That’s why, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, his surrogates and assorted pundits say the “Democratic establishment” has banded together to stop him from winning the party’s presidential nomination and united around former vice president Joe Biden, I wonder: Which Democratic establishment? For black Americans, particularly Southerners, it is not the Democratic National Committee, or the corporate donor base, or even, as the political strategist Mark McKinnon defined it during the anti-establishment presidential race of 2016: “The measles. A disease. A political disease.” The Democratic establishment is, quite simply, their community. Those who vilify it are, by proxy, impugning the people who voice their concerns and protect their families.
Each Wednesday when I was young, I would journey deep into that establishment, to the Douglas family’s beautiful home for an hour-long piano lesson. It always lasted more than an hour. Patricia Douglas gave piano lessons to subsidize her career as the music teacher rotating among our black elementary schools. Her husband, Charles, was a science teacher, a middle school basketball coach and a city housing commissioner. They were what anyone would call pillars of our community. Many days, I would wade through the overcrowded Douglas living room filled with preachers, educators, politicians and various other neighborhood luminaries who were gathered to solve one problem or another. Sometimes it was a local business that discriminated against black residents. Other times, they coordinated their schedules for staffing the neighborhood polling stations. They raised money to send local kids to college or discussed how to address the city zoning board’s plan to allow a pollution-producing factory in a black neighborhood.
It was a melting pot of community activists. They were all members of the NAACP. They all belonged to local churches or mosques. As I awaited my piano lessons, I would eavesdrop on these meetings as if I were an undercover agent. I learned that most black men with mustaches talked loudly and drank Miller Lite, and that the black women really ran everything. I discovered that they were not fighting for equality. I found out that living in a black community was an unceasing struggle just for survival. I also managed to glean one other bit of information about this loose local conglomerate of behind-the-scenes leaders:
They were all “Democrats.”
Perhaps the biggest misconception of this entire primary season is that black voters have fallen in love with Biden and awarded him the precious, monolithic “black vote.” It’s true that he has received an overwhelming share of the votes of African Americans in the primary contest so far, including 87 percent in Mississippi and 72 percent in Missouri on Tuesday, according to exit polls, and that trend is not limited to the South — he also received 66 percent of the black vote in Michigan. But many black voters make no distinction between the motives of Sanders and Biden because they have never depended on any white man. They see little difference between the candidate who wrote the 1994 crime bill that turned their neighborhoods into militarized police zones, Biden, and the candidate who voted for it, Sanders. Yet the notion that there is one single reason that black Southerners chose Biden over Sanders is far too reductive. It’s not as if black voters participate in a national weekly conference call to decide whom they will collectively support.
A Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted in January, before a single caucus or primary, showed black adults who leaned Democratic favoring Biden over Sanders by double-digit margins: They named him as the candidate best able to defeat President Trump, most aligned with them on issues important to them and best positioned to handle issues important to black Americans. No doubt there were people who cast ballots for Biden because of his proximity to former president Barack Obama, just as it is true that Sanders may have drawn interest because his surrogates tout the fact that their candidate kinda, sorta marched with MLK. Other black voters did the political calculations and concluded that defeating Trump requires a candidate who can attract moderate white voters. Some see as a liability Sanders’s record of not compromising — an intractability that has prevented him from passing a single significant piece of legislation. And, like any other part of the electorate, the black body politic includes moderate and socially conservative members.
They all took note, however, when they saw Sanders repeatedly distance himself from the Democratic Party. They watched him tell Rachel Maddow that the politics of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the influential African American House majority whip who endorsed Biden on the eve of the South Carolina primary, “are not my politics.” They noted the conspicuous absence of Sanders’s progressive, overwhelmingly white coalition when black communities were going it alone on issues of race and discrimination. When Sanders and his supporters echo the right wing’s accusations about a conspiratorial “deep state” plot by casting aspersions on the “Democratic establishment,” many black voters I spoke to in my home state of South Carolina, and in Alabama, where I now live and work, offered one strikingly similar criticism: “Sanders ain’t no Democrat.”
While covering protests over the Michael Brown Jr. shooting in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, I helped unload a truck filled with food, water and diapers for local residents. The protests had caused several school closings, which meant that children might miss a meal they would have received at school. The drive was organized, in part, by a local mosque and a Democratic committeewoman. During a Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality in Birmingham, Ala., officers from two jurisdictions crouched over me in the street, whispering threats to arrest me and set my bail so high that I would spend Christmas in jail. Unbeknown to them, minutes before the protest, Shelia Smoot, a local media personality, had notified protesters that a group of lawyers was ready to bail out anyone who was arrested. Smoot had served on the Jefferson County Commission — as a Democrat.
For millions of black people who grew up in the segregated South, our futures were dictated by an atmospheric inequality that persists, in varying degrees, to this day. Most attended schools that weren’t completely integrated until decades after Brown v. Board of Education. Brown actually combined five cases, including Briggs v. Elliott, which began when a teacher and minister, Joseph A. DeLaine — in a living room much like the Douglases’ — persuaded 20 black parents to fight school segregation. These black people never had the privilege of waiting on senators and presidential candidates to fix their problems, nor were there many white progressive allies willing to fight alongside them. They are keenly aware of the nuances of legislative policy because, more than any other group in America, they know they can’t depend on sharp-suited white men who come to plead their cases once every four years. My hometown’s schools were finally integrated when local activists, residents and the NAACP repeatedly sued the school board until the district finally complied. In 1995.
Sanders may have bested Biden in fundraising, organizing and the number of volunteers with TikTok accounts, but four decades with a D beside Biden’s name gives him a distinct advantage in communities largely ignored by the revolution of the newly woke. He represents a party that finally gave them health care by the millions. He was the second-in-charge in an administration that fought housing segregation, warned schools about disproportionately punishing their children and sued banks for discriminatory lending practices. It is notable that the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Michael Brown Jr. decided to address the issues that contributed to their sons’ deaths by seeking office under the banner of that same Democratic establishment. When Sanders besmirches that establishment, he essentially attacks the home that has provided them shelter for more than a half-century. Those people will never vote for him.
For them, the Democratic Party is not some intangible cabal of power brokers lining up behind a moderate candidate. They are acutely aware of how the party’s leadership often takes their votes for granted. But that isn’t the part of the party that earned their unwavering loyalty. Their Democratic Party is the party of their United Negro College Fund committeeperson who sells raffle tickets to raise money for their children’s college scholarships. Their education policy is represented by their church deacon, who is often the lone black person on the school board. They received their voter education via handmade fliers thumbtacked to their church bulletin board. They air their criminal justice concerns by knocking on their city councilperson’s door when they arrive home from work.
That is the “Democratic establishment” they know.