As the Democratic primary contest finally arrives in states with more diverse voting populations, how candidates measure up when it comes to advancing racial justice will inevitably become a larger part of the discussion. For the Sanders campaign and its supporters, the primary contest has been chock-full of unfair attacks and mischaracterizations on this score. Despite the Sanders coalition being the most diverse overall, somehow his supporters of color have been repeatedly erased and denigrated by mainstream media outlets.
Last week, the Root joined the chorus with its “Every Democratic Candidates’ ‘Black Agenda’ Ranked” study. They enlisted “policy experts, legal scholars, and political pundits, all of whom were black,” none of whom were revealed, to create a policy framework and grade the candidates accordingly using a one-to-ten scale. The criteria included concrete categories such as economics, criminal justice, education, and the candidate’s history. It also used more abstract metrics like feasibility, intentionality, and impact. Even a cursory look at this study reveals major flaws and a puzzling logic at work.
Unbelievably (or perhaps believably if you regularly watch MSNBC), Bernie Sanders was ranked fifth behind Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden. First place went to none other than Elizabeth Warren.
Sanders’s low ranking mostly rests on the premise that his policies on racial justice are performative and subsumed under his economic agenda. This critique has been incessantly repeated by pundits who seem to put more weight on how often black people are mentioned in a policy, rather than what the actual impact would be for the overwhelming majority of black people who live in economic insecurity.
On education, Sanders was given a four out of ten despite his plan to make public college tuition-free and give $1.3 billion to HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. The outrageous cost of higher education has proven to be a core concern of black Americans trying to secure a decent future for their children. Bernie organizers in Nevada often cited this issue as one that partly explained his overwhelming support from Latinos.
The study also erroneously claims that Sanders’s platform “has very little, if any information on reducing disparities in K-12 education.” Looking at his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education reveals a very different story. It’s hard to argue that policies such as tripling Title I funding, dedicating a fund for expanding teacher-training programs at HBCUs, and banning for-profit charters would not reduce racial disparities in education.
Sanders earned a five on criminal justice because he “offers no solutions.” However, Sanders promotes specific common-sense policies that have been embraced by the recent wave of progressive district attorneys. Anyone who cares to do a quick search will find that he campaigns about reforms like ending cash bail, ending mandatory minimums, and legalizing marijuana.
Perhaps the most outrageous point against Sanders comes in the section on his history. They acknowledge that he marched with Martin Luther King Jr and supported Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs, but lament the fact that he “also wanted to primary the first black president.” Apparently, daring to even think of challenging a black politician puts your commitment to racial justice in question.
The excuses and rationalizations given for the other candidates ahead of Sanders would be laughable if they didn’t reveal the truly craven mental gymnastics many pundits perform to justify their opposition to the Sanders movement.
Though acknowledging that Tom Steyer does not have much of a political history to judge him from, he somehow ties Sanders with a six in the history department. To be fair, they do justify it with “he has ‘plenty money,’ though.”
Pete Buttigieg is ranked at number three, despite literally faking the endorsements of black people on multiple occasions. His ranking on history is one point below Sanders, but with the generous understanding that he “just wasn’t aware of the rampant racial inequalities that surrounded him his entire life.” One can only imagine trying to defend Bernie Sanders with that statement. With Joe Biden, they make sure to point out that he worked with many other accomplished black people. His rather appalling record on racial issues can be forgiven because “eight years listening to black people is something few white people have ever done.”
Elizabeth Warren, who takes the first-place prize, is lauded for the “specificity” of her plans. Putting aside the escalating beef between Sanders and Warren, Sanders supporters can still admit that she is the second-most progressive candidate in the race. But the excuses and unsubstantiated claims given on her behalf is a little too much to stomach.
The study asserts that, “Unlike other candidates, she explains where she’ll get the money” for her expensive plans. Apparently the authors missed when Sanders released his explanation for how his policies could be paid for. Further, Warren is the “only candidate whose history isn’t marred by a problematic racial past.” As a Sanders supporter, I eagerly await the evidence of his deeply troubled history with race. The authors confidently claim that Warren “has always displayed intention when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” but without any explanation as to how they can be so sure of a person’s aims.
Of course, there is the elephant in the room. If you’re worried about Warren pretending to be a Native American, just relax. That incident “might be irrelevant to most black people because we all have a cousin whose ‘good hair’ comes from her ‘Indian roots.’” It’s very striking that all of a sudden this study, which is supposed to be especially sensitive to issues of race, can so casually dismiss such a racially fraught episode in Warren’s past.
The placement of Elizabeth Warren at the top of the list is revealing in many ways. Most profoundly, it reveals just how much these experts and pundits are out of touch with what actually existing black voters think. Warren’s support among voters of color has always been low, and her performance in all the primary contests so far clearly demonstrates her limited appeal. I suspect the participation of black union leaders and social movement organizers in the study would have yielded very different conclusions.
Despite the results in South Carolina, Bernie Sanders now has the most support of any candidate among black voters of all ages. Adding to his already overwhelming enthusiasm among Latino voters, he is putting together a multiracial coalition that is proving unstoppable. The reasons for Sanders’s support among black people are not hard to explain.
Black people occupy multiple identities that cannot always be boiled down to race. Of course people experience racism. Left alone, “racism” is an abstraction that can’t serve on its own as a motivating force for a political coalition. The Sanders program speaks to the daily grievances experienced by black people of all ages. Day in and day out, people of color struggle with health care, student debt, low wages, bad housing, and unequal education. Outside the pundit bubble, actually existing black people are rallying around this program as the most concrete step toward racial justice.