Bill Clinton, so the saying goes, was America’s first black president.
Novelist Toni Morrison dubbed him so, noting that he displayed “almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
The analogy stuck because people saw Clinton’s rapport of kinship and familiarity that crossed racial lines.
His wife is not blessed with the same attributes. This became starkly apparent in 2008 when she faced a formidable political challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination and lost as African-American voters flocked to him.
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This go-around, it’s not an upstart biracial senator from Illinois who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the coveted prize in this election cycle. It’s a 74-year-old white guy with a Mister Rogers appeal.
Bernie Sanders is the exclamation point on bad news for Clinton. In the Iowa caucuses, Sanders’ virtual tie in votes showed that Clinton can’t rest on her substantial resume.
Clinton cannot take black voters for granted. Sanders may not win enough African-American support to snag the Democratic nomination away, but he'll give her a considerable run for it, even in Southern states like South Carolina, whose Democratic primary will take place at the end of the month.
Sanders’ appeal is that he acknowledges something that African-Americans know viscerally: There is no post-racial America. He has also offered a forthright critique of wealth and income equality in America, along with measures to rectify it. All he has to do is package his message right.
The election of Barack Obama did not substantially alter the lives of most black Americans. True, it was a collective emotional achievement for much of America, and especially for black America. Yet it’s ludicrous to believe that one man in the highest office of the land, even serving two terms, was going to undo the entrenched realities of race in America.
African-Americans, segregated and humiliated first by slavery and then by segregation, and further still by subtler forms of bias and discrimination that are still with us, are lagging behind other people of other races and ethnicities in employment and economic and educational attainment.
By the time the recovery began from the most recent recession, African-Americans had lost the most ground and now have to make harder strides to catch up.
Those without wealth invested in stocks and those whose work skills are less in demand – especially people whose families are less firmly entrenched in middle class – are struggling. And Sanders speaks well to these voters, especially to a new generation that is worried that they won’t be able to achieve, not due to personal failings but because systems of government such as taxation and justice are rigged against them.
In Iowa, Sanders swept Clinton with voters under 30, winning by a 70-point margin. He also won resoundingly with voters aged 30 to 44.
Iowa, some shrug, is overwhelmingly white. True.
But what if younger African-American voters aren’t as beholden to the idea that they must stick with the Clinton team, even if Hillary is a surrogate of Obama? Some evidence of this is appearing.
In recent weeks former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner has become a vocal advocate, along with the attorney who represented the Walter Scott family. Some rappers have begun advocating for him, plying their networks on social media. And the revered scholar Cornel West has been actively campaigning and took to Facebook with a post that begins, “Why I endorse Brother Bernie….”
It reads, in part: “I do so because he is a long-distance runner with integrity in the struggle for justice for over 50 years. Now is the time for his prophetic voice to be heard across our crisis-ridden country, even as we push him with integrity toward a more comprehensive vision of freedom for all.”
All Sanders has to do is speak ferociously for the underdogs of society, for the masses of people who have been left behind. And he is very adept at connecting these dots.
A good example is Sanders’ platform on racial justice. It seeks to address what he defines as “the five central types of violence waged against black, brown and indigenous Americans: physical, political, legal, economic and environmental.”
And he fully defines each, with grim examples of the harm they have caused. Then he offers his solutions.
Black Americans know these realities in ways that are starkly personal.
The question is: What must Sanders do to convince black voters that he can and will address them?
Mary Sanchez, an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star, may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.