Friday, July 15, 2016

The Sanders Supporters' Blind Spot on Race

   Two days after Bernie Sanders' endorsement of Hillary Clinton, now is a time to show respect for Sanders supporters including respect for their autonomy and self-determination as voters.  But we have also arrived at a teaching moment when it is dangerous to let important things go unsaid.   During the primary season I noticed something about many of my facebook/twitter Sanders-supporting friends that puzzled me.  I see social media as a means of knowledge production: my questions are more often sincere than rhetorical.  On the occasion of the California Democratic primary vote on July 7 I posed an honest question in response to some of the Sanders supporters' rhetoric: Why did black voters stick so overwhelmingly with Clinton throughout the primaries, effectively determining that Clinton would be the nominee with their vote in California?   The response to that post from some Sanders-supporting friends was startling and illuminating, and after a week of reflection I'm convinced that there is an issue here of great importance.  My intent is neither to shame nor to provoke but rather to have a substantial conversation.

   One friend, a member of my academic network (all of the three examples here are highly educated people), argued that black voters had not had time to discover Sanders because blacks were less educated than whites and had less access to social media because they owned fewer laptops, smartphones and so on.  Needless to say he was immediately pounced on for what seems a patently racist line of thought.  I got pretty testy with him myself.  Later on he was still aggrieved, still maintaining that "blacks are less educated" was a reasonable explanation of why they stayed loyal to Clinton.

   Black voters stayed loyal to Clinton throughout all of the primaries, but let's take a look at the black community in California.  California has a long history of black radicalism and has been a center of activism since well before the civil rights movement of the 50s-60s.  From East Los Angeles to Oakland the black political community has a long history of upheaval and struggle.  As a result of this history and because the Democratic Party must retain the loyalty of urban black voters there exists today a powerful network of black churches, communities and politicians who inform and mobilize the black vote.  On June 7 these black voters gave Clinton a 55% victory in California.  Also Clinton won by an average of 15 percentage points in every single congressional district where Latinos make up at least 40 percent of eligible voters  So, yes, it is unacceptably obtuse but also disrespectful to dismiss the support of black voters for Clinton as a result of their not having enough i-phones.

   Stranger still was the Sanders-supporting friend, this time a fellow alumnus of my college, who read the Clinton victory as evidence that California was "racist."  This was a younger woman very devoted to the identity politics of these days (she said she was a "latinx").  As a defender of the oppressed she was quite affronted when I pointed out that her view of the election was quite literally the opposite of the truth.  That simply could not be.

   No, she went on her merry (actually kind of rageful) way, dismissing facts that contradicted her meticulously constructed self-projection.  My academic friend had invalidated black support for Clinton, but this friend had to deny that the actual behavior of black voters, and the effects of that behavior (voters of color in California effectively decided that Clinton will be the next President of the United States on July 7) even existed.  There was no room for the (actual) black voters in her (imaginary) political universe.

   Then there was the third and final friend, another fellow alumni, who was in a self-congratulatory mood after the California primary.  It was a moment, he said, when he could feel "proud to be a white man," as white men were the only group of California Democratic primary voters who had given a majority of their votes to Sanders.

   Ahem.  The last time white males voted in the majority for the Democratic Party presidential nominee was for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Meanwhile the Democratic Party has won the popular vote in five out of the past six elections.  Along with blacks and Latinos, the sizable support for Democratic Party candidates from women is the key to Democratic Party wins.  It's true that white male Democrats are responsible for several of Clinton's primary defeats, notably in Michigan.  But that is not some salutary example of white men voting progressively, as my friend let himself think.  That's just white men voting the way white men do.

   There is a larger lesson in all of this.  I want to discuss a remark made by Joe Walsh the notorious former Republican congressman turned right-wing talk show host.  Mr. Walsh most recently got attention after the tragic shootings in Dallas when he tweeted "Watch out Obama and Black Lives Matter thugs.  Real America is coming after you."  I can't resist also reminding readers that Mr. Walsh was sued by his ex-wife for failing to pay $117,000 in child support.   He blamed the bad economy for his failure to support his own children.  One guess who he blamed for the bad economy.

   But I digress.  I want to talk about a statement Joe Walsh made on June 26, when he tweeted "The single greatest act of racism in American history was the election of Barack Obama."  (Pause to let the ghastliness of that remark sink in.)  Of course the point is meant to be that people voted for Obama solely based on his race.  True, black voters gave Obama 95% of their vote in 2008 and 93% of their vote in 2012 and that vote was no doubt sweeter to make on account of Obama's own blackness, for them and for quite a few of the rest of us too.  But black voters gave the Southern centrist Al Gore 90% of their votes in 2000 and John Kerry, one of the whitest rich white dudes you're ever likely to see, 88% of their votes in 2004.  Bill Clinton (whatever he is) garnered north of 80% of their votes in his two elections as well and there is every reason to think they will do the same for his wife.

   Why?  Because the black electorate is loyal to the Democratic Party.  That hasn't been an easy thing for them.  Jesse Jackson called the Party out for unfulfilled promises in 1988 to historic effect.  But that community knows that coalition politics is the only way forward for disenfranchised people.  Jackson didn't organize all the black voters, he organized "all the little fish."  He was a black champion but he understood that his campaign was a phenomenon within the Democratic Party.  He had no intention of bolting, and neither does Sanders.  Party politics is all about solidarity.   Black voters don't get to go back to Vermont.  "If the people will lead, the leaders will follow" is NOT compatible with "Compromise is a sell-out." If the black electorate had its own party not only would they not win national races, they would also help to cement in the rule of a minority right-wing.

   During one thread exchange with Sanders supporters I said "Politics is hard."  I thought we had enough mutual understanding that they would understand that we have to make sacrifices and compromises in politics: politics is hard emotionally.  But that's not how they took it.  They thought I was calling them stupid.