“Waaaaaake UP!” This was the challenge South Carolina voters got from Chiraq Director and newly minted Bernie Sanders supporter Spike Lee in a radio ad released by Sanders’ presidential campaign last week.
Clearly intended to improve Sanders’ flagging support amongst South Carolina’s black voters, Lee screamed the famous line from his 1988 film School Daze to draw black attention to Sanders’ oft-repeated but valid critiques of Wall Street and the “rigged economy.”
If we look beyond the yelling, however, Spike Lee’s ad speaks to a much deeper and discouraging reality about the Democratic Party’s relationship to black voters. Almost since their candidacy announcements, and especially after this year’s Democratic Presidential Primary moved beyond the lily-white electorates of Iowa and New Hampshire, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders have been locked in an intense and often ludicrous competition to win the “Black Vote.”
Not to be confused with the aggregate votes of black citizens, the “Black Vote” is an imagined monolithic voting block winnable in part through symbolic stunts like: black celebrity voice overs, gangster poses, terrible hip-hop dancing and appeals to decades-old civil rights activism. Tragically, these gimmicks have too often served in place of real engagement with the diverse and most pressing concerns of black voters, essentially negating the equality of their democratic participation.
However, the story begins much earlier, in the crucible of the Black Power movements of the late 1960s.
Black Power proceeded from the idea that blacks shared common political interests (e.g. black self-determination and defeat of white supremacy) that superseded other political interests they might hold. In its less radical and most influential iterations, the movement imagined black leadership negotiating these interests with the white power structures on behalf of the community. Paradoxically, this consolidation occurred at a moment when black life experiences were beginning to diverge more than ever. Too often, black leadership defined black interests rather than represented them.
The effects of this legacy are on full display in the 2016 Democratic primary. Today, black political elites continue to play the role of gatekeeper. Current and prior generations of the black intelligentsia, like West, Dyson, Coates and Alexander, compete to define the best political choice for ALL black Americans, usually on the terms of racial disparity or specific pet issues (e.g. reparations, the New Jim Crow) that actually rank far lower as black concerns than issues like unemployment, healthcare, and public safety, according to national surveys of black voters.
Finally, the media too often erases the ideological and demographic diversity concealed within the “Black Vote.” Whereas white Democratic voters are always sliced into more meaningful categories (i.e. young, old, male, female, high income, low income, urban, rural, liberal, moderate), within the “Black Vote,” such critical distinctions are seldom broached. This produces misunderstanding of black political judgments.
For example, Sanders supporters are shocked that Clinton has maintained high levels of black support despite her participation in efforts to pass the 1994 Crime Bill (which Sanders voted for) and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. However, that shock ignores the fact that black opinion on this legislation was split at the time. Many elite and middle class blacks were deeply concerned about the significant spike in urban violence and what was often framed by even black academics as the debilitating effect of welfare dependency on the black poor.
Even those that disagreed with these measures at the time may have placed greater value on President Clinton’s record on other issues that affected them more directly — like rising black wages and homeownership rates.
On the other side, Clinton’s African-Americans supporters, like Congressmen James Clyburn and John Lewis, who blast Sanders’ proposal for free public college for threatening the survival of HBCUs, shouldn’t be taken to speak for millions of young black citizens who would appreciate the opportunity to enter adulthood debt-free or low-income black parents stressed about providing for their children’s education.
Rather than embrace these complexities, the chase for the “Black Vote” has encouraged the candidates to make broad appeals like “ending institutional racism” and to compete over who can more loudly recite activist slogans and chants. Hillary Clinton has performed the regrettable dance most skillfully, leveraging her army of influential black elected supporters and her underestimated skill for empathetic retail politics.
Meanwhile, Sanders, in a foolhardy attempt to pander for the “Black Vote,” has tripped over his own feet, radically adjusting his platform to accommodate protesters one moment while waffling against black intelligentsia criticisms the next. In addition to Spike Lee, he’s made B-list black celebrities like Killer Mike and Danny Glover the face of his “Black Vote” outreach. To black voters, it’s more like Sanders is selling cheap cell phone plans than political revolutions.
His extraordinarily poor showing amongst South Carolina’s black voters in Saturday’s primary reminds us that all non-establishment, non-black candidates who play the “Black Vote” game will do poorly — and deservedly so. Until progressive candidates stop treating black voters like second-class citizens, they should expect to do no better than a distant second place.
It’s time to wake up.