Opinion writer

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks Thursday in New Hampshire. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

My problem with Sen. Bernie Sanders and his outreach to African Americans can be summed up in two words: Cornel West.

Much has been written about the Vermont independent’s appeal to black voters and whether he can pry them away from Hillary Clinton. And all I can say is good luck with that. I and plenty of other African Americans won’t soon forget the deranged ravings of the revered Ivy League professor against President Obama.

During a November 2012 interview with Democracy Now, West branded Obama “a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” Then there was that May 2011 interview with Truthdig where West called the nation’s first African American president “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” In that same sitdown, West talked about his 2010 run-in with the president. “I wanted to slap him on the side of his head,” West said, who took his significant policy disagreements with the president down an ugly path zealously cut by birthers.

“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West said. “It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white … When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening.”

“Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive,” West said. “He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.”


President Obama shakes hands with Cornel West at the National Urban League 100th Anniversary Convention in July 2010. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

West’s substantive beef with Obama is clouded by his upset over unreturned phone calls from the president and not getting Inauguration tickets. This was revealed in a May 2012 profile in New York magazine where the writer notes, “Even now, when he talks about the break in their relations, West uses the language of a jilted lover.”  

Joining West on the Sanders campaign is another African American who has thrown brick bats at Obama, the rapper Killer Mike. In “That’s life II,” the Atlanta-based musician denigrates the president as a “house slave” when he raps, “We know that House got air conditioning and the sweetest lemonade, but don’t forget your color, brother, we still mutha——- slaves.” No doubt his endorsement surely earned Sanders cool points with some.

[Cornel West on Obama is no better than a birther]

I have little patience for the “Blacker than thou” crowd under normal circumstances. So you better believe I have zero patience for it on the presidential campaign trail. That’s why I can’t possibly take Sanders’s outreach to African American voters seriously. Adding to that sense was his “when the African American community becomes familiar with my congressional record” response to a question at the Charleston, S.C., debate about his lack of black support.

Ta Nehisi Coates nailed what was and remains wrong with Sanders’s approach. Using the senator’s opposition to reparations as a trampoline, the writer for the Atlantic challenges Sanders’s revolutionary mien. He writes that some of Sanders’s positions “address black people not so much as a class specifically injured by white supremacy, but rather, as a group which magically suffers from disproportionate poverty.” Then he adds this: “Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?”

Excellent question. Which leads me to Hillary Clinton.


President Obama speaks as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

After watching the Democratic debate last Sunday, I quipped to a friend that if Clinton hugged Obama any tighter at the South Carolina gathering they would have to share a cigarette. The former secretary of state never let an opportunity pass to praise her old boss and former rival for the presidency. And why is hardly a mystery.

Our nation’s first African American president is wildly popular among African Americans. He was elected with 95 percent of their vote in 2008 and 93 percent in 2012. His job approval rating among blacks stood at 91 percent, according to the weekly tally conducted by Gallup and completed the night of the Charleston debate. And that was up six percentage points over the previous week.

The president can only serve two terms and the American people don’t really like giving the party of a two-term Oval Office holder another four years in the White House. Clinton’s appeal to African American voters runs counter to that latter assertion. There is a reason she reminded debate watchers that Sanders openly talked about the need for a primary challenge against Obama in 2012. Clinton knows full well that if there is one demographic group for whom protecting the gains and legacy of the Obama administration resonates it’s African Americans. And getting them to the polls, black women in particular, will be vital to the next Democratic Party nominee. 

[Dem lesson in McAuliffe win: Bet on black]

But there was another reason Clinton clung to Obama: to contrast her easy relationship with him — he asked her to be his secretary of state after a racially divisive campaign in 2008, after all — to that of Sanders and the black people attempting to give him street cred. The latest Gallup tracking poll shows that black support for Sanders jumped eight percentage points since last November, to 29 percent. Clinton slipped one percentage point, to 77 percent. That’s why. 

Because of her loyalty to the president, lasting affection among African Americans for her husband and his presidency, not to mention her own assiduous efforts to earn the black vote with realistic plans, I expect Hillary Clinton to blunt whatever impact Cornel West and Killer Mike might have for Sanders.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj