Home / General / On Bernie, Biden, Black Voters, and Whiteness

On Bernie, Biden, Black Voters, and Whiteness


I want to discuss some things that Chris raised in his post last night on Black voters and the Biden-Bernie matchup, and that were then echoed by others in comments. (I should say at the top that I am both one of the only Sanders-supporting and one of the only nonwhite LGM front-pagers, both of which may or may not be relevant disclosures.)

I don’t have any issues with Chris’s larger conclusion that Biden manhandled Sanders in attracting Black voters in the South. That’s clearly true and not up for debate. I also agree with the point that it’s patronizing to write off Black voters as voting against their interests, being ill-informed, etc. It’s also not borderline offensive. It is offensive.

However, I think there is a lot of nuance that’s lost, and then there’s the big problematic assertion that Black votes are going to be in play in November in terms of Trump succeeding at making a play for them. That’s not true in any really meaningful way, as even the Thomas Edsall piece linked to in the post basically shows. There’s a likelihood of lower turnout relative to 2008 and 2012, thanks to voter suppression and Obama not being on the ticket, but there’s not likely to be a statistically meaningful defection to Trump, despite what Kanye thinks and regardless of who the Democratic nominee is.

The reasons aren’t hard to parse. It’s in large measure because Black voters are by and large legitimately horrified by Trump, and by a much wider margin than are most other demographic groups. (This is of course more true of Black women than Black men.) As Blair LM Kelley writes:

black voters like the ones who pushed Biden to big victories in South Carolina, and then in Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina, aren’t The Establishment, and it would be a mistake to characterize them as moderate, or even, as certain pundits maintain, somewhat conservative. Rather than placing these votes along a straight continuum between the left and the right, it would be better to think about black voters in their own particular contexts. For most of these voters, the main concern isn’t the radicalism of their chosen primary candidate but the recklessness of the current president. Removing Trump is their primary — and in some cases only — concern. Biden, who stood firmly behind President Barack Obama for two terms, is less a compelling candidate than a reset button.

The John McWhorter quote that Chris offers (“Trump’s racism is less important to probably most black people than it is to the minority of black people in academia/the media/collegetownish circles”) contradicts that message, but McWhorter is dispositionally and professionally prone to denying the importance of racism in anything, so I don’t really think it’s worth putting stock in his opinions on this.

As for Sanders, he clearly has made mistakes when it comes to appealing to older Black voters. As Kelly notes in the piece linked above, Sanders’ skipping of important events like the Salute to Selma are huge turn-offs, and thus blunders. So too was his apparent refusal to really seek out the support of people like Jim Clyburn ahead of the South Carolina primary.

There’s also the reality, though, as Michael Harriot wrote on Twitter, that for a lot of older Black voters, their Democratic affiliation is more than just a political party, a potentially insurmountable reality for Bernie with that constituency. I’m just cutting and pasting Harriot’s tweets here:

I’ve talked to TOO MANY black Southern voters this week (and during my life). I wanna stop and explain the concept of “the establishment” to some people and why a lot of black Southern voters will NEVER vote for Bernie. Growing up, my family only talked revolutionary politics. I didn’t go to school until age 12 so I didn’t know about political parties. (I swear this is true) I thought “Democrats” was a religion. My grandma would pop u in the mouth if you said anything bad about a Dem. Here’s why. In a lot of small towns in the South, black people are generally on their own. There is no outside help. Activists, people on the ground doing work, and local political leaders all come from the same pot. There is no real distinction. My piano teacher growing up was also the NAACP president who was also a city councilperson. Sometimes I had to wait for her to finish with someone who was harassed by the cops. Sometimes there was a meeting about a local restaurant who wouldn’t serve black teens. If it was a voting day, I had to miss a lesson because she had to work the polls. Shortly after Mike Brown was killed, I went to Ferguson. As soon as I to Florissant Rd. folks asked me to help unload a truck filled with food, water, etc. where people could come and get it. I don’t remember the woman and the man’s name but he was from a local mosque and she was on the local Dem committee. Because of the protests, schools were closed. I never thought about this, but they made a good point that only someone in the community would know: If the kids were home all day but their parents still had to work, who was going to pay for and provide that extra meal they missed? A few years ago, I did a story about a third-world hookworm epidemic in Lowndes County, Ala. The woman who explained the problem to me was Catherine Coleman Flowers, who has worked on environmental justice in the South for years. The hookworms happened because a lot of people couldn’t afford septic tanks, so they “straight-piped” the waste away from their homes. Coleman-Flowers didn’t discover the hookworm problem because she’s some kind of expert. She was working in the county trying to help people in this 73% black county solve its waste problems. It was only when SHE got sick and asked a dr to test her was the hookworm was discovered. If it wasn’t for her, we might not know why people in the area were dying at such a high rate because scientists literally thought the parasite didn’t exist in America. I was once involved in what ended up being a 1-man protest (long story, read it here). Police chiefs from 2 different jurisdictions were crouched over me threatening me with arrest. They said I’d be locked up all weekend if I couldn’t make bail. But what they didn’t know is that a local councilwoman had already arranged lawyers and bail for anyone who was arrested. Again, there ain’t no help for black people EXCEPT black people. Look at photos of protests for Trayvon Martin in Fla. or EJ Bradford Jr. in Birmingham or Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Those well-meaning, progressive white liberals are nowhere to be found. All we have is the institutions, organizations and relationships we built. That’s why politicians come to black churches in the south. That’s why a lot of activists down here are also educators and religious leaders. It’s why Dem. Party meetings take place in church basements. That is quite literally “the establishment” for us. Unlike someone who live in blue and progressive areas, their lives depend on politics. It’s why I’ve found black Southern black voters are more educated on the issues than any other group. Admittedly, that comes with cynicism. Here is an example: 1 woman told me that Bernie is too “obsessed” with M4A. She believes he’ll sell anything out to get it done. Then she shocked the f*ck out of me by explaining something I had never heard of. She explained that she had read Bernie’s M4A plan and didn’t like it because it would essentially eliminate private insurance. And, she said, negotiating prescription drugs removed financial incentives for innovating. Turns out, she was retired from a medical company. She doesn’t think pharmeceutical companies and insurance lobbyists would ever let it happen. “I want to eat anything I want withoutt gaining weight. But it won’t happen. The way he [Bernie] has it, it will never happen. Ever. I like the public option more.” She spent her Super Tues. driving people from her community center to the polls in Ala. Back to the original point. A lot of these people pay a lot of attention to politics. You can criticize them but you can’t say they are uninformed. And many of them have the same criticism of Bernie Sanders: “He ain’t no Democrat.” And they’re right. He has not only criticized the party (God knows I have) but he has denigrated “the establishment” and distanced himself from people like Jim Clyburn and John Lewis. I shrug it off but, to a lot of people, you’re talking about their church members, their piano teachers, the people that help them when they are the lowest. Those people see that. And to them, Bernie is just another progressive white man with great-sounding “ideas.” They know Bernie’s record. They know about his history. They also know about unfulfilled promises. It’s not that they trust Biden more than they trust Bernie —A lot of them will NEVER be convinced to trust one white man over another white man. WHat has Biden ever done for black people? Nothing. Neither has Sanders. For a lot of them, NO white person has ever had their best interest at heart. A lot of them don’t even care about Biden’s relationship with Obama, as some people claim. He has another 40-year relationship that is more important: That D” beside his name. To them, that’s the “establishment” they trust. They all they got.

There is also a large and reasonable suspicion of whether or not enough white voters would actually support a Sanders-style political recalibration. Kelly, again:

Black voters over 45 have lived long enough to see the history made by Obama, but also have an even longer memory of the disappointment and shortcomings of candidates who failed. They’ve surveyed the polarized political landscape and bitterly divided Congress, and they doubt that a Sanders’-style political revolution is even a remote possibility in an age when just voting to fund the government is regularly up for debate. Many of them admired the grit and talent of Warren but had no faith that white men in any significant numbers would support a woman for president, even if she was the best choice.

Or as the great Black Freedom Movement scholar Hasan Jeffries put it:

I’m only going to say this once, so listen up! It’s not that Black voters don’t trust #BernieSanders enough to vote for him in the primaries, it’s that they don’t trust white voters enough to vote for him over Trump in the general election. So #Biden it is.

I know from reader reactions to my postings on reparations last year and Erik’s postings on school segregation, etc. that there’s a true aversion within a lot of this community to thinking truly and hard about whiteness and its power. But people need to know that whiteness and the ways it works are routinely part of the political arithmetic for voters of color. They have to be. (It hardly needs reiterating that Trump’s base is white men and white women, in that order, but I’ll reiterate it anyway.)

For the duration of this election cycle, Sanders has been more popular among people of color than he has been among white folks, with obvious variation between and among various demographic groups and ups and downs in the precise statistics. It’s probably true that some Black voters and other voters of color wouldn’t vote for Bernie in the general, whether because they disagree with his politics or because they don’t buy his Democratic credentials or because he’s skipping states in the primary or whatever.

But there is also the reality that many nonwhite voters are suspicious, based upon experience and history, of white voters’ commitment to a politics explicitly premised on social, economic, and racial justice that might disrupt the privileges of whiteness. That reality weighs on what people think is possible, and thus influences how they primary. It’s obviously not the only thing, but it’s there. The voting calculations of nonwhite voters aren’t made in a vacuum. They’re made in a political landscape indelibly shaped (one might say mutilated) by whiteness.

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