During last year's presidential primaries, a lot of Black people soured quickly on Bernie Sanders. It wasn’t that Black people had, on the whole, endearing love for Hillary Clinton — despite the jokes about her husband, Bill, being the real first Black president, there are plenty of things the Clinton presidency did wrong that hurt Black people. But by and large, Hillary Clinton seemed willing to listen to Black people and other people of color (POC), and to address racism.
Sanders did cede his stage at least once to a Black person who seized the mic to point out that Black lives matter. But he really didn’t want to talk about race. He wanted to lump it together with class. And while class and race issues have overlap and we need more meeting across those lines, the fact is that racism has its own special considerations and concerns. Sanders seemed largely to brush those off, as well as ignore or gloss over issues of racism in his own state.
When Sanders lost the primaries, his devoted followers had a lot of blame for POC, especially Black ones, because they didn’t support him.
Problem is, they may have wanted that Black support, but neither the Sanders campaign nor the Sanders supporters courted that support. They lectured and tried to convince, but they didn’t woo and they didn’t show real concern for issues of racism.
Fast forward to the present, last week's special election battle for the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama between Republican Roy Moore (who enjoyed much support inside and outside the state despite issues related to pedophilia, racism and more) and Democrat Doug Jones.
It was a close race, but Jones won out — with 49.92 percent of the vote. And he did so because of Black voters. You see, Black people are only 25 percent of the population of that state (which is, granted, higher than the 13 percent nationwide and the less than 2 percent here in Maine), but exit polls showed they turned out with 96 percent support in the voting booths for Jones. Meanwhile, three-quarters of white men and two-thirds of white women voting in that election supported Moore.
Basically, if not for huge Black turnout to vote (despite the fact Alabama has some of the most stringent photo ID rules for voting in the country, that it closed down DMV offices in overwhelmingly Black areas to reduce access to IDs, and amid reports of harassment and delays at the polls in mostly Black areas of the state), Moore would have won.
The difference here compared to the primary between Clinton and Sanders: Jones and the Democratic Party made an effort to reach out directly to Black voters.
For a long time and too often, Democrats assume Black people will vote for them. And even though, yes, Black people far more often support the Democrats because we know they are not as overtly and concertedly out to harm us — at least not intentionally — there is also an assumption that we will go out of our way to hit the voting booths on Election Day. We often do, but it’s a rash assumption.
No one wants to be taken for granted. Most particularly, those people in one of the most oppressed racial demographics don’t want to be taken for granted. We are not a side issue. We are not disposable, or perpetuating an irritating “identity politics.” We are an important bloc and a force to be reckoned with. That’s why in so many states, governments work against making it easy for Black people to vote. They fear that vote.
And Democrats often rely on it.
But you know what? Black people don’t want to be praised for “saving Alabama” — and possibly the nation — by helping to defeat Moore. We don’t want to be thanked and lifted up when we turn out (and, by the way, get renewed abuse from Sanders supporters who saw this as further proof that Black people could have swung the primary for their candidate).
What we want is to be taken seriously. To be courted and have our needs and concerns be more than back-burner items.
Black people have shown their power in the marketplace before. We’ve withheld money in boycotts and forced people to understand that while we may be economically disenfranchised, we do spend money in the economy and our withdrawal of that money has consequences. For centuries, we’ve rallied people under the Black Lives Matter banner and clogged the streets of major metro areas to shed light on huge racial inequities that have made Black lives essentially not matter.
Black lives do matter. So do our votes. And so do we, as a people not to be taken for granted or used.