Bernie Sanders in the Deep South

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Senator Bernie Sanders joins with others during an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Last week, I joined Bernie Sanders in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Sanders was overwhelmingly well received by both passersby and the local audiences who came to hear him speak. But so far, the media coverage of his trip has revolved around a brief aside, in which Sanders faulted the Democratic Party for its recent legislative failures:

“The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” said Sanders. “People sometimes don’t see that because there was a charismatic individual named Barack Obama. He was obviously an extraordinary candidate, brilliant guy. But behind that reality, over the last ten years, Democrats have lost about 1,000 seats in state legislatures all across this country.”

Twitter erupted immediately, and critics, like former South Carolina representative Bakari Sellers, accused Sanders of “arrogance” and of “dismissing” President Obama. But Thursday’s critiques were only loosely tethered to Wednesday’s words, which, on their face, were fairly uncontroversial: Who could defend as successful the “almost unprecedented” loss of legislative seats over the last ten years, or Hillary Clinton’s defeat to game-show host Donald Trump? In Mississippi, when Sanders called the Democratic Party a “failure,” the audience erupted into applause. And of course, President Obama was a uniquely charismatic and brilliant president.

In fact, if Beale Street could talk, it would tell a very different story about Bernie Sanders than the now-familiar critique that he is insufficiently sensitive to racial issues. As I walked with Sanders down Memphis’s famous thoroughfare, his popularity, including among the predominantly black crowd attending the commemorative festivities, was self-evident. The senator was stopped every few feet by selfie-seekers and admirers. Yes: Perhaps this is to be expected of any politician with a national profile, but given his poor showing in Mississippi during the 2016 Democratic primary, in which he secured less than 17 percent of the black vote, I had thought the senator and his small cohort might go unnoticed. I was wrong.

A group of 40-something black women were among the first to spot the senator as he exited a parking garage, followed quickly by a black teenager, who endearingly apologized repeatedly to “Mr. Sanders” as he snapped a selfie. Later, at a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, two black receptionists chatted substantively about the senator after he went upstairs to change for the evening’s event, remarking that Sanders hadn’t forgotten the people who had voted for him — the people he was fighting for. Unlike other politicians, they agreed, “Bernie hasn’t proven himself to be that way yet.”

Even though a recent poll found Sanders’s support among African-Americans and Hispanics to be strong, I was surprised. Although I, a black woman, was a supporter of Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, on some level, I had succumbed to the persistent narrative that Sanders has a “black problem.” The claim is that Bernie Sanders, who does indeed appear more comfortable explaining how class-based programs can benefit “the 99 percent” than discussing the struggles endemic to historically marginalized communities, simply doesn’t get us.

So I asked Sanders what he thought about critics who say he seems to care more about white voters than people of color. “It’s just not true,” he said. Sanders explained that he believes his agenda, which includes Medicare for All and free public education, will have an especially “profound and positive” effect on communities of color. And he’s right: Blacks and Latinos are, respectively, two and three times more likely to be uninsured than whites. And although black Americans are about as likely to enroll in college at a higher rate than any other racial group, we are less likely to matriculate — in part due to difficulty paying for college.

“Having said that,” he continued, “is racism a very significant and powerful force in American society that has got to be addressed? The answer is absolutely. Will a Medicare for All or single-payer system end racism in America? No, it won’t. So above and beyond moving forward on strong national programs, we’ve got to pay a special attention to communities of color, which are especially hurting right now.”

Sanders went on to cite the racial wealth gap, the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans, and the unequal public education system which plagues many low-income communities. “So it’s not either/or,” he explained, rejecting the race versus class framing that has become popular since the 2016 presidential election. “It’s never either/or. It’s both.” He continued: “It is making sure every American has high quality health care as a right — the right to excellent education. But it is also addressing the special problem of racism, of sexism, of homophobia, etc.”

When I asked for examples of identity-specific problems that cannot be resolved by class-based initiatives, Senator Sanders identified the need to improve access to homeownership, which plays a key role in the racial wealth gap, as well police reform. He specifically praised the work of Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney Larry Krasner, who now requires that incarceration costs be stated on the record at sentencing. And he emphasized the need for police reform: “What we have got to do is have national police training which says that lethal force is the last response and not the first response.”

Wednesday evening’s summit in Jackson with the, dare I say, “charismatic” 35-year-old black progressive Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, was designed to further cement the “class and race” theme by reminding the audience of Dr. King’s emphasis on economic matters toward the end of his life. King’s economic message — “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” — hung over the discussion both literally and figuratively, and the panel opened with a chorus of young black students demanding, “What does economic justice look like on southern soil?”

During the discussion, it was difficult to ignore the parallels between late-period King’s focus on economic equality and Sanders’s own priorities: “You have to appreciate that while [King] was [challenging President Johnson on the Vietnam War], suddenly the money for his organization starts drying up,” Sanders said. “And then in the midst of this … he said, we gotta attack racism in all its forms, but we have to deal with economic justice. I’m gonna to organize, he says, a poor people’s march – a poor people’s campaign. We’re gonna march on Washington. We’re gonna have low-income African-Americans, low-income whites, low-income Latinos, low-income Native Americans, we’re gonna stand together to demand that the United States change its national priorities — man, what courage that was.”

Over dinner afterward, Mayor Lumumba elaborated on the unique conditions of his state to Senator Sanders, highlighting why economic justice matters: The per-capita income in Mississippi is only about $19,000 per year. It is one of five states with no minimum-wage law, and despite the efforts of Democratic lawmakers, who filed 1,151 bills last year, conservative legislators blocked the vast majority of them — only 36 passed.

The city of Jackson’s infrastructure is so badly compromised that a cold snap last January froze and burst pipes, cutting off water to city hall, where port-a-potties had to be installed to service the city’s legislators. And during the half-a-day I spent in Jackson, I heard no fewer than five separate jokes about the number and depth of potholes — none of which failed to land with locals.

But few, if any, Democratic politicians have paid much attention, much less a personal visit, to the struggling state – despite the fact that, in addition to being red, Mississippi is also blackest state in the union, with a population that is 37 percent African-American.

Sanders is pushing a return to the 50-state approach to elections that Howard Dean used to help flip Congress in 2006: “When Obama ran in 2012 in Mississippi, he got approximately 44 percent of the vote … [I]f you had a Democratic Party that was a 50-state party, which was paying attention to Mississippi, and South Carolina and Georgia, as well as Kansas and Montana and Idaho, if you had a party that was putting resources and energy into every state in the country, there is no way on earth that you will not get 20 or 30 percent of white Mississippians voting for a candidate like Obama.” Combined with higher voter turnout from their large African-American populations, Sanders believes many southern states like Mississippi could soon turn not just blue, but could lead the charge of progressivism.

But in order to ensure that black voters turn out, Sanders understands that people need something to vote for, not just someone to vote against. They need to feel heard.

Mayor Lumumba’s closing remarks at the panel reinforced the theme that identity alone is not enough: “There was a time,” he explained, “where our fight was to get leadership that looked like us. Now our mission must be to have leadership that thinks like us.”

Framed this way, Sanders’s frequent focus on universal programs seems less an evasion of our nation’s obligation to remedy the harms it has inflicted on marginalized groups, and more an effort to provide the redistributive remedies people of color have long demanded. If he can convince more people of color that he’s right, he might surprise the Democratic Party again in 2020.

What Really Happened When Bernie Sanders Went to Mississippi