Bernie Sanders is likely going to lose the nomination to Hillary Clinton.
And it is not because of money, campaign finance or access to ballots or debates — all prohibitive obstacles that have haunted past progressive candidates.
It is also not because Sanders was too far to the political left. His unapologetic populist message and movement agenda to tackle collectively income inequality, campaign finance, and student debt have been wildly popular across the political spectrum and welcome respites from the alternative of entrenched establishment politics.
No, Sanders is losing because of race — specifically, a series of unforced errorsand stubborn messaging around it.
Race is, and always has been, central to progressive priorities and tackling American challenges. It undercuts everything and always has. You can’t be good at class if you are failing at race. You can’t be right on gender if you are wrong on race. You can’t talk about poverty if you can’t speak about race. You can’t address criminal justice if you ignore racial justice. Race and systemic racism are part and parcel of our shared reality and must be addressed in any local and national progressive agenda.
Just weeks ago, Sanders was so on the rise that many progressives felt he had areal shot at the nomination. But his overwhelming losses in state after state with diverse populations lay bare the extent of this festering problem. The campaign’s constant stumbling on race has been disappointing and devastating.
It did not have to be this way.
Simply stated, Sanders needed to listen more. Progressives know that marginalized communities have an infinitely richer analysis of social issues that disproportionately impact them than any campaign manager or politician. Sanders desperately needed to listen to people of color and find out how their lives are being affected by corrupt political and financial institutions, from urban centers to rural towns. Doing so would have allowed Sanders to articulate specifically how his progressive platform would benefit communities of color.
Sanders also needed to talk thoughtfully about race. And not just at rallies or in stump speeches or debates — where his skills in discussing race have beenshockingly wanting, to the say the least. Indeed, it took the courageous actions ofBlack Lives Matter protestors to get Sanders to reluctantly start discussing criminal justice and racial justice at the beginning of his campaign. Developing a detailed platform on race and civil rights that addressed complex issues in a coherent and accessible way could have gone a long way for potential voters, and the candidate himself. Delivering a nuanced speech on race would have given Sanders an opportunity to highlight his personal experiences and views on racial justice, to challenge his mostly white supporters, and to draw stark comparisons with other candidates — with the potential to dramatically shift the narrative.
Sanders also missed a massive opportunity to re-frame national security issues from a racial justice perspective. Deadly white supremacist attacks in places such as Charleston or in Oak Creek were terrorist incidents that were worthy of the same level of public outrage and political attention as the attacks in San Bernardino or Boston. Sanders has mostly failed to address these attacks, or the epidemic of hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians and Latinos in the last several years. Under threat, communities of color needed to hear that the progressive candidate truly had their interests, and physical safety, at heart. Instead, Sanders has allowed the conversation to be paralyzed in the same space it has for decades — an overwhelming myopic and racially problematic view of national security defined exclusively as existential threats from Muslim extremists.
Finally, Sanders’s discomfort with and political distancing from President Obamawas neither fair nor particularly strategic. For progressives, communities of color, and the Black community in particular, the historic, social, and cultural import of the first Black president and his family has been paramount and understandable given the nation’s unconscionable racial history. It is also why many viscerally recoil to think that after the 2008 economic crisis – a moment that historically unified American politicians, President Obama was instead greeted with racialized de-legitimization and unprecedented obstructionism by Republicans. That the President accomplished anything at all in his two terms, let alone a series of critical progressive achievements, has been a miracle given this ugly political reality. Sanders’s off-putting failure to give President Obama credit for these accomplishments or to ignore his popularity amongst Democrats of colorpredictably compounded his difficulties with this key demographic.
In the end, Sanders’ unwavering commitment to economics over all else has proven to be both tremendously beneficial and detrimental to his campaign. He has inspired thousands and fundraised millions. He has forced Hillary Clinton to distance herself from much of her past economic positions and become a better candidate with more progressive policy prescriptions. But eerily similar to the GOP, Sanders has failed to grow beyond his mostly white base, because of an inattention, inability, and potential disinterest in adjusting his communication and policy deficiencies with communities of color.
Yet Sanders can and should still change course, regardless of what happens in the primaries. With his platform and resources, and above all as a progressive leader, Sanders has an obligation to work with communities of color to present and reflect their voices in the struggle to make the United States more safe, just, and inclusive. It may be too late for his campaign, but the country needs it now, more than ever.
Also available at Huffington Post here.