be dramatically expanded. After New Hampshire and Iowa, Sanders heads to South Carolina — where 60 percent of Democratic primary voters are African American — and then to Nevada, where 40 percent of Democratic primary voters are Latino. Right now it seems as if he has yet to develop a coherent strategy for those states and the more diverse states that follow.
5. Don’t be so defensive
If Sanders is going to win and build a movement to challenge the status quo, his campaign and other supporters need to stop reacting defensively when activists criticize Bernie for not being vocal enough about racial justice and immigrant rights issues. Yes, Bernie touches on these issues in his stump speeches. But addressing them head-on and admitting the campaign needs to reach out to voters of color is both morally imperative and politically astute.
6. It’s not just the economy
Bernie has a solid track record on racial justice issues, but like many white socialists of his generation he frames racial justice (and gender justice) issues as best addressed through economic policy. For example, his standard argument on mass incarceration is to push for full employment as the best way to decrease rates of imprisonment. Bernie needs to acknowledge racism here by also arguing for an end to employment discrimination — it is quite possible to have a full-employment economy with blacks, Latinos, and women stuck disproportionately in dead-end, low-wage service jobs.
Bernie should also emphasize that racial injustice relates to the economic, but cannot be reduced to it, by making the following points: a) Working-class and poor blacks between the ages of eighteen and thirty are six times more likely to be in jail or prison than working-class and poor whites. b) Due to redlining and mortgage discrimination, middle-class blacks live in poorer neighborhoods than do poor whites (low-income whites tend to live proximate to working-class and middle-class whites). c) Black and Latino youth are subjected to arbitrary violence by police significantly more often than whites of comparable class status, though working-class and poor whites suffer from police abuse far more than affluent whites.
7. Learn from the lessons of the past
Bernie must work harder to avoid the perception that he’s a “white social democrat with a racial blind spot.” Yes, Bernie was active in the Civil Rights Movement, but many white civil rights activists of that generation were tone deaf to the rise, and importance, of the Black and Brown Power and feminist movements. Many never came to fully understand the change in consciousness that took place among people of color and women as they moved from desiring integration to fighting for empowerment.
If Bernie manages to seriously challenge Clinton, we can be sure that liberal feminists who are in her camp will attack him for not being vocal enough on gender issues. The Sanders campaign needs to take steps to preempt that attack now.
Most folks who have worked with Bernie would admit that he, like Jesse Jackson, is his own primary adviser and does not readily take advice from others. It will take concerted pressure from the grassroots to get Bernie and his staff to recognize the importance of focusing on racism and sexism and on building a more diverse campaign.
Bernie’s campaign is not going to build a democratic movement to challenge capitalism for us; so it is the responsibility of grassroots activists to build the local, multiracial, progressive coalitions behind Sanders that can last beyond the campaign. Veterans of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns remember the disappointing collapse of political power that ensued after each race ended because the campaigns failed to build an ongoing, national, democratic organization.
9. Call out political opponents — Democrats and Republicans alike
Bernie could radically alter US political discourse by highlighting how both Republicans and neoliberal Democrats use racist appeals and dog whistles on issues of criminal justice and welfare policies to divert white working-class attention from the true cause of their downward mobility: unbridled corporate power.
Issues of “welfare” and “crime” serve as an ideological battering ram for bipartisan neoliberal attacks on progressive taxation, public goods, the labor movement, and social rights. Republican talk about the “takers” and the “makers” is racist code, signaling to white working-class swing voters that the “takers” are people of color and the “makers” are hard-working whites.
Finally, Bernie shouldn’t hold back from criticizing former President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform policies and his crackdown on minor federal drug crimes as an attack on poor and working-class people of all races.
10. Don’t forget that race matters
It’s an undeniable fact that Bernie is far better than Clinton on racial justice issues. But that message won’t get out there simply through Bernie supporters asserting this on social media. Bernie has to work with activists of color to introduce himself to communities to which he is a newcomer.
And, equally important, he must learn to articulate his politics in a way that speaks to many people of color’s visceral sense that while economic and racial oppression are intertwined, racism plays an independent role in the daily forms of oppression and degradation that they face.
If Bernie and his small, mostly Vermont-based senior staff are not willing or able to do this, then Sanders will fail to run a truly national presidential primary campaign.
They must also work harder to build trust among activists in communities of color who know little about the campaign or the dedication that Bernie has shown in his long political career to fighting the status quo. That’s the way politics works.