Six months ago, I was a Bernie Sanders skeptic. In July, I wrote about how Sanders had bungled his outreach to the black base. Though he spent a lot of time talking about economic inequality, his message seemed aimed at the thousands of white liberals who attended his rallies. A month later, I accused his white online supporters of condescending to black people who weren’t sold on his civil rights record.
I’ve heard these concerns echoed throughout the black community. Just a few days ago, Fordham University political scientist Christina Greer said that, “in the rush to make it all about class, you turn on your blinders to certain things that quite frankly aren’t about class … [Sanders is] missing a very large piece of the puzzle, and what makes some black voters nervous, there seems to be a huge gap in his understanding about race.”
But now, I’m beginning to rethink my position. That’s thanks, largely, to Sanders’s black women supporters. Over the last week, I’ve spoken with people like Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, Trayvon Martin family lawyer Natalie Jackson and several black female Sanders staffers, like Tezlyn Figaro. No one shaped my thinking more than Erica Garner. She’s the daughter of Eric Garner, an unarmed African American who died after being put in a choke hold by an NYPD officer in 2014.
During our conversation, she argued that Sanders’s push for economic equality is just as important for black people as fighting abusive policing. Listening to Garner explain how she feels Sanders will help ease her financial hardships struck a chord. Women make, on average, just 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. Black women earn just 60 cents on the dollar; Latinas make 55 cents on the dollar. For Garner, it doesn’t matter how many cops are thrown behind bars for killing black people if she can’t afford to pay her rent or afford child care for her 6-year-old daughter Alyssa.
Similarly, black people have always experienced higher rates of unemployment than whites and struggle more to find jobs after college than their white peers. Black children are nearly four times as likely as white children to live in poverty.
Of course, I worry that I’ll suffer the same fate as Garner’s father whenever I walk the streets of New York. But I’m also concerned about finding a job and creating wealth for myself and my future family. I was fortunate to attend college for free, but most of my friends are strapped with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Black students borrow far more to earn a college degree than white students, even at public institutions. That is why Sanders’s call for free tuition at public universities around the country appeals to me as a black voter. And I actually would like to vote for a president whose campaign fundraising isn’t predicated on rubbing elbows with Wall Street, the same structure that lead to predatory lending that has bankrupted millions of Americans. A 2010 study found that black people were disproportionately targeted during the housing crisis.
Hearing these arguments made by Garner and other African Americans is very different than listening to a bunch of white liberals explain why Sanders is good for black people. And there’s a lot of that. Left-wing writer Matt Bruenig wrote a condescending post in July titled “Haha what?” simplifying the grievances protester Tia Oso had with Sanders during her disruption of his speech at Netroots Nation. David Atkins, a political strategist who present during the interruption, tweeted this: “The biggest lesson learned: if you want your issue noticed, don’t use hashtags. Just bring a big crowd and yell.”
My Twitter mentions also were filled with hundreds of tweets from white progressives who lectured me on Sanders’s civil rights record when I questioned the Vermont senator’s commitment to black voters. Many of my black friends complain that this is still going on in their mentions as well. Given that black people use Twitter to push for social change, I was disappointed that his digital staff didn’t notice this early on and challenge these white progressives’ rudeness.
But the Sanders campaign assured me that they finally understand this problem, and are looking at how they can communicate better to black people about Sanders without sounding condescending. As a black person, I needed to hear this.
Of course, some believe that Sanders’s policies are unrealistic. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said as much Wednesday. Jamil Smith echoed that concern more broadly in The New Republic, writing that Hillary Clinton has made clear “she has the best chance to get things done as president — a case that Sanders has not yet made effectively.”
I understand these concerns. But they are a typical response to someone who is aiming for revolutionary change, something Clinton isn’t calling for and black people need. I think that is why so many people feel more comfortable with Clinton; she won’t rock the boat too much. That reminds me of the same arguments made against voting for Obama. Yet we elected him and the country hasn’t fallen apart. And many people don’t think it’s realistic to expect an end to police brutality against black people. So, why is marching in hope for better policing realistic, but believing in Sanders’ economic policies isn’t?
That’s why I feel black people should give Sanders a closer look.
This isn’t an endorsement — I’m a reporter covering the 2016 race, and I’m keeping an open mind. But after hearing black women like Garner explain the intersection of economic racism and police brutality, I’m willing to think of Sanders as an advocate for black people, someone I should cover seriously.
This doesn’t mean Sanders couldn’t do a better job of drawing these parallels himself. He still has a lot of work to do to earn the black vote, but let’s not pretend he hasn’t improved his message at all since Netroots Nation. He has.