After a brief surge with Black voters, it appears that Bernie Sanders and his campaign are not really sure at all how exactly to court the group. Ever since Sanders’s support among Black voters soared in late January, there seems to have been a series of missteps from his campaign that came across as racially tone-deaf.
As Joe Biden continues to rack up the endorsements from high-profile Black members of the political establishment, time is of the essence for Sanders and his campaign to turn things around and win the ever-crucial support from Black voters that pundits have predicted will push the winning candidate to victory. That could start with Michigan’s primary on Tuesday.
To be fair, Biden seems to be the one with far more racial gaffes than Sanders. But they haven’t affected Biden’s campaign as much as Sanders’ missteps have affected his own despite appearing to have progressive plans that would — at least on paper — benefit Black folks big time.
And while the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s endorsement on Sunday of Sanders should, in theory, be able to stop some of the race-based political bleeding coming from the campaign, the move was largely reduced to a courteous act of reciprocity from decades ago when Sanders endorsed Jackson’s own ambitious presidential bid. Jackson’s endorsement was also — whether true or not — seen as one of little relevance by some on social media who tried to dismiss the civil rights icon’s historic accomplishments as having no current bearing in modern politics. (Jackson sided with Hillary Clinton in 2016 when he endorsed her for president over Sanders.)
But that outrage that seemed to be manufactured quickly gave way to real anger when it was reported later Sunday that Sander’s campaign had hired a senior adviser who years ago tweeted disparaging remarks about Michelle Obama and pushed conspiracy theories about Sept. 11. The senior adviser — Phillip Agnew — is Black and was hired specifically to shore out the campaign’s outreach to Black voters.
The obvious question surrounding that fiasco is whether anyone in Sanders’ campaign took the time to properly vet Agnew. That answer seemed to be no, which spoke to the apparent larger problem of Sanders’ campaign being unsure of how to proceed and out of touch when it comes to trying to attract Black voters.
The domino effect criticism over Sanders’ approach to wooing Black voters was exacerbated almost instantly after it was reported that the senator from Vermont had not only topped a new national poll but had also eaten considerably into Biden’s lead with Black voters back in January. The very next day, though, Sanders openly welcomed the support of Joe Rogan despite the comedian’s history of racist moments, something that especially rankled Black folks across social media.
Rogan, a white man, has said the N-word with impunity and no consequences on his podcast multiple times. There’s even footage of him comparing a Black neighborhood to “Planet of the Apes.” The fact that Sanders tweeted out Rogan’s support brought attention to the senator’s efforts at trying to attract Black voters.
But just as that controversy has died down, Sanders seemingly brought on another on his own when he decided to be the only major presidential candidate to willingly skip walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, earlier this month. The move didn’t seem to match up with the civil rights history that Sanders often touts while invoking the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and came across as him snubbing an event that is important to Black voters and African Americans in general.
Days later, Sanders decided to cancel a speech he was scheduled to give in Mississippi to — yep, you guessed it — Black voters. At that point, Sanders was fresh off of losses in Super Tuesday’s voting that gave Biden a lead among delegates following contests that involved a significant number of Black voters participating. Sanders dispatched actor and campaign surrogate Danny Glover to speak to Mississippi voters in his place, something that Roland Martin tweeted was “not a wise move.”
Once again, the decision by Sanders’ campaign to not participate in a so-called Black event prompted more people to suggest he was prioritizing white voters in Michigan, where he went to campaign instead. That seemed to be true after The Root’s Terrell Starr tweeted a video showing that a long line to get into Sanders’ rally in Detroit — a city that is 80 percent Black — on Friday was primarily made up of white people.
Photos from inside the rally all but confirmed that suspicion.
While in Michigan, Sanders also took part in an event Saturday night in Flint that was — as the New York Times put it — “an opportunity for him to make a case directly to black voters for why they should support him over Mr. Biden. But the audience ended up being overwhelmingly white, and Mr. Sanders made so few overtures directly to black voters that the event seemed unlikely to pull large numbers of African-Americans away from Mr. Biden.”
That episode made it seem as though Sanders didn’t think that his white supporters would be interested in anything he had to say about Black voters.
With all of the above combined with earlier missteps along the same lines — changing the topic when Black voters want to discuss reparations; tastelessly using video from police shooting an unarmed Black grandmother to death in a campaign ad; and implying that young Black drivers are not “polite” and don’t “respect” police during traffic stops, to name but a few — it’s not far-fetched to suggest that Sanders’ campaign might want to reevaluate its strategy for courting Black voters.
Optics and perception are everything in politics, so the above instances were damning in that respect. But when it comes to substance, Sanders is the candidate for Black voters — at least that was according to the Center for Urban and Racial Equity, which released its 2020 Racial Justice Presidential Scorecard in December. The scorecard is described by the group as the “first of its kind” and it analyzes presidential candidates‘ policy proposals through a racial equity lens across essential areas such as education, criminal justice reform, health care, voting rights, reparations, environmental justice, immigration, indigenous rights and policies to close the racial wealth gap.
The scorecard also takes into consideration the candidates’ past and current rhetoric and language around racial justice issues that mean a lot to communities of color. The criteria for scoring included support for specific policies to further racial justice, the amount of detail provided for their policy strategies, and language used in debates and public events to lay out issues impacting Black and brown voters. The scorecard went through a rigorous external review process to make sure the scoring of the candidates were fair and on topic with issues of importance to communities of color.
Sanders scored 85/100, good enough for third place among all the candidates and finishing behind Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. Biden, on the other hand — the race’s other front-runner who has been leading most polls — earned the grade of an F ranking with a 57/100.