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It’s no longer the silly season. This presidential primary is now in Mondo bizarro mode, where almost nothing makes sense, particularly black adulation for the Clintons.
In the days before the South Carolina Republican primary, a black minister stood in front of a battalion of Donald Trump’s supporters and became an oracle. He told the mostly white audience that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders won’t make it to the White House because “I know you’re going to make sure we elected a man who believes in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Trump, whose advocacy for building walls drew a rebuke from Pope Francis, told the same audience about the tragically high unemployment rate—for black people, specifically young black men. He blamed President Obama.
“Amen,” someone cried out.
This must have been a gut punch to Sanders, who has largely failed in his efforts to woo black voters. Even when he’s talking to a black audience about income inequality, Sanders manages more cringe-worthy moments than a Larry David comedy.
“We have, in America today, a broken criminal justice system,” Sanders told members of the Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia, South Carolina. The line drew no applause.
One in three black men will face some jail or prison time in their lifetimes. Sanders has a solid record on fighting against police militarization of police and the growth of the privatized prison industry because of the illogical war on the drugs.
But Sanders sounds like the earnest professorial scold. He tells the truth about power and politics, more so than Clinton, but he’s missed the mark with black voters because his political philosophy has always been neglectful of race.
American socialists have been racially tone deaf since the days of Eugene Debs. Cornel West’s 1984 treatise, “Toward a Socialist Theory of Racism,” illustrates why Democratic socialists have had trouble courting large numbers of black voters. They view racism, West says, as being subsumed “under the general rubric of working-class exploitation. This viewpoint tends to ignore forms of racism not determined by the workplace.”
Sanders missed many opportunities to link to the Black Lives Matter movement. He got caught looking confused when two BLM activists in Seattle took the stage and called him out. Now Sanders is fumbling in black voters’ minds.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton works subtle semantic approaches to race that undermine Sanders. Recently, she told black supporters that America needs to end “systemic discrimination.” Not systemic racism, a term that is known to turn off potential white voters.
There is a key difference between those two words. Racism speaks directly to centuries of white supremacy and privilege; discrimination can be read as universal, with whites attacking affirmative action as discriminatory at the same time as blacks call out shameful hiring practices. Everybody is aggrieved. Clinton has no real plan to end systemic discrimination or racism, but she’s cherished for her truthiness.
It’s no wonder Cornel West called her the Milli Vanilli of the 2016 campaign—just as fake as she is fabulous.
Fred McKissack Jr. is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor to The Progressive.