If there is one thing that embodies the surreal magic that is the Bernie Sanders Revolution, it is the unlikely friendship that the Vermont Senator has struck up with Atlanta rapper-barber-political theorist Killer Mike. One of Sanders' first celebrity supporters, Killer Mike officially endorsed Sanders earlier this year, back when he was running as a write-in candidate for a seat in Georgia's state House of Representatives. But the unlikely duo finally got to spend some QT together this week, with the rapper giving the septuagenarian socialist a grand tour of his hometown.
They visited Killer Mike's SWAG barber shop, ate soul food, and apparently talked about their mutual love for Noam Chomsky. And they finished the day at the historic Fox Theater, where the rapper gave a stirring speech introducing his new friend, calling on the crowd to "confront bullshit at every turn."
For Sanders, the rally capped off three days of campaign stops In South Carolina and Georgia, part of his campaign's ongoing effort to introduce the Vermont Independent to black Democratic voters. Sanders spoke at black churches and at the King Center, where he met with Dr. King's youngest daughter. He talked about free public college tuition, universal health care, and a $15 minimum wage. And speaking at a criminal justice forum sponsored by BET in Columbia, South Carolina, he praised the Black Lives Matter movement and called for sweeping criminal justice reform.
"The killings of African-Americans has got to stop," Sanders said. "Too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals."
Sanders—who had a brief stint as a civil rights activist as a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s—has clearly learned something from his rocky encounters with Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. In recent months his campaign has been making a concerted push to sell the aging Northeast liberal to black voters, a demographic that overwhelmingly favors his opponent Hillary Clinton.
A new NBC News poll showed Sanders with 16 percent support among black Democratic voters in November—that's double his October numbers, but still far behind Clinton, whose support among this demographic stands at 66 percent. In South Carolina—the first primary state where the average voter won't be the color of fresh snow—a Monmouth University poll released earlier this month put Sanders at 12 percent among the state's black voters, compared with 77 percent for Hillary Clinton.
The numbers inform a consensus among the political punditry that Sanders' campaign is essentially doomed, destined to stall out the moment the race moves beyond lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire. As FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver put it recently, the high polling numbers Sanders has been getting in these early voting states are simply a result of "idiosyncrasies of the first two states [that] match Sanders's strengths." That is, they're full of liberal white people.
And yet, the appeals Sanders has been making to black voters don't come out of nowhere. In fact, according to University of Wisconsin historian William Jones, who studies race and class in America, black communities are a good place for Sanders to look for voters whose priorities line up with his economic justice platform.
"African-Americans are the demographic among American voters who are the most receptive to the politics that Bernie Sanders is talking about," Jones said.
On economic policies, for instance, black voters overwhelmingly support the expansion of government programs and protections for workers. In one Center for American Progress poll released last year, 95 percent of black respondents said they would like to see an increase in the minimum wage and have it automatically rise with inflation, compared with 80 percent of all voters; 94 percent of blacks supported universal health care coverage, compared with 74 percent of voters overall. Meanwhile, the most liberal city in America is not Berkeley, California or Portland, Oregon, but Detroit, where 83 percent of the population is black.
Jamie Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, agreed that Sanders' message appeals to black voters in the state—the problem, he said, is that most of those voters haven't heard it. "He's saying all the right things," Harrison told me. "I think his message definitely resonates and is aligned with where the community is. It's just nobody knows him."
Indeed, the Monmouth survey found that 40 percent of black South Carolina voters haven't formed any opinion—favorable or unfavorable—of Sanders. Meanwhile, only 13 percent have no opinion of Clinton, and an overwhelming 85 percent view her favorably.
Harrison said Clinton's popularity with black voters in the Palmetto State is no surprise. Both she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have longstanding ties with South Carolina's black Democratic establishment. "Her husband's administration was beloved by African-Americans, such that they called him, at the time, the first African-American president," Harrison told me. "You have an extremely high mountain to climb for Senator Sanders."
Clinton's support among black politicians in South Carolina and elsewhere runs deep. In October, for example, her campaign announced the endorsements of 50 black mayors and former mayors, many of them from southern states. Sanders, meanwhile, has struggled to win the blessing of elected officials of any race.
Jones, the historian, said black Americans might also have very good reason to be pragmatic about picking a Democratic candidate who they believe can win the general election. "I think in this political climate, in the context in which the leading Republican candidates are taking really explicitly racist positions on a number of things, I think African-Americans may be more hesitant to take a risk in the Democratic primary," he said. "The stakes are really high."
If many black officials and longtime Democratic Party insiders are already committed to Clinton, some activists on the left are thoroughly disenchanted with the party and any candidates associated with it—including Sanders. Muhiyidin d'Baha, a Black Lives Matter organizer from Charleston, South Carolina said members of the group sat down with Sanders earlier this year and weren't particularly impressed.
"The conversation is getting too narrow way too soon," d'Baha told me, adding that Sanders' willingness to go along with the Democratic National Committee's dictates—including a limited number of primary debates—and ruled out an independent bid suggests he's already too entwined in the Democratic establishment.
"He's putting his faith in in the Democratic Party rather than putting his faith in the people," he said.
But Jones said Sanders' politics are very much in line with the ideas espoused by civil rights leaders like socialist labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, as well as Martin Luther King Jr."The Civil Rights Movement has been in many ways maybe the most powerful force for social democratic goals," Jones said. He noted that mid-1960s civil rights activists called for universal voting rights and an end to segregationist policies, but also for deep economic reforms to improve jobs, housing, and education for black Americans.
Indeed, that was the legacy that Killer Mike pointed out to the crowd in Atlanta Monday:
"I'm not here to talk about benevolent politicians that are going to come and save the day for you," the rapper announced. "I'm not here to talk about a dream that we think is unobtainable so we settle for less. I'm not here to talk about a utopian society where everyone is forgiven and no one has to pay for past debts. I'm talking about, what I'm talking about today, is the Martin King post-the Washington march, the Martin King present the war on poverty, Martin King against the war machine that uses your sons and your nephews to go to other lands and murder. I'm talking about a revolutionary."
Then he got to Bernie: "I didn't come here to lollygag 'cause I rap. This could be y'all's last time seeing me 'cause I got tours to go on, I got jets to fly on, and I ain't lyin," he wound down later, after outlining some of Sanders' policy proposals. "But while I'm here I have to tell you that in my heart of hearts I truly believe that Senator Bernie Sanders is the right man to lead this country."
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