Last month, just days after the tragedy in Charlottesville, the Rev. Wendell Anthony of Fellowship Chapel in Detroit gave a fiery introduction at a town hall led by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It may have been a Tuesday, but watching it felt like Sunday service.
In his speech, Anthony praised Sanders’s effort to “take down the tributes to racism and division” through his work standing up for universal health care, jobs for everybody, a higher minimum wage, tuition-free education, and fair treatment and respect from law enforcement. Anthony called the senator someone who “stands up, speaks up, and keeps his eyes on the prize of freedom and justice and equity.”
You probably didn’t see his speech, because it doesn’t fit the narrative persistently pushed by the senator’s opponents: that black Democrats tend to be more socially conservative and “pragmatic” and thus don’t like Bernie Sanders. Last year saw a slew of such articles looking to explain “why black voters don’t feel the Bern” and what his “real problem with black and Hispanic voters” was. The trend is still going strong: This summer, Terrell Starr explored “Bernie Sanders’ black women problem” in the Root.
My biggest regret from the time I spent on the Sanders campaign as his national press secretary is the fact that we allowed this false narrative to fester and did not effectively combat claims that the senator’s economic message somehow didn’t speak to people of color. Jobs and the economy are “everybody” issues. As Democrats work to craft our message to voters for upcoming elections, we cannot allow this narrative to continue unchallenged.
Last spring, a Harvard-Harris poll found Sanders to be the most popular active politician in the country. African Americans gave the senator the highest favorables at 73 percent — vs. 68 percent among Latinos, 62 percent among Asian Americans and 52 percent among white voters. It wasn’t a fluke: This August, black voters again reported a 73 percent favorability rating for Sanders. Critics, such as Starr, continue to point to the senator’s 2016 primary numbers among older African American voters to claim that his message somehow doesn’t resonate with people of color as a whole — and continue to ignore that, according to GenForward, Sanders won the black millennial vote in the primaries.
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So why does the myth that black voters don’t like Sanders persist? It certainly isn’t because black voters can’t relate to his focus on the working class. According to the Economic Policy Institute, people of color will form the majority of the American working class by 2032. In other words, the white working class does not have a monopoly on economic marginalization.
Folks in McDowell County, W.Va., and inner-city St. Louis are encountering many of the same challenges. So, an economic message that includes advancing policies that will close the wage gap, raise the minimum wage, ensure equal pay for equal work, create jobs, make education affordable and ensure health care as a human right is a message that cuts across demographics.
Thus Democrats should be careful not to continue the false association of working class issues strictly with the white working class — a major fixation after last year’s election and an assumption of many criticisms of Sanders’s message. As someone who traveled across the country with Sanders during his campaign, I know firsthand that the narrative of working-class politics as exclusively white erases the stories of so many of the people who believed in and fought for a political revolution — and a government that works for all of us, not just a wealthy or connected few.
The senator’s message still resonates — perhaps now more than ever. Just look at the fight to expand health care: Poll after poll shows that Americans across the board are ready for “Medicare for all” — something the senator championed when it wasn’t politically popular to do so. Indeed, Pew polling found this year that 85 percent of blacks and 84 percent of Hispanics support single-payer health care — while whites are split on the issue roughly 50-50. Now, Medicare for all has the support of legislators such as rising star Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who recently announced she will co-sponsor Sanders’s upcoming single-payer bill. As Harris said, “It’s just the right thing to do.”
There is no doubt we on Sanders’s 2016 campaign could have better communicated how the senator’s fight against a rigged economy held in place by a corrupt system of campaign finance specifically affected different communities. But let’s not pretend there isn’t broad-based support for the policies he’s fighting for. Instead of attacking Bernie, folks should follow his journey and witness the work. Whether it’s been standing with black union workers in Mississippi, standing with Conyers and Anthony in Detroit, or putting himself on the front lines of the fight to save the Affordable Care Act, the senator is using his voice and the weight of his popularity to fight for the policies that will benefit us all. And the polls show that people get it.