Magazine article The New Yorker

Courting Black Voters

Magazine article The New Yorker

Courting Black Voters

Article excerpt

COURTING BLACK VOTERS

In March, 1988, Bernie Sanders, the democratic-socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, held a press conference to say that, for the first time, he would be attending his state's Presidential caucus, in order to support the "historic" candidacy of the Reverend Jesse Jackson. "All political observers, regardless of their affiliations, now believe that Jesse Jackson in fact has a fighting chance to become the nominee of the Democratic Party, and has a fighting chance to become the next President of the United States," Sanders said. That was an exaggeration. Jackson was still seen as an improbable choice, compared with Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt, or Al Gore. But Sanders sounded absolutely persuaded that the nomination could come down to "a few votes" at the Convention, in Atlanta, and that it was his duty to rally Vermonters to deliver those delegates. Sanders, as a student in the early sixties, had been a leader of the University of Chicago chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, and was once arrested at a demonstration. Yet he framed Jackson's message as primarily an economic one, emphasizing Jackson's willingness to stand up to the "banks that presently own and control America."

Sanders is still delivering a version of that speech, but the issue now is whether Sanders himself is a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton. Clinton only barely won in Iowa, and she lost New Hampshire to Sanders by twenty-two points. But Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative states. For one thing, they are, respectively, ninety-two and ninety-four per cent white. Vermont is ninety-five per cent white, and early in the campaign Sanders's rallies were only marginally more diverse. The next Democratic contests, though, are this Saturday's caucuses in Nevada, a state that has a significant Latino population, and a primary, on February 27th, in South Carolina. Almost a third of South Carolinians are black, as are more than half the state's Democratic-primary voters. More primaries follow, in more Southern states with large numbers of African-American voters, on March 1st. Clinton, who has a civil-rights record stretching back over forty years, is overwhelmingly more popular with black voters than Sanders. Commentators have called this advantage her "firewall." The gap narrows among young black voters, however, and so both campaigns have set to work.

The appeals started the morning after New Hampshire. Sanders flew to New York and had breakfast with the Reverend Al Sharpton, at Sylvia's, in Harlem. ("It's very important that he sent a signal," Sharpton told reporters.)Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of "Between the World and Me," who had previously criticized Sanders for not supporting reparations (neither does Clinton), said that he would vote for him, largely because of his ambitious economic vision. And Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow," published an article in The Nation titled "Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote." Alexander asks why Clinton continues to receive the endorsements of black leaders, given that, during the passage of her husband's welfare-reform bill and the 1994 crime bill, she used "racially coded rhetoric," speaking about "super-predators." (Sanders voted for the crime bill but against welfare reform.) Then, as Sanders supporters began gleefully citing Coates and Alexander, Charles Blow, the Times columnist, warned against what he called "Bernie-splaining," the process through which minorities are instructed that, whether they realize it or not, Sanders will make everything better for them. …

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