You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

5 Things Bernie Sanders Must Do Immediately to Engage Non-White Voters

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 2/03/2016 Seth Abramson

Bernie Sanders has a 100 percent rating from the NAACP. He endorsed the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in both 1984 and 1988. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. He was a member of both the Congress on Racial Equality and the anti-racist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. He led Chicago's first-ever mass protest against housing segregation.
His campaign has been joined by a long roster of African-American intellectuals and cultural icons, from Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Cornel West to Spike Lee, Killer Mike, Danny Glover, and Harry Belafonte. He opposed Clinton's disastrous welfare "reform" bill in the 1990s. He's opposed the death penalty his entire political career. He's consistently voted to limit the power of law enforcement, including a vote against the Patriot Act at a time when few had the political courage to gainsay President Bush on homeland security issues.
He opposed the Iraq War in part because he believes wars are often fought by the poor on behalf of the rich. He heard #BlackLivesMatter before Hillary Clinton did, and has consistently showed more respect to young black protesters than has Clinton. He's led the fight to restore the Voting Rights Act, which conservatives have gutted in order to suppress the African-American vote.
He's called for an end to for-profit prisons and the War on Drugs. His economic and healthcare plans are significantly more targeted than Clinton's when it comes to addressing poverty and lack of affordable healthcare in majority-minority urban communities.
And yet, to hear Hillary Clinton supporters tell it, the only way for Sanders to prove he cares a lick about African-Americans is to drop out of the presidential race right now and passionately endorse his rival.
Sanders supporters, sometimes eloquently and respectfully and sometimes in a churlish and condescending manner, have tried to make the case for Bernie Sanders as a candidate for all constituencies within the Democratic Party -- to no avail. When they list his accomplishments and values, they've been derided for demanding a quid pro quo from African-American voters, as though listing one's accomplishments and values in fora where voters congregate is some dastardly plot rather than the very business of a presidential candidate.
They've faced every possible permutation of the correlation-is-not-causation fallacy, too, with many very smart people -- some Clinton supporters, some merely freelancers looking for clicks -- arguing that because largely white folks are voting for Bernie Sanders, his campaign must have intended to appeal only to these voters.
Even Sanders' unwillingness to discuss his Judaism and his upbringing in the 1940s as a non-white American -- Jews didn't become "white" until the 1960s, by decree of the very Anglos who'd marginalized and abused them for decades -- has somehow been taken as a sign of the Senator's callousness toward non-white voters. How? Well, surely he has some secret Semitic plot to disclose his Jewishness at an opportune time of his choosing, the better to parlay his "otherness" into cold, hard votes? (Yes, I have actually heard this argument from Clinton supporters).
In other words, Sanders is in a catch-22. That doesn't mean he deserves anyone's sympathy on this score; I'm simply observing a fact. Sanders is losing the African-American and Latino votes in a landslide, and all the normal things one would expect a politician to do in a situation like that -- for instance, point to a half-century spent as an ardent supporter of civil rights and civil liberties -- have somehow been deemed out-of-bounds for Bernie and (it appears) only Bernie. Why? It doesn't matter. It's so.
So what should the Sanders campaign do now? Here's a five-point plan:
1. A media blitz
Sanders campaign officials and surrogates need to be getting on the national media, and hard, for avidly reporting Sanders' difficulties with non-white voters and reporting not at all his record on civil rights. The fact that the media spent far more time covering Clinton's bogus claims about photos and videos from Sanders' arrest in the early 1960s -- an arrest for protesting housing segregation in Chicago -- than it has covering Sanders' actual voting record is as much on the Sanders campaign as the media.
It has been loath to tell Bernie's story, for reasons that baffle Sanders supporters. This has to stop -- and reporters who chase clicks by casting aspersions against Sanders and his campaign must be publicly called to the mat for doing so.
2. A new narrative
Sanders is nothing if not on-message and consistent in his values -- these are two of his best traits. But another trait that Sanders is known for, this being such a degree of humility that he's unwilling to discuss his own life, has to be seen for the weakness it is. Bernie has a moving personal story to tell in relation to the Civil Rights movement and his own experiences during that time-period, and he has to start telling it.
3. A frank conversation about the Clinton record
It is not a smear to discuss publicly Clinton's mixed record with respect to legislation with a disparate racial impact. Sanders has to spend a good deal of time in majority-minority communities contrasting his record with Clinton's. He needn't say -- nor would he -- that Clinton's heart has been in the wrong place, merely that her judgment has been poor and her priorities ill-conceived.
4. Push back on Clinton's Obama narrative
Anyone who knows politics knows that Clinton has been far less supportive of President Obama than people believe (and yes, trying to wrest the presidency from the strongest African-American presidential candidate in U.S. history is a part of that narrative) and Sanders far more supportive. If Clinton is going to plagiarize Bernie's stump speech every night and after each and every primary -- which she is -- he should co-opt her line about wanting to build on President Obama's accomplishments. Because that's exactly what all his proposed plans would do.
The Clinton campaign's claim that pushing for the health care system President Obama himself prefers would require Sanders to first dismantle and then abandon Obamacare is preposterous -- and an insult to voters' intelligence. Sanders should start from there and engage Clinton's false narratives head-on.
5. Start spending a ton of money
Bernie raised $42 million in February alone, and surely it's not all going to attempts to win the Maine, Nebraska, and Kansas caucuses, all of which will feature largely white electorates. Sanders should be on the airwaves in urban markets around the country, not just in states he expects to win but also in states he expects to lose. The narrative that Bernie can only win white votes is self-perpetuating, and has to be stopped at the source -- even if the source is a state like Arizona, which he almost certainly can't win outright.
More important than all of this, the Sanders campaign must start listening to those who have criticized the campaign for (for instance) not putting forward the full diversity of its campaign staff or campaign volunteers in media appearances and GOTV efforts. And there are other errors -- of expression, of emphasis, and of exertion -- that must be heard and redressed because they are real, significant, and true.
As Sanders pivots to create a truly inclusive campaign, I would encourage Clinton supporters, Republicans, and neutral observers to consider the possibility that Sanders supporters are apoplectic about their favored candidate's struggle with non-white voters not because they take those votes for granted, or think Sanders deserves non-white support automatically, or think all non-Sanders voters are stupid, ill-informed, or ill-intended.
Rather, it's that Sanders supporters are trying to figure out how to talk about the candidate's lackluster performance among voters of color in the context of no one -- in the media, in the Sanders campaign, in the homes of unbiased political observers everyone -- having figured out how to do it either.
Certainly, it's a quandary we've never seen before for a candidate with a 100% rating from the NAACP.
In other words, Sanders supporters, given the facts in the first paragraph of this essay, have every right to be frustrated that their candidate's record and values have been unfairly maligned and consistently misreported; however, the very fact that the record can and should speak volumes if it's given half the chance is a sign that Sanders can and must do better in speaking to non-white voters going forward.
While Sanders supporters are not wrong to look forward to primaries in which Sanders is expected to do well, they should be gravely concerned about exit polls showing that, in the states the Senator has lost, he has lost non-white voters in a landslide. And they should be concerned about this first and foremost because their candidate has much more to say to these voters than he is currently revealing -- and his revolution is a revolution in name only until it welcomes to its ranks the full spectrum of the American electorate.
Seth Abramson is Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing and an Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire. His most recent book is DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).

More from Huffington Post

The Huffington Post
The Huffington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon