One of the most important things to remember about the 2016 election is that the Black vote is not beholden to one party or another. Black voters are not monolithic in thought, word, or deed. The Black vote however is absolutely available to any of the presidential candidates who can best fight and advocate for the issues affecting our community.
With the South Carolina Democratic Primary just a couple of days away—the first where a majority of the voters will be Black—both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are vying for African American support. Perhaps, we will finally get to see what issues and strategies work best in attracting Black voters.
South Carolina will be an open primary, meaning any registered voter can vote in any party's primary. Voters do not have to be Democrat to vote for either of the two Democratic candidates, so it may shock one to believe that in a heavily faith-based state like South Carolina, conservatives haven’t made a more significant attempt to try to woo African-American voters.
After a resounding victory by Sanders in New Hampshire and Hillary Clinton’s razor-thin win in the caucuses in Iowa, two largely homogeneous White states, Clinton is doubling down on her courtship of Black voters. Since New Hampshire, she has met with Civil Rights leaders in Harlem and campaigned with Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal. Just a few days ago, she visited Chicago for three fundraisers and a rally in Bronzeville, a traditionally African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, just blocks away from President Obama’s Chicago home.
“These aren’t only problems of economic inequality, these are problems of racial inequality. We’ve got to say that loudly and clearly,” said Clinton to an excited crowd in Harlem. In both her Harlem and Chicago speeches, Secretary Clinton, usually guarded, hit the crowd hard by amplifying her point on the systemic nature of racism, her $2 billion proposal to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,”and her plan to limit the broken relationship between communities of color and law enforcement.
Clinton has relied heavily on her husband, former President Bill Clinton and his legacy of loyalty from a predominantly Black coalition, which will be necessary for her to win. That reliance however has both helped and hurt her campaign. Recent polls give her a double-digit lead with Black votes in South Carolina, which has been cultivated through very traditional means , i.e. big name endorsements, Black church visits, and campaigning in a predominately Black community. Over the past few days, Clinton has rolled out endorsements from Rep. John Lewis, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, and a couple of prominent African-American political leaders, like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. This traditional method of courting the Black vote has worked rather effectively in the past, especially when it was utilized by her husband in 1992 and 1996, and again by both Vice President Gore (2000) and Sen. John Kerry (2004).
But lets be real, over the past 12 years African Americans have changed quite a bit. Many of the traditional organizations that were once valued for being the voice of Black America have diminished. The role of the Black church is in decline. Millennial Black voters aren’t as connected to the Clintons as their parents once were and the Black Lives Matter movement has completely changed the landscape of how we interpret and fight for Civil Rights. Plus, for the past seven years we have enjoyed seeing a Black family occupying the White House.
These changes, along with the unpredictable rise of the Sen. Bernie Sanders campaign, have made our vote a critical linchpin for Clinton. She has been forced to defend her husband’s passage of the 1994 Crime Bill—one that disproportionately imprisoned Black and Latino males over their White counterparts, even though Sen. Sanders and a number of Black leaders also voted in favor of it at the time. She’s also had to defend her husband’s passage of Welfare Reform, which slipped a lot of Black families back into poverty. Beyond just defending these policies, Clinton must address the most critical issues affecting Black voters today, including police brutality, income inequality, and institutional racism that has limited Black access to the American Dream.
These questions, along with the uninspiring nature of Clinton’s campaign, have put her in a very precarious position. She has somewhat surprisingly fallen on the opposite side of Black activists, authors, and progressive leaders such as Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rep. Keith Ellison. She also seems to be suffering from a youth vote problem in general and an African American youth vote problem tangentially.
Since JFK, young voters have been incredibly attracted to campaigns that spur their aspirational beliefs. As a result, Presidential campaigns that run empowering messages usually get a majority of the youth vote. That is how President Obama won their support in 2008, and that is why we see the meteoric rise of Senator Bernie Sanders today. Clinton has had a chance to be bold on issues of race but chose instead the route of political expediency. For example, after the death of Laquan McDonald, the Chicago young man murdered at the hand of the police, she could have joined activists and demanded that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel resign. Instead, she said nothing.
The Clinton campaign has indeed done a lot right and in doing so, will lead to her winning the Democratic nomination given the current state of the race. But if Sanders’ rise continues, you can almost guarantee that Black voters will give him a second look.
Sen. Sanders has decided to take the road less traveled when it comes to the African American vote. After being endorsed by rapper Killer Mike, longtime activist and actor Harry Belafonte, former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, and Erica Garner—the daughter of the late Eric Garner—the Sander’s campaign untraditional endorsements have caused many to take another look at his candidacy.
He’s usually focused on his top talking point: income inequality, but Sanders has most recently departed from that focus to lockdown some of our support. “You have seen the same pictures on TV as I have, about local police departments that look like they are occupying armies. We have got to demilitarize local police departments,” Sanders said to an excited audience at Morehouse College.
And to some extent, that message seems to be working. Sanders has visited several HBCUs, toured the West Side of Baltimore and even had lunch with Rev. Al Sharpton. At each visit, he seems to slowly but steadily capture the hearts and minds of disillusioned Black voters who feel that President Obama hasn’t done enough and Clinton’s message is a continuation of the same.
Even with those gains, Sanders still has a lot of ground to make up. Over the past week, his campaign rolled-out an ad featuring Erica Garner, which speaks to much of the daily pain faced in the Black community. But we won’t know how much of an impact this message has made until the South Carolina primary returns come-in.
While we wait, there is still more that both campaigns can do to improve their connection to the Black community and it begins with communication. African Americans in this country have been through a lot including but not limited to bad trade deals, mass incarceration, wage stagnation, the war on drugs, and state-sanctioned violence. Through it all, we have survived and in many cases, even thrived. All we demand is a level playing field so that we can fairly compete with everyone else.
We are looking for a candidate who will multiply opportunities and increase access. Someone who is committed to doing something different, which is why we voted for President Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008. Someone who is willing to have a conversation with us and not at us. Someone who will stand with us in protest and solidarity after yet another Black man is innocently slain. Lastly, we want a candidate who understands that fixing the rigged economy is only one step to ensuring that our community has a fighting chance.