Brace yourself. Tough and complicated truths about race and politics are to follow.
In the early days of Fidel Castro's communist revolution, the new regime enacted a raft of measures aiming to eliminate the effective and economic meaning of race on the island. A history of slavery and massive sugar plantations had given way to a tangled set of pre-revolutionary laws, social practices and stereotypes which left Cuba's black population disproportionately poor. The island's wealthy -- those who lost homes and property and much else in the revolution and fled the country en mass as Castro swept to power -- were almost exclusively white or, at least, very fair-skinned.
Castro believed the island's effective pigmentocracy could be toppled with class-eliminating, inequality busting policy. No longer would certain homes and neighborhoods, jobs and schools, hospitals and hotels serve only Cuba's black population or its white. Within a few years of the revolution, Castro declared the regime's policies a resounding success. Then, he declared discussion of race or racial inequality a "counterrevolutionary crime" that was capable of dividing Cuba. Communism and an infrastructure of socialist, anti-inequality programs -- according to Castro and many others who share his political views today-- could and did render peoples' racial backgrounds devoid of meaning.
That is an assessment of modern Cuba that almost any observer would have to declare untrue. And it is an instructive example when it comes to self-described democratic socialist and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Sanders has managed to attract an overwhelmingly white voter base that, by all measures, appears excited and convinced that Sanders's prescription of inequality busting, billionaire -humbling policy will fix all that is wrong with America. The thing is, Sanders's message hasn't quite caught the same kind of fire with non-white Democratic leaning voters -- voters that form a major and definitive share of the party's coalition that will become much more important after the New Hampshire primary.
In short, Sanders's message has done much better with white liberals than with non-white voters.
Those who "Feel the Bern" invariably insist that those who don't are either dumb, don't understand their own political needs or what and who will truly help them. To some degree, that's normal when people get really passionate about a candidate or a campaign. But given the professed progressive leanings of those in the Sanders camp and what's widely known about the group's near-racial homogeneity, it's a response that seems like a rather large and telling contradiction. It is a response that seems devoid of any recognition that patronizing language, paternalistic "guidance" and recriminations are, at the very least, the active ingredients in modern and sometimes subtle forms of bigotry. Besides that, condescension is not often convincing.
In fact, that whole set of "they will eventually get it" arguments that Sanders supporters and even the Sanders campaign have readily made about voters of color is, truly, part of the Sanders campaign's problem.
Yes, Sanders fans, that reality did not matter much at all in very-white Iowa. And the polls out of even whiter New Hampshire suggest the same. But the rest of America does not look like Iowa or New Hampshire and has not for some time.
And the failure to make greater gains with voters of color has left the Sander's campaign far more vulnerable than it often seems that Sanders's mostly white supporters seem to fully recognize. Nationally, much of Clinton's lead over Sanders stems directly from the support of non-white voters. In fact, when it comes to white voters, Clinton's lead is almost non-existent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. And slightly older state-level data out of heavily black South Carolina and heavily Hispanic Nevada reflects pretty much the same.
Now, Sanders and his campaign seem to know this but, not quite believe or or fully appreciate what this means.
Both are evidenced by the recent string of endorsement announcements indicating that Sanders has the political seal of approval from a handful of grieving black families whose relatives were killed by police; the decision to put two well- known and black Democratic Party establishments critics (read that as vociferous Obama critics) on the campaign trail; and the decision to hold but not necessarily fully commit to campaign rallies at historically black colleges and universities. Sanders himself did not show up to at least the first two black college campus events.
What Sanders has really said and done most reliably since his campaign began in April -- even at times that can not be described as fitting or ideal -- is make the case for economic and education policies which he insists will narrow or eliminate economic inequality, thereby taking care of non-white America's "real problems." That, and an organized effort to end the influence of "billionaire class" in elections and lawmaking will do the job, according to Bernie.
And, in truth, there is nothing about most of Sanders's major economic and educational proposals which sit at fundamental odds with the political priorities that we know black and Latino voters hold. Jobs, wages and the economy are very important to voters of color -- or, at least, were when the first survey below was conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2007 the second was released by Pew in 2012 or the third from Gallup, which looked at all groups that same year.
That dynamic suggests that something about Sanders's problem is his actual campaign -- his methods and preferred language for making his case -- and not the case itself.
Here's a brief review of relevant events.
Sanders declared himself a Democratic candidate for the White House in April. In July, Sanders responded to a mostly black group of Black Lives Matter protesters at the liberal Netroots Nation even with enough frustration that he stopped speaking and left the stage. He took a similar tack with like-minded protesters at other events that followed. And when Sanders could be pinned down with questions about civil rights concerns such as the specter of police mistreatment or death at the hands of a cop, he seemed to respond most often with a great deal of umbrage and barely restrained anger about having been interrupted or put off his usual stump speech about economic inequality.
Sometimes, Sanders responded with mentions of black youth unemployment that were rather needlessly overstated; the simple truth is really quite bad, after all. And most often of all, there was a reminder that he participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
Sanders may not have meant it this way, but the collection of responses seemed to say 'Look, I've done my part and moved on from civil rights matters. I'm trying to tell you people what you need right now.' A less charitable read would be: 'Be quiet and listen.' Those aren't his exact words, of course, but they're really what every Sanders speech, debate performance and public appearance seems to reiterate.
More recently, when Sanders said openly that any reparations for black Americans are politically unfeasible and essentially not something that he or other serious and effective Democrats can embrace, Sanders pretty much said the same. There are many other items on Sanders's policy wish list -- including a massive increase in taxes on the wealthy -- which are also quite likely dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill. But, that hasn't stopped the self-styled Sanders revolution from including them in the Sander's platform.
It is as if the campaign believes that voters -- particularly voters of color -- are supposed to reorder their priorities to align with Sanders'. They are to simply suspend their own knowledge of their own experiences with the real and continued meaning of race, the persistence of pervasive racial and ethnic stereotypes, and the policy that this combination has spawned.
All of that, quite frankly, is far easier to do when a voter is white.
Sanders fans will no doubt point out that Sanders has a racial justice plan posted on his website. They will say that it speaks to economic inequality but also the ways in which environmental toxins and degradation, disparities in the criminal justice system and voter suppression activities continue to unfairly shape and limit the lives of voters of color. And even those who do not count themselves among Sanders's devoted fans will have to admit that in recent months, it's to the issues of police mistreatment and mass-incarceration that Sanders is most likely to turn if confronted with direct questions about what his administration might do about racial inequality.
That's precisely what Sanders did -- rather awkwardly -- during a CNN town forum Wednesday night.
Now, it is also true that Sanders's approval rating with voters of color climbed from 28 percent in July 2015 to 51 percent this month, according to a Washington Post-ABC News. And on Thursday, Sanders picked up the endorsement of former NAACP head Ben Jealous, CNN reported. Unlike some of Sanders's other prominent black supporters, Jealous's political sophistication, motives and relationship to other black voters cannot be substantially challenged.
But the news really is not all good for the Sanders campaign or any candidate seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. During that same period of time, white voter approval of Sanders climbed from 42 percent to 64 percent. And, while a big gap exists between the share of white voters who told Post-ABC pollsters that they have a favorable view of Sanders versus the share who do not, the same cannot be said about non-white voters and their assessment of Sanders.
White Democrats' favorable ratings of Sanders sit 34 points higher than unfavorable ones -- 64-30 -- but non-whites are much more split -- 51-32.
Again, we anticipate that Sanders's often -- shall we say -- passionate supports will insist that the poll predates Iowa and the moment that it and a probable Sanders victory in New Hampshire will create. But that is an idea in which one can only place full faith if race and everything that comes with it are merely concepts, not personal experiences -- or, in the Castro tradition, experiences that can simply be wiped out of conversation and reality.
And it is an idea that fundamentally ignores or downplays the sheer number of black and Latino, Democratic-leaning voters who make the states where subsequent primaries are set to happen their homes.