Sen. Bernie Sanders's momentum was cut short after placing second in South Carolina’s primary. While he took the lead in earlier primary states and caucuses like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, those races were not won by Black voters. In Nevada, non-Black Latino voters helped give him the push that he needed to win. Black Nevada voters went mainly to former Vice President Joe Biden. 

After Super Tuesday, it became clear that if Sanders wants to win the nomination, he needs to do more to connect with Black voters, especially those in the South. While his campaign has a diverse team of surrogates, including former state Senator Nina Turner, his national co-chair, there appears to still be a disconnect between him and some Black voters. 

Why might this be? 

Sanders’ campaign has focused on income inequality, nationalizing health care, and ending student debt. All issues that disproportionately impact Black people, who have 6.5 times less wealth than white households. In 2018, 12.2% of Black Americans were uninsured. And when it comes to student debt, Black graduates hold the highest debt. So where is the disconnect? 

Perhaps it’s generational. 

My mother, who is not stupid, who is not a part of the establishment, yelled at me for saying I was going to a Sanders rally. Her exact words were, “You young people are going to mess it up.” My mom is someone who would benefit from having Medicare for All, and her daughter would benefit from having her student debt canceled. What I heard in her voice wasn’t anger, but fear of another four years of Trump. 

What Joe Biden represents, whether it is fair or not, is the Barack Obama years. A sense of certainty in a very uncertain time.  What most Black Democrats know is that they do not want another four years of Trump. Sanders is running not just running against Trump, but also against the establishment, by which I mean the wealthy elite and the corporations and the members of both parties who take their money. The fear I believe, at least with my mother, is that while all that is needed, we won’t be able to get it done. She fears the establishment machine will swallow up Sanders’ campaign and therefore give us four more years of Trump.

Is the 2016 campaign still haunting him? 

Four years ago, Sanders came under fire for his thoughts on reparations. When asked in a 2016 interview with Fusion, he responded, “No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.” Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article accusing Sanders of being “limited” when it comes to white supremacy despite being imaginative “against plutocracy.” 

His stance on reparations has been seen as an example of Sanders’ inability to connect with certain Black voters. During the New York Times interview series The Weekly in 2019, Sanders was asked about reparations, where he clarified his current stance on reparations and mentioned that he was a proud co-sponsor of Sen. Cory Booker’s reparations bill. 

When asked about race-specific Black issues, Sanders often pivots to class. This has been taken by some to be a lack of understanding about race. Or seeing race as less an issue than class. 

To address this, Sanders needs to speak more directly on race and the systemic racial issues that impact the Black community beyond economics. Sanders should speak more about how he has always been a critic of mass incarceration, even in spite of his vote for the 1994 crime bill (of which Joe Biden was a leading architect). He should also highlight how in Congress he has worked to pass laws that have impacted the Black community.

Is it too late?

With reports that the campaign is shifting focus from Mississippi to Michigan, it appears as if Sanders has conceded the Black vote to Biden. And, yes, while Black people live in Michigan appearance is key. I think something that is admirable about the campaign but also might be its demise is that it doesn't do things for show. But, when we hear that Sanders is canceling a rally in Mississippi what we hear as Black people is that we are not important to you and you have given up on trying to win us over. 

If Sanders wants a chance to still win the nomination he needs to be unconventional and announce his vice presidential pick and who would be in his cabinet. For the Black voters who are not excited by him, he needs to show them what a Sanders administration would look like. He also needs to show that he can defeat Trump. 

It's not going to be an easy win for Sanders, he's not going to get the same sort of endorsements that Biden gets. Most of the leadership in the Congressional Black Caucus is more moderate than progressive. They are not supporters of Medicare-for-All or the Green New Deal. They are not a fan of the policies he and the freshman House members are trying to put in place. In actuality what Sanders represents for incumbent CBC members are threats to their seats and possible primaries by more progressive challengers.  

The Sanders campaign still has a fighting chance, but it needs to remember that it does not stand a chance without Black voters. We decide who will be the Democratic nominee, and no candidate should ever forget that.