Super Tuesday has come and gone, marking an important milestone in this year's presidential primary season. While the GOP race has dominated headlines, the Democratic competition in recent weeks has focused on one major demographic of the party: the black vote, a significant portion of the Democratic base.
The Super Tuesday states were the first primaries where significant numbers of black Americans had the opportunity to vote. And both Clinton and Sanders focused accordingly: The Sanders campaign produced a mini-documentary about the daughter of Eric Garner, and Hillary showed her big budget and high profile ties with an ad, featuring actor Morgan Freeman, that chronicles her long-standing support of the black community.
Given Hillary’s wins on Tuesday, it seems clear that Bernie’s focus on economics and wealth inequality is not enough to sway black voters. With black Americans earning lower pay and facing higher poverty rates than white Americans, it would seem that platforms focusing on wealth inequality would win black support. But (and Bernie’s lack of broad appeal makes this clear) black voters want more than recognition of economic disadvantage — they want recognition that the wounds caused by institutional racism are not about money, but about dignity.
In the most volatile racial climate since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, black Americans are concerned about the value of their lives. When black voters enter the polling place they have the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on their minds. They are thinking of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over while driving and ended up dead in a jail cell. Black voters think of the Charleston 9, murdered during worship, and the burning of black churches with no repercussions. With issues this critical, a rhetoric of economic equality rings hollow without acknowledgement of racial injustice. Building wealth for our families is of no use if we don’t live in a country where we, and our children, feel that our lives are safe and valued.
Now this is not a condemnation of Bernie with a free pass for Hillary. I believe that the reason black voters are so strongly aligned with the status quo is because they don’t have much faith that any call for a revolution that doesn’t directly champion black human rights will be of any help at all. So they go back to the polls and once again tick the box for the same old choice, believing that’s the best that’s possible — or perhaps, feeling discouraged, they do not vote at all.
Does it make sense for Hillary and Bernie to court the black vote? Absolutely. I am not troubled by their clamor to win our support. What is truly disheartening is that our support does not ensure racial progress. No one candidate should be held responsible for fixing America’s race problem. But what black voters want is a candidate who is brave enough to say that America has a serious race problem.
While both candidates have put some effort in to this message, for both candidates it was only after they faced protest by Black Lives Matter activists. It was only when the media asked them directly if Black Lives Matter that they answered in the affirmative. What black voters seek is a candidate who sincerely says that Black Lives Matter before seeing us as black voters. We want a candidate who says that Black Lives Matter on the days when we are simply black Americans.