Black Voters Are Ready. Are We?

Bernie lost with Black voters, but the Left will win if we commit to deep organizing work to earn their trust.

Phillip Agnew May 18, 2020

The Left must seize the opportunity to live our politics in public. (Photo via Facebook/Bernie Sanders)

This is part of a round­table on lessons from 2020 that the Left can use to win future pres­i­den­tial elections.

Most Black people—young or old—do not “know” the Black-led Left or the “Bernie, DSA Left,” at least not as a contemporary, consistent, powerful, organized, winning force in their lives. We must change that.

It’s been three and a half months since the South Car­oli­na Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. As the sto­ry goes, it was there for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden and Black Amer­i­ca” drew a line in the sand and crashed the Bernie wave. What hap­pened next con­firmed that nar­ra­tive in the minds of pun­dits and prog­nos­ti­ca­tors: Joe Biden con­tin­ued to win Black vot­ers by large mar­gins and, embold­ened by the endorse­ments of for­mer oppo­nents and but­tressed by Black sup­port — as it was dubbed by a (very) few — swept Biden to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion, offi­cial­ly clos­ing the book on the Ver­mont sen­a­tor and his mot­ley crew of Medicare for All-ers.

But here’s anoth­er story.

As a nation­al sur­ro­gate for (and, briefly, senior advi­sor to) the Sanders cam­paign, I trav­eled over six and a half months of the pri­ma­ry to Flori­da, Iowa, South Car­oli­na, North Car­oli­na, Neva­da, Cal­i­for­nia, Mis­sis­sip­pi, Alaba­ma, Ten­nessee, Geor­gia and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. We sat and lis­tened in bar­ber shops, beau­ty salons, cof­fee shops, book­stores, sneak­er shops, bars, com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, com­mu­ni­ty col­leges, high schools, uni­ver­si­ties, homes and offices. What I wit­nessed was the same as what polling reflect­ed: Black peo­ple — my peo­ple — sup­port Medicare for All, mar­i­jua­na legal­iza­tion, end­ing the war on drugs, free col­lege and trade schools, rais­es for all teach­ers and more — much of which agen­da orig­i­nat­ed from Black rad­i­cal ideas.

Know­ing all this, it is admit­ted­ly hard for me to swal­low that our peo­ple vot­ed for Biden in such large num­bers. Joe Biden is utter­ly bereft of vision and out of step with the moment, the last of a dying breed in a dying par­ty, a bas­tion of a bygone age who required every bit of par­ty machin­ery to get into gear and push a sput­ter­ing cam­paign across the fin­ish line.

But many old­er Black folks didn’t believe we could accom­plish the ambi­tious pro­gres­sive plat­form that Sanders laid out. It felt like a gam­ble. And old­er Black peo­ple do not gam­ble or exper­i­ment at the bal­lot box.

While some remem­ber the Pan­thers, the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee or the South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, old­er Black South Car­olini­ans know Jim (Clyburn). Old­er Black Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans know Ben­nie (Thomp­son). Old­er Black Geor­gians know John (Lewis). They all know Joe (Biden). We all know Barack (Oba­ma).

And while there is grow­ing Black-led Left orga­niz­ing through­out the South, from Mis­sis­sip­pi to the work of the South­ern Move­ment Assem­blies and Project South, Black com­mu­ni­ties don’t know us well enough.

Young Black peo­ple, how­ev­er, over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ed the Sanders plat­form and — to a less­er but grow­ing extent — the more rad­i­cal agen­da of the Move­ment for Black Lives. But we have a ways to go to earn their excite­ment, com­mit­ment and mem­ber­ship in our ranks, let along their deter­mi­na­tion to vote in the face of ram­pant and tar­get­ed vot­er disenfranchisement.

Most Black peo­ple — young or old — do not know” the Black-led Left or the Bernie, DSA Left,” at least not as a con­tem­po­rary, con­sis­tent, pow­er­ful, orga­nized, win­ning force in their lives. We must change that.

If we on the Left are to grab hold of our des­tiny, we must wres­tle with our orga­niz­ing short­com­ings. We just are not orga­niz­ing as deeply and as wide­ly as the moment and the future requires. The Left can win in 2022, 2024, and beyond only if we are will­ing to get off Twit­ter and launch inno­v­a­tive and vibrant cam­paigns and build alter­na­tive exam­ples of the world we want tomor­row, today.

As we face this pan­dem­ic, for exam­ple, Black peo­ple and poor peo­ple (of all col­ors, includ­ing poor white peo­ple) are strug­gling; the Left must seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty to live our pol­i­tics in pub­lic. In addi­tion to our vital polit­i­cal demands, we must build nation­al mutu­al aid pro­grams to serve and pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble (while still mak­ing strate­gic demands on gov­ern­ment). In times of need, peo­ple remem­ber the peo­ple who were there — not as sav­iors, but as peo­ple who do what they say they will.

In rur­al coun­ties along with the big cities, we must launch left can­di­dates to vie for pow­er and assem­ble alter­na­tive left groups to address spe­cif­ic needs with left poli­cies that fit. The Left needs to show as mod­els the places where we have won, the places where we have inno­vat­ed new gov­er­nance and eco­nom­ic frame­works. Through exam­ple, we can enact the left poli­cies that become the prac­tice for our class, race, gen­der and sex­u­al pol­i­tics. Here, we can trans­late our prin­ci­ples and our vision into a lan­guage eas­i­ly under­stood by those strug­gling through neolib­er­al nightmares.

We must live in the hearts, expe­ri­ences and minds of our peo­ple. Suc­cess­ful left move­ments ani­mate the mass­es with art, music, dance and poet­ry. With­out art and cul­ture, our move­ment march­es where it should sway, our speech­es stul­ti­fy where they should sing. Cap­i­tal iso­lates and alien­ates. The Left is where the heart is.

Last­ly, to win, we must pro­tect and expand enfran­chise­ment. Left orga­ni­za­tions must invest in year-round vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, edu­ca­tion and mobi­liza­tion. Too long have we relied on a donor class and a Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment that abhor true democ­ra­cy to invest in the demo­c­ra­t­ic process.

Bernie Sanders proves the Left needs more than a charis­mat­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date (though it would help and be a whole lot of fun). We need a more diverse base of peo­ple, name­ly more Black peo­ple. That base needs a Left with answers, action, exper­i­men­ta­tion and strat­e­gy. A Left that is con­cerned to the mate­r­i­al lives of rur­al and urban work­ing peo­ple. A Left that has the courage to gov­ern in the midst of con­tra­dic­tion, the strength to serve in cri­sis, the pow­er to pro­tect the bal­lot box, pres­ence of mind to grap­ple with race, class and gen­der — and the cre­ativ­i­ty to build a move­ment that feels, loves and breathes.

The road before us is demand­ing, but it leads to vic­to­ry. A luta con­tin­ua.

Read oth­er per­spec­tives on lessons for the Left from 2020:

Zee­shan Aleem: To Win Elec­tions, Should the Left Be Nicer on the Internet?

Max­imil­lian Alvarez: Class Trai­tors, Wel­come to the Revolution

Hamil­ton Nolan: Bernie Lost Because Amer­i­ca Doesn’t Have a Strong Labor Movement

Astra Tay­lor: Bernie Sanders’ Exit Is an Indict­ment of Our Bro­ken System

David Siro­ta: The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s Tyran­ny of Deco­rum Helped Sink Bernie

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