Understanding why Black People vote for Biden but like Bernie’s Programs requires a deep knowledge of the history, culture and psyche of African Americans.
Poll after poll shows that African Americans support programs advanced by Sen. Bernie Sanders like guaranteed public healthcare, free higher education, $15 per hour minimum wage, and criminal justice reform. Then why does Sanders trail former V.P. Joe Biden by such a large margin among black voters? The answer to this question requires a deep understanding of the history, culture and psyche of African Americans.
Let’s stipulate that African Americans are not monolithic. There is great diversity of thought amongst them based on age, class, ideology, region, among others. Nonetheless, we have already seen droves of black support for Biden following his resurrection in South Carolina, albeit mostly in southern states. The upcoming primary elections on March 10, where the state of Michigan will be the grand prize, will offer a fuller sense of Biden’s and Sanders’ support among black voters outside of the south, as well as their appeal to white workers and suburban women.
In South Carolina, exit polls showed that half of Democratic voters, 60 percent of whom were black, supported Medicare for all. Still blacks voted for Biden whose healthcare proposals do not resemble Medicare for all in any way. In fact, Biden has been a leader in attacking Medicare for all, claiming it would cost trillions of dollars and raise taxes on the middle class.
How do we explain the paradox of black voters supporting Bernie’s policies, but voting for Biden? For part of the answer let us turn to W.E.B. Du Bois. In his classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, he wrote the quest of African Americans has been “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American . . . .” Historically, the black community has been obsessed with not wanting to appear un-American. Being super sensitive to this perception might drive a wedge between them and Sanders who advocates altering power and wealth of the establishment and creating a new social order—acts some would define, strangely, as un-American.
Even African Americans who support Sanders’ progressive programs may desire more moderate means of change. Bernie’s forthright style and seemingly unwillingness to compromise is unsettling to some African Americans who grew-up in the south during the civil rights era when the message to protesters was “turn the other cheek.”
But there are other reasons.
For one, many African Americans have bought into the belief that only a moderate white male can beat President Donald Trump. All the major news outlets are pushing this line and they have been hostile to Sanders, as well. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC news pundits seem to be angry that early on Sanders had the audacity to have held the lead among Democratic presidential candidates. Veteran political host Chris Matthew had to apologize, prior to his sudden retirement, for associating Sanders’ win in Nevada with the Nazi takeover of France during World Ward II. Sanders is Jewish and his grandparents were murdered by Nazis.
Recently, on MSNBC, many watched in amazement as Lawrence O’Donnell, a usual reliable progressive host, and guests criticized Bernie’s inclusion of former President Barack Obama in a Sanders commercial. They said Obama was the establishment, and it was hypocritical for Sanders, who rails against the establishment, to associate himself with the 44th President. Michael Bloomberg used Obama in ads that ran incessantly, but few cable news hosts or pundits criticized him for doing so.
Perhaps, the best explanation for the overwhelming black support for Biden is his long relationship with black establishment leaders like Obama and House Majority Whip James Clyburn. No doubt the black community adores Barack and Michelle Obama. This love affair with the former first family is visceral and remains strong today. Biden, after being a competitor of candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 election, was handpicked by the soon-to be-president as his running mate for vice president. Today, it seems a bit hypocritical when Biden criticizes Sanders for “considering a run against Obama in 2012,” which he did not do, while Biden, himself, was an actual candidate vying for the presidency the same year Obama won the nomination in 2008.
But still, the black community values relationships, sometimes to a fault. If black people were to peek into Biden’s legislative past, as it relates to the impact of his policies on black America, they would not like what they see. Branko Marcetic argues in his new book, Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, that “Biden has really systematically betrayed [the black community] even though he’s gained their support year after year [and] election after election.”
In an interview on Democracy Now, hosted by Amy Goodman, Marcetic presents evidence to support this thesis, pointing to Biden’s positions on welfare reform that Marcetic claims caused Welfare to “disappear really across the south and southwest….” He further mentions Biden’s work with former President Bill Clinton on passing NAFTA and criminal justice reform, responsible for job losses and mass incarceration of many black and brown men.
While Biden benefits from his decades-long relationship with black politicians, Sanders has his own problems connecting to black people. Some African Americans want to know that the self-styled “socialist” understands the subtleties of race within American capitalism. To win more black support Sanders needs to commit to specific programs that will benefit the black community, like rebuilding cities and infrastructure and guaranteeing that African Americans will get jobs and black businesses will get contracts. Further, he should commit to increasing federal funding for HBCUs because of their historic and present significance to our nation.
Above all, at the end of the day, two critical questions remain: If Biden were to get the nomination for president, would left leaning Democrats support a centrist candidate? And, if Bernie gets the nomination, will voters in the center vote for him? We do not know the answers to either of these questions. And although media pundits and the moderate wing of the Democratic Party would have us believe otherwise, the truth is, there’s risk associated with both candidates.
Sadly, this election started out with the most diverse field of candidates our country has ever seen. Notwithstanding the fact that Bernie, as a Democratic Socialist, represents a type of diversity, in and of itself, there are just two nearly octogenarian white men left to slug it out. Neither of them reflects the new Democratic Party, comprised primarily of black women and other people of color, educated suburban women, labor, and young people who will be the leaders of tomorrow.