Can Bernie Sanders Win Minority Hearts, and Votes?The presidential candidate is little known among minorities He will have to convince those communities that his focus on economic inequality is tightly tied to their interests, too His focus on income inequality may reflect a belief by the presidential candidate that the most important way to help both minority and white communities is to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance at making it.
Even before Bernie Sanders was interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists at the Netroots Nation conference on July 18, people have questioned whether he will be able to capture minority voters. He apparently has competition in Democratic ranks; an NBC poll last month showed that more than 90 percent of nonwhite Democrats support Hillary Clinton.
When it comes to the minority vote, much of the problem for Sanders is simply the fact many minority voters do not know who he is. He has said that he is aware of this, and he has been reaching out to Hispanic and black communities on the campaign trail. Whether his outreach efforts will suffice remains to be seen, but it is clear after the Netroots Nation conference that some minority voters question his dedication to racial issues and believe he is most closely focused upon income inequality.
Though Sanders does tend to zoom in on income inequality, which he has said is specifically important for minority communities, his record reflects a long history of fighting for civil rights and related reforms. Besides having marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and having taken part in civil rights sit-ins, Sanders has spoken out about racial issues many times in the past decade.
One of the major topics affecting minorities in America is police violence, about which Sanders has been vocal. “When you see the kind of force that’s been used in Ferguson, it really does make it appear that the police department there is an occupying army in a hostile territory and that is absolutely not what we want to see in the U.S.,” Sanders said last August. He made similar comments earlier this month.
Sanders has also spoken out about the nation’s egregious mass incarceration problem and how it overwhelmingly impacts minority communities. “From Ferguson to Baltimore and across this nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes as if they were criminals, and that is unacceptable,” Sanders said in June, echoing comments he made last year.
That said, until recently, Sanders has been repeating a steady campaign refrain about income inequality and how corporations have taken over the country. He regularly states that America has become an oligarchy run by a few super-rich people. This may reflect that Sanders thinks that the most important way to help both minority and white communities is to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance at making it. It’s possible that he focuses mostly on income inequality because he “comes out of a venerable tradition (associated with Karl Marx, among others) that sees racism and racial subordination as a manifestation of and result of class oppression,” Jennifer L. Hochschild, a professor of government and African-American studies at Harvard University, told Truthdig.
Hochschild believes that Sanders knows there are issues that apply specifically to minorities and that they need to be addressed directly, but he may also be thinking that the core issue influencing the more specific issues is the problem of people not having enough money to live, being pushed out of the system that they live in and thus not having a voice in society. It may be he believes that “if we could solve class inequalities and injustices in the U.S., the same political and economic dynamics would go very far or maybe even far enough to solve racial inequalities,” Hochschild said.
She said this is not just about minorities getting more money through the raising of the minimum wage; rather, it’s “changing institutions, political structures, economic imperatives, markets, etc., so that there no longer can be such exploitation of the poorer by the richer. Racial subordination is part of class subordination,” she said. Sanders frequently talks about how he wants a “political revolution,” and it’s possible he envisions changing how the government works as a way to lift minorities and the very poor from a position of not having influence. Once minorities have more power, it could be easier for them to make the changes they need made in cooperation with their allies.
All of that said, it is clear Sanders often does have an economic focus. He knows a lot about the economy and is working to fix it. A Pew Research Center study has found that the Great Recession disproportionately affected minorities. It found the ratio of white wealth to black wealth went from 8 to 1 in 2010 to 13 to 1 in 2013. White households had 10 times the wealth of Hispanic households in 2013. Sanders has regularly spoken about how unemployment, income inequality and corporate greed are hurting those communities.
Many may want Sanders to directly draw the link between structural and institutional problems and how they create issues such as police violence. And it has become clear that many voters want to hear about direct action concerning surface issues. Sanders seems ready to address that, as we saw with his recent comments concerning Sandra Bland and institutional racism.
Sanders appears to be keeping his eye on the big picture. Putting body cameras on the police, for example, clouds the issue of accountability, in that bad cops are caught only after they’ve done something wrong. Changing the institutions at a higher level, which may lead to preventing those kinds of officers from being part of the system in the first place, could make a broader impact. And overhauling a system in which mass incarceration is seen as acceptable could eventually come close to eliminating the problem. When Bernie Sanders considers the United States, he sees an apple with rot, and his solution is to pluck a new one from the same tree.
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