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Why Don’t African-American Voters Feel the Bern?

Better the devil they know than the one they don’t.

BY Peter White

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The short answer to the question of why black voters don’t “feel the Bern” is simple: they have already been burned plenty. Reporters have written reams about Clinton's support among black voters. They gave her double-digit victories in the “firewall” Southern states. They continued to support her in Nevada, Massachusetts and Michigan. Black voters are not just driving the Clinton campaign, they are the single most important factor in her winning the nomination.

Why is this so? After all, black voters switched quickly to support Obama after he won Iowa in 2008 and abandoned Clinton, who thought she had the Solid South sewn up.

There are three main reasons why things have been different this time around. First, as Waleed Shahid recently argued, black voters are going with who they know. They know Obama and they know the Clintons. Sanders, not so much.  David Moberg went to South Carolina before the primary on February 27 and he noted blacks did not disapprove of Sanders. Many had simply never heard of him, and so they were supporting Clinton.

Secondly, Hillary has gathered more endorsements from Democratic party leaders than anyone else has before, especially from African-American pols, who have overwhelmingly endorsed Clinton. That translates into a lot of influence with feet on the ground and political muscle on election days. Even with low Democratic voter turnout in the South—about half what it was in 2008—the Clinton team kicked Bernie's butt.

Thirdly, Sanders is the change candidate Obama was in 2008, but in 2016 African Americans, want to hold onto what they've got and continue what they perceive as Obama's legacy—which has passed to Clinton not Sanders.

According to Congressman Greg Meeks (D-NY), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC (CBCPAC), Clinton won so handily in South Carolina and the other southern states because locals organized her campaign. “She didn’t have to pump in resources because she had state senators and they had an apparatus that was working for Clinton. She didn't bring folks from the outside telling people  'you oughta do this'. You had in-state people talking to in-state people. It was people who were talking to their neighbors,” Meek says. That strategy worked.

Meeks says Clinton has the support of the majority of black voters, especially those who remember the 1990s, because they were better off economically during Bill Clinton's presidency than they had ever been before or since—and people have long memories.

Government figures do show that black unemployment in 2000 was half (7.5%) what it was in 1992 (15%) when Clinton took office. And at the end of Clinton's two terms, about one million fewer black kids were living in poverty than when he took office. According to the Pew Research Center the percentage of black children living in poverty dropped 16% during the Clinton years.

But the number of incarcerated black men rose to historic highs during the Clinton administration thanks to the 1994 Crime Bill that poured $19 billion into new prisons filled disproportionately with black men sentenced to long terms for drug offenses. The number of black convicts rose from 408,480 in 1992 when Clinton took office to 587,300 when he left in 2001, a 70% increase. Overall prison populations rose 30% between 1995 and 2000.

Michele Alexander, who teaches law at Ohio State University and wrote The New Jim CrowMass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, claims official figures of poverty rates and black unemployment figures are wildly inaccurate. In a recent Nation article, she wrote that extreme poverty doubled to 1.5 million in the decade and a half after the Crime Bill was passed and that “when Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent.” Poverty and joblessness stats do not count institutionalized people, like convicts, and so the real numbers were significantly under-reported.

Some things that improved for African Americans during the Clinton years have gotten worse since Bill left office. Black incomes increased by about $7,000 between 1990 and 2000, the same as whites, even though the median incomes for whites in 2000 was still $20,000 higher than the median income for blacks. In the decade after Clinton left office, white incomes dropped 5.4% and black incomes plummeted 15.9%. This is part and parcel of the growing wealth disparity in the U.S. that Sanders rails against and should put more African Americans in his camp than Clinton's but black voters are remembering a time when they had more money in their pockets even if more of their sons were in jail.

Meeks admits that the 1994 Crime Bill was unkind to African-American communities and that both Clintons now say it was a mistake. But the 1996 Welfare Reform Law that ended “welfare as we know it” was equally devastating. Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) was radically downsized, $54 billion in public welfare was slashed including a $17 billion cut in public housing. Clinton the Democrat managed to dismantle the welfare state when four previous Republican presidents couldn't.

Despite policies that hurt African Americans in the 1990s, Meeks says the Clintons have long-standing relationships with black democrats, and, well, that was then and this is now. He predicts that whoever is the Democratic nominee, African Americans will come out strongly to vote against Trump or Cruz. “This is just a little play off. When we get to the world series where it really counts that is where we look to put all our eggs in one basket,” Meeks said. The New York Congressman is one of 42 out of 45 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who want to continue modeling the Clinton brand. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn), one of the few holdouts who endorsed Sanders, could not be reached for comment.

“African Americans have learned throughout our history that if something sounds too good to be true, it generally is too good to be true, and when you hear some of the promises that are coming out of Senator Sander's mouth, well, the issues are right but the promises of how you're going to deal with them… folks know it's not real, it can't be done that way. It's like a pig in a poke,” Meeks says.

But you can't make silk out of a sow's ear ,either. Other rubrics show that nlack lives, particularly in the South, where Clinton beat Sanders badly, were not so good in the 1990s and now they are arguable much worse.

If you look at infant mortality figures, the risk of dying in the first year of life in 1991 was 2.4 times greater for black than for white infants. But by 2000, infant deaths per 1000 live births had decreased from 18 to 14 for black mothers, but still about double the figure for white mothers. Hunger and food insecurity was the primary reason in 2000 why the infant mortality rate for low birth weight infants was almost four times higher for black mothers than white mothers. If you look at the CDC color charts for infant mortality rates between 1998-2000 they are higher in the South than any other region. According to the Pew Research Center the poverty rate for black children is holding steady at 38% but dropping for other races and is almost twice the overall rate of 20%.

The lingering and dehumanizing scourge of slavery is still evident in housing, education, jobs, health and many other categories of social ills disproportionately affecting black Americans, especially in the South. As Alexander points out, discrimination in all these areas continues against ex-offenders long after they serve their sentence. The rates of child poverty, infant morality, and the mass incarceration of black men have led to a big increase in single parent black families and the corresponding decline in two-parent black families in the U.S. Census data show the percentage of single female head of households with no husband present increased from 11% to 20% between 1990 and 2010. Walter Williams, who teaches economics at George Mason University says only 18% of single female head of households were African American in 1950 but that jumped to 68% by 2014. So there are plenty of good reasons why African Americans would like their lives to change and change radically. Sanders is the change candidate, but Clinton the incrementalist is getting their votes.

“In the last 20 years, most African American voters in the South have been out of luck,” says Robert Greene, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Carolina. “The South is the part of the country that has the fewest choices and least chance of electing black candidates because the Republicans have it locked up. When you look at health and economic statistics, being in the solidly Republican South is bad news for African Americans and underlies the difficulty of building and cultivating a progressive movement in the South,” he said.

Greene thinks that while Southern blacks have plenty of good reasons to want the kind of changes Sanders wants, they are fatalistic about their chances of getting them. They are drawn to Clinton the realist because they hope she will make things somewhat better or at least keep them from getting worse. In short, black voters have lower expectations than they did in 2008 when Obama won.

Obama was not the Messiah President so many African Americans were hoping for when they voted for him in 2008. “Yes, we can” became “No, I can't” in pretty short order and having an African-American President hasn't changed black lives much in the last eight years. The Obama administration has done some good things: minority and female appointments to federal jobs has never been higher, for instance, and Obama himself remains popular with black voters despite his failure to accomplish much as a transformative figure in American politics. He wasn't. (Of course, with the Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress, it wasn't all his fault either.)

So Clinton, as the loyal Democrat who served Obama after losing to him in the primary race in 2008, has inherited some goodwill because the President is still very popular among African Americans and while his legacy may prove to be a liability in the general election, Obama's high approvals among black voters is helping Clinton capture the Democratic Party nomination now.

Some observers have noted that Hillary is popular because her husband, despite his record, which Hillary largely supported, is still quite popular with black Americans. Given the history of racism, especially in the South, being liked goes a long way towards winning black votes, even if the Clintons' friendliness is not entirely genuine. There is a bit of condescension in the Clintons' friendly attitude towards African Americans that comes across when Southerners say things like “Bless his heart” about someone who isn't there but doesn't have the sense to get in out of the rain. Even though Clinton's baggage carries with it a considerable load of cognitive dissonance about genuinely making black lives matter, African Americans are still largely in her camp and blacks who live in the South have given her lopsided victories. They have supported her the most.

Rob Ritchie says that's because they desperately need a friend in the White House. Ritchie heads FairVote, an advocacy group that wants to change the way Americans elect their leaders. FairVote wants to replace winner take all elections with a multi-winner system like the Democratic primaries where delegates are awarded proportionately.

“African Americans in the south have a lot to lose right now,” says Ritchie. “They have lost control of the levers of state power. There are a lot more local leaders who are African American running cities but having a partner in the White House is particularly important given the loss not only of Congress overall but the control of their delegations and control of their state government. I think they are less open to risk and feeling that rather than break with what we have, let's at lest keep what we have. And that message is particularly strong in the black community right now.”

Ritchie says the South provides a quintessential example of the limitations of single member district voting where the winner take all dynamics are particularly problematic.

“We’ve actually mapped out all the southern states to show how much better it would be with multi winner system and basically there was something like 125 congressional districts and only three, even in an open seat year, were likely to be competitive. 122 were locked up by the primary with the Republican having this huge seat inflation.”

Three federal judges recently ordered North Carolina to redraw its voting districts because they were so badly gerrymandered blacks were effectively disenfranchised. But Richie says no amount of tweaking district boundaries will solve the problem because the new plan still preserves a 10-3 majority for Republicans in a state that is almost 50% African American. In Alabama, where the situation is almost identical, the Legislative Black Caucus filed suit and both cases have been up to the Supreme Court and sent back to district courts to resolve. It won't be. The system is broken, says Ritchie.

“That can happen because winner take all magnifies majorities and a proportional system is kind of a reflection of what voters want, ” he says.

FairVote has a statutory proposal to change U.S. elections from winner take all to a multi-winner system that Ritchie says will be introduced to Congress soon.

In the meantime, black votes in the South won't matter much in the general election because once blue, the Solid South is now completely Red and its state houses, governor's mansions, and federal office holders are overwhelmingly Republican. However, black votes in the primaries did matter. A lot. And Clinton will owe African Americans a lot if she ends up in the White House. The Congressional Black Caucus who endorsed Hillary will be the political vehicle to collect that debt from a second Clinton administration.

Never mind that the first Clinton administration did not make Black lives matter much and arguably made them much worse. Never mind that Hillary will talk a good game but probably do little to actually improve black lives if she wins. She's a politician after all, despite her public confession that it doesn't come naturally to her like Bill or Barack. But at least she's their politician since Obama can't run again and he just might lose even if he could run for a third term.

When it comes to politics, African Americans, like earlier generations of Italians, Irish, Poles and all groups of people are driven by their own enlightened self-interest. And in their calculus, voting for Clinton is not driven by idealism like it was for Obama but by a cold-eyed realism of what a post-Obama America could be like. Sanders may be a lot closer to their dreams in 2008 than Clinton is in 2016, but she is their friend or at the very least, the lesser of two evils and the devil they know. African Americans correctly assume that if Trump wins the general election he would make things much worse for them. With Hillary in their debt, African Americans think they will do better with Hillary-the-pragmatist in the White House than they could imagine doing with a President Sanders-the-idealist who is not.

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Peter White, a former USFS smokejumper, has reported for In These Times from Mexico about NAFTA and the Chiapas rebellion. He has also written for the PBS series This American Land and Yahoo.com. He lives in Nashville with his two sons.

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