Thursday, February 11, 2016

As Dem. primary evolves, some leading black voices embrace Sanders, but not those in Congress

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2016 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge HARRY BELAFONTE: He endorses Bernie Sanders.
  • HARRY BELAFONTE: He endorses Bernie Sanders.

Today, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, a setback to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' efforts to win greater support among African American voters. In national polls, Clinton wins the black vote by a wide margin. (NOTE: I originally said that the Congressional Black Caucus itself endorsed Clinton, but the CBC PAC is actually a distinct entity.)

Among those leaders who embraced Clinton: Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), a legend of the civil rights movement. According to the Washington Post:

[Lewis] said he never encountered Sanders during the 1960s-era movement against segregation, which Sanders has described as a formative time for him as a liberal activist.

“I never saw him. I never met him,” Lewis said at a press conference for the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which drove the endorsement of Clinton. “I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, 1963 to 1966 … I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”

One big caveat to the CBC's announcement: It's hardly news that congressional Democrats support Hillary. This can be seen in the superdelegate count at the moment. From Paste's (pro-Sanders) explainer about how the superdelegate count works:

In Congress, Hillary Clinton has 39 of the 47 Senators, with seven uncommitted. Bernie Sanders has an endorsement from just one Senator. That Senator’s name? Bernie Sanders. In the House, Hillary leads 157-2, and her advantage in the DNC is 138-10. Even among the “distinguished party leaders,” which includes Bill Clinton, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and Walter Mondale, she leads eight to one.

But while most African American Democrats may be all in for Clinton, a number of prominent black leaders are headed in the opposite direction. 

In a blistering essay in the Nation published yesterday titled "Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote," Michelle Alexander (author of "The New Jim Crow") laid out the case for ... well, just what it sounds like:

[Bill] Clinton mastered the art of sending mixed cultural messages, appealing to African Americans by belting out “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in black churches, while at the same time signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.

Clinton was praised for his no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to racial politics. He won the election and appointed a racially diverse cabinet that “looked like America.” He won re-election four years later, and the American economy rebounded. Democrats cheered. The Democratic Party had been saved. The Clintons won. Guess who lost?

From the now-infamous 1994 crime bill to welfare reform, Alexander claims, Bill Clinton's policy legacy was terrible for African American communities. In a partial response on Vox today, German Lopez makes a convincing case that there's one big hole in Alexander's argument: The rise of the mass incarceration system predated Clinton and was fueled by state laws and corrections systems, not federal ones. (Federal prison accounts for only about 13 percent of the country's incarcerated population.)

Nonetheless, Alexander's point is fundamentally about economics. She says the real reason black America was so devastated by increased incarceration rates, coupled with cuts to the social safety net, is that "when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, urban black communities across America were suffering from economic collapse" due to globalization and the deindustrialization of American cities. It's a critique that indicts the centrist model of political pragmatism the Democratic Party has pursued for decades, and which Hillary Clinton arguably embodies.

Alexander says at the end that "this is not an endorsement for Bernie Sanders, who after all voted for the 1994 crime bill." But this sounds an awful lot like one:

To be fair, the Clintons now feel bad about how their politics and policies have worked out for black people. Bill says that he “overshot the mark” with his crime policies; and Hillary has put forth a plan to ban racial profiling, eliminate the sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, and abolish private prisons, among other measures.

But what about a larger agenda that would not just reverse some of the policies adopted during the Clinton era, but would rebuild the communities decimated by them? If you listen closely here, you’ll notice that Hillary Clinton is still singing the same old tune in a slightly different key. She is arguing that we ought not be seduced by Bernie’s rhetoric because we must be “pragmatic,” “face political realities,” and not get tempted to believe that we can fight for economic justice and win. When politicians start telling you that it is “unrealistic” to support candidates who want to build a movement for greater equality, fair wages, universal healthcare, and an end to corporate control of our political system, it’s probably best to leave the room.

One local fan of the Alexander piece: Judge Wendell Griffen, who on Facebook shared the essay, along with some of his own thoughts. Here's what Griffen posted:

Because I am a judge, I cannot and do not endorse partisan political candidates. I share this essay from Professor Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness," because Professor Alexander's comments reflect a strong sentiment expressed in black barber shops, beauty salons, and families that is not reported by journalists. Instead, journalists parrot the Clinton message that Secretary Hillary Clinton has strong appeal among black voters.

Michelle Alexander accurately summarizes many of the reasons Secretary Clinton's campaign may not find black voters to be a firewall against the aspirations of Senator Bernie Sanders. At the same time, Professor Alexander also identifies aspects in the political record of Senator Sanders that are troublesome for black voters, before concluding that Sanders is "the lesser evil."

I hope people will take the time to read this insightful essay by Professor Alexander. This essay may, in its own way, have as profound an impact on the 2016 presidential campaign as Professor Alexander's seminal book has made about the "new Jim Crow" known as mass incarceration which, as she correctly observed, was practically put on steroids thanks to President Clinton's policies. In that regard, Professor Alexander's observations should not go unheeded, but should be shared and discussed widely.

Meanwhile, add the endorsement of civil rights giant Harry Belafonte to the prominent black voices supporting Sanders. Belafonte, 88, released a video to NBC News in which he announced his endorsement. (I can't help but wonder what Belefonte and Rep. Lewis think of each others' preferences in the contest.)

Then there was Ta-Nehisi Coates reluctant response to an interviewer's question yesterday on Democracy Now that, yes, he was going to vote for Sanders, although (like Michelle Alexander) he was careful to qualify that this wasn't an endorsement per se. (Coates wrote soon afterwards on The Atlantic in a post titled "Against Endorsements," that "The idea that anyone would cast a vote because of how I am casting my vote makes my skin crawl. It misses the point of everything I’ve been trying to do in my time at The Atlantic. The point is to get people to question, not to recruit them into a religion.")

One more piece of required reading on this topic: At the New York Times, Charles Blow complains of the tendency of some Sanders supporters to patronize black voters by insisting a vote for anyone but Bernie is a vote against their obvious self-interest:

Tucked among all this Bernie-splaining by some supporters, it appears to me, is a not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage that I find so grossly offensive that it boggles the mind that such language should emanate from the mouths — or keyboards — of supposed progressives.

But then I am reminded that the idea that black folks are infantile and must be told what to do and what to think is not confined by ideological barriers. The ideological difference is that one side prefers punishment and the other pity, and neither is a thing in which most black folks delight.
History and experience have burned into the black American psyche a sort of functional pragmatism that will be hard to erase. It is a coping mechanism, a survival mechanism, and its existence doesn’t depend on others’ understanding or approval.

However, that pragmatism could work against the idealism of a candidate like Sanders.

Black folks don’t want to be “betrayed by too much hoping,” and Sanders’s proposals, as good as they sound, can also sound too good to be true. There is a whiff of fancifulness.

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