After Super Tuesday, Sanders Faces Questions About African American Support

On Super Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden swept the South and Midwest, winning Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Texas, propelled by a huge majority of African-American votes in several states. We host a roundtable discussion on the results with Barbara Ransby, historian, author and activist adviser to the Movement for Black Lives; Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach; and Elie Mystal, the justice correspondent for The Nation.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue to look at Super Tuesday results, which established the fight for the Democratic nomination as largely a two-man race between Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden swept the South and the Midwest last night, winning Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Texas, propelled by a huge majority of African-American votes in several states. And Sanders won in the West, with victories in Colorado and Utah and the grand prize of the night, California, with significant Latinx support. Sanders also won his home state of Vermont.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden’s strong showing came after the Democratic Party establishment consolidated around the former vice president, with Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropping out in recent days and throwing their support behind him. But it also was due to black voters in the South, who supported Biden by extremely significant margins. NBC reports Biden won the support of 63% of black voters in Virginia, 62% of black voters in Tennessee and 72% of black voters in Alabama. Exit polls also show 6 in 10 black voters backed Biden in Texas and North Carolina. According to an NBC exit poll, black voters outside the South were less likely to support Biden, and Black voters under 45 are around three times as likely to support Bernie Sanders than older voters.

Well, for more, we host a roundtable discussion. In Chicago, we’re joined by Barbara Ransby, historian, author and activist adviser to the Movement for Black Lives. She’s endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Her latest book is Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century. Reverend Dr. William Barber is with us in Washington, D.C., co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach. And via Democracy Now! video stream, we’re joined by Elie Mystal, The Nation’s justice correspondent and author of the magazine’s new monthly column, “Objection!” His recent column is titled “Black Voters Didn’t Vote for Biden in South Carolina Because They ‘Lack Information.’”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Elie. Elie, let us begin with you. Your response to what happened on Super Tuesday?

ELIE MYSTAL: I think it’s pretty amazing how much the black community in the South, the older black community, has really rallied behind Joe Biden. They have been with Biden from the start, when it looked like he was shaky. It looked they might even go to Mike Bloomberg. But they’ve all come back to Biden. And it’s provided him a firewall that I am surprised that Bernie Sanders hasn’t yet been able to break through, right? He’s had five years to work on this problem. This is what happened to him in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. And I think it deserves serious analysis to try to figure out why his message is not impacting that community, when he’s had so long to work on it. I think your earlier guest, Chuck, he made a good point that Bernie seems to have made real inroads with the Latinx community. But that hasn’t worked with the black community, hasn’t worked with the Southern older black community specifically.

And just to kind of cut people off at the pass, I think one thing that we can’t say, one bad analysis that’s out there, is that somehow Southern older blacks are just, “oh, more conservative, and so that’s why they…” There is no evidence that Southern black voters are more socially conservative than other voters in this primary, when you look at the fact that all of the candidates running are basically in lockstep on the social issues, right? Like, all the candidates running support a woman’s right to choose. All the candidates running support gay marriage. Like, all of the Democratic primary candidates are kind of in lockstep on the social issues. On the economic progressivism issues, again, black voters all across the country, including in the South, have a record of supporting economic progressivism. Right? The Poor People’s Campaign that Reverend Barber is running. Like, there is strong African-American support all across the South for economic progressivism. So, what is it that’s — what part of Bernie’s message is not translating to Southern black voters, I think, is a really nuanced and interesting question.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring Barbara Ransby into the discussion. And, Barbara Ransby, specifically, there is an existing superstructure of black elected officials across the country who for most of this campaign were sort of divided in their perspective, until, it seems to me, the South Carolina primary, especially the pronouncements of James — of Congressman Clyburn and his impact on the race in terms of — it appeared to consolidate the existing superstructure of black elected officials around the country to turn out the vote. I’m wondering your perspective of what happened last night.

BARBARA RANSBY: Yeah. No, I think that’s really a good point. But let me say this: The good news from last night was Bloomberg’s defeat, in a sense. You know, the fear that Bloomberg could literally come in and buy black voters and other voters was a real fear. And so, even with all his millions of investment, he didn’t have the showing that he expected. So I think that’s the good news and one important takeaway.

I think, in terms of black voters, you know, Ibram Kendi made the point last night in a tweet that we are talking about a subset of black voters. We are talking about older black voters. We’re talking about primarily black voters in the South. And I think people vote for a lot of reasons. Most people are not reading every line of everyone’s platform, and there’s a lot of trust by association. So when Jim Clyburn comes in and gives his full weight behind Joe Biden, I think it did indeed have a ripple effect. I’m not saying that black voters in the South are not — you know, my relatives are in the South. I respect and have drawn wisdom from black folks in the South. My people come from the South. And my research is about the strength and fortitude and brilliant leadership of black Southerners in the Black Freedom Movement. So, absolutely no diss to black Southerners at all. But I think people are afraid, and I think our people voted more out of fear and pragmatism than out of hope and optimism. And we’ve got to turn that around.

If you look at a Joe Biden versus a Bernie Sanders, both very imperfect. I am not looking for a savior in this election. But clearly, down the line, looking at his past, looking at his platform and looking at what he represents for the future, including young black activists, who are excited about him, Bernie Sanders, hands down, is what black people need to be looking toward in terms of a campaign that can make a material impact on our lives and the lives of our people.

So, you know, I think the race is not over. I think that there are a number of states still to be won and are in play. And I also think we have to recalibrate our notion of winning. For me, electoral politics is one part of a larger effort to further the cause of black freedom and justice in this country, for black people, for all people, and certainly sustainability for the planet. So this is one part of a larger agenda, a larger effort, a larger movement building. I think that’s one of the things I have appreciated about the Sanders campaign, people like Phil Agnew and Nina Turner and others in that campaign, who have a bigger vision of building a movement, not just winning an election — although, hopefully, we will win the election, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Reverend Barber, while you’re in Washington right now, you’re from North Carolina. That’s where you live. The percentage points in your home state, 42% of the vote went to Biden — he, of course, won North Carolina — to Sanders’ 24%. Why do you think former Vice President Biden did so well in North Carolina?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, first of all, good morning, and to your other guests. And yes, I’m a son of the South, and I’m certainly glad that we’re finally having this conversation about the South, because you get over 160, almost 170, electoral votes just out of the former 13 Confederate states. And I’m glad we’re having this conversation about African-American voters. Now, I’m on my way planning for June 20th, 2020, the Poor People’s Assembly National Moral March on Washington. And I have a little bit different perspective, living in the South all my life, working in the South. I’ve seen a lot of candidates on the Democratic side win primaries and read their primary numbers one way and then lose in the general election.

So, here’s the question, Amy, and questions that I think we have to raise and that we’re looking into this morning. And first of all, the question is — when you say someone won 61% of the black vote, that’s good. That should be celebrated. But what is that a percentage of? It’s a percentage of those who voted. The other question is: How many weren’t inspired to vote? How many weren’t inspired to move? Yes, a lot of the initial vote may be based on personality, familiar, and Obama policies. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily. But also we have to ask — in those states last night, those 14 states, there are over 40 million poor and low-wealth voters. Now, poor and low-wealth Americans did not support Donald Trump. What was the numbers of poor and low-wealth Americans in those states that turned out or didn’t turn out? What didn’t inspire them? Some places like Texas, you had 600,000, almost an even split between Sanders and Biden. That means that there is this split in the party, in the soul, for aspirations. How will the party deal with that? Because that is not some clear, far victory that dismisses, say, for instance, Sanders’ policies as senseless, as silly, as I’ve heard some Democrats say. And they have to be very careful with that.

The last thing is, not only who didn’t vote, but in those Southern states — you know, we’re talking about this black wall, but are the Dems really going to fight after the primaries? Are they going to really invest in the North Carolinas, the Georgias, the Mississippi, the Alabama, Virginia, after the primaries, in the general elections? Because, you know, in the general election, oftentime we see something very different. For instance, last time, in the Clinton campaign, they left a half-million African-American voters off the table. There was really no real effort to go after. And in all of those states, the number of poor and low-wealth people and the number of African Americans who didn’t vote held the political calculus to not elect Donald Trump, that could have fundamentally changed. And I want to know: Are we really seriously now going to focus on the South and focus on bringing together poor blacks and poor whites in the South? Now, if that happens, we can have a fundamental shift in political calculus in this country. You could see states like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida flip in the general election. But if we don’t, if we’re just going to deal with primary now and who gets the primary vote, and not look deeper — who didn’t vote, who wasn’t inspired and why, and how many black people were left out, how many poor people were left out last night and why — then we might end up with a lot of excitement in the primary and a lot of sobbing and sadness in the general election.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to bring Elie Mystal back into the conversation. In a recent column in The Nation, you laid out why you thought black voters are opting for Biden, and you said that it’s not because they “lack information.” Why do you think so many turned out for Biden, even though, understanding, as Reverend Barber says, this is a primary, it’s not as representative of an overall subset or a part of the population as the general election?

ELIE MYSTAL: I think you have to look at black voters, and I think this links up exactly with what Reverend Barber is saying — who is going to be there for black voters in the future? And are the policies that Bernie Sanders is running on, which I personally think are the right policies for our community and lots of other communities — are white Americans ready to vote for those policies and uplift all people and share the great wealth of this country? Because the answer historically has been no. The answer historically has been that when you ask white people to share the wealth of this country, they say no. They vote with their pocketbooks over their morality. That is how you get an unvarnished bigot and open sexist in the White House over a highly qualified woman. Right? So, that’s what white people did in 2016. We have seen this. We have seen the white electorate go for the Republican nominee time and time and time again. Bernie Sanders is out here telling us that white people are ready to vote for real economic redistribution and change. And I don’t know that he has convinced black people that white people are ready to do that. And so I don’t think that it’s fear exactly. I think it is pragmatism. I think that if you don’t feel like you have white allies willing to take this pledge with you, well, then you revert back to the most important thing as beating Donald Trump, and that’s how you get kind of — that’s how you get back to Biden.

Now, one thing I will say, and again, I think this links up — what Reverend Barber is saying is so important. You can start to change this if you continue to invest in the South, because it’s not just in terms of your own presidential campaign. We have people running in the South in the Senate, that we desperately need to take back and we desperately need to support. Don’t leave South — don’t leave Jaime Harrison hanging out there. Jaime Harrison, by the way, seems to support Joe Biden. Don’t leave Thom Tillis’s seat out there. Don’t leave those two seats in Georgia out there. Like, if the top of the ticket reinvests in these Southern states, not only will it help them win the Senate, that’s the kind of thing that I think long-term impresses African-American voters that white people are ready to be allies to the cause of social justice and racial equality.

AMY GOODMAN: Historian Barbara Ransby, you were among more than 100 leading black scholars, writers, educators, including Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Marc Lamont Hill, Gerald Horne, who issued a joint letter endorsing Bernie Sanders this weekend. Can you talk about, specifically, simply, why you believe Senator Sanders should be president and would most benefit African Americans in this country, not to mention all Americans?

BARBARA RANSBY: Right. I’m glad you brought up that ad that we did. We did a statement. There were over a hundred black scholars, people who have devoted their entire lives to not only studying, but standing with the Black Freedom Movement, people who come out of the Black Freedom Movement and out of black communities. And our assessment is — look, I grew up in Detroit, a working-class family. For me, issues of race and class have always been intimately bound up. And I think while, you know, sometimes I’m disappointed, quite frankly, that Bernie Sanders doesn’t lead with a racial justice analysis, but when I listen carefully and when I look at the policies, I see a way forward for black working-class people. As an educator, many of my students are first-generation college. They’re black and Latinx students. They’re deeply, deeply in debt. The $1.6 trillion student debt is of serious concern to all of us who are educators. And that is a very racialized, racially imbalanced debt, falling heavily on people of color, young people of color. Bernie Sanders’ commitment to prison reform, to enfranchising incarcerated citizens — I mean, all these things are elements of a progressive vision for the future.

And, you know, this thing about white voters, listen, you’ve got racist — racism is everywhere in the country. It’s ubiquitous, right? So you have racist white people who voted for Barack Obama. You’ve got racist white people who voted for Elizabeth Warren in this primary. You’ve got racist white people who voted for Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. So, people vote for a complex set of reasons, and we’re not all going to be on the same page in that. And I think what we have to look at is what are the candidates’ commitments — right? — around issues of race, and what are the candidates’ commitments particularly around poor and working-class people. I think the work that Reverend Barber is doing with the Poor People’s Campaign is so important, but also coalitions like The Rising Majority that are looking at a range of issues as they impact the lives of black people. All of this is in the mix when we assess what presidential candidate could best lead us into a brighter, more just and sustainable future.

And for us, that candidate is Bernie Sanders. But it’s not just Bernie Sanders as a man, as a person. I reserve the right to critique everybody, including people who I love and respect. But it’s the campaign that he is building. You know, again, it’s people like Chokwe Lumumba in Mississippi, who endorsed him. It’s people like Senator Nina Turner. It’s people like Phil Agnew, brilliant young organizer from Florida you’ve had on the show, who was very much a part of the early Black Lives Matter movement and the Movement for Black Lives, deeply respected among a whole ecosystem of young black activists. So, those are the principles that we united around when we formed the statement.

And the statement involved a lot of discussion and debate and push and pull about what tone did we want to strike, why was it important for us to do so as educators, and all of that. And so, I hope it’s gotten some traction, but we are certainly not alone. I think the young organizers in the Dream Defenders, the organization that Phil Agnew comes out of, their 501(c)(4), did endorse Bernie Sanders, as well. So there are a number of black organizers, activists, educators who see in the Sanders campaign, in the people around him, like AOC, like Ilhan Omar, like Rashida Tlaib, a real hope for a different kind of politic. But again, you know, for us — for me, I would say — it is really a vote-plus strategy. I agree with Reverend Barber that this doesn’t end at the primary and can’t end at the primaries, but it also can’t end in November. We have to be about building a movement. And I think what Bernie Sanders’ campaign represented, but also what Elizabeth Warren’s campaign represented, that a joining of forces there really represents a hopeful growth of a movement, a multiracial and anti-racist movement for a justice agenda long-term.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reverend Barber, I’d like to ask you — you tweeted recently that the Dems also need to think about how they keep saying the black vote is the heart of the party, yet when they had a chance to include blacks on the stage, they didn’t fight for that, but changed the rules for a billionaire. Your thoughts in terms of the party’s two-faced strategy when it comes to the African-American vote, and especially how they treated Kamala Harris or Cory Booker versus how they opened the doors up for Michael Bloomberg?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, you know, I’ve been a part of two campaigns that have actually won in the South, one in Kentucky and Moral Mondays in North Carolina. And I learned that when you address systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism, you can in fact bring black and poor and low-wealth white and black people and Latinos together, and you can make significant change. We have a study coming out now that shows if you just organize 2 to 10% of poor and low-wealth black, white and Latino people in the country, not just in the South, but significantly in the South, you could fundamentally change elections. We have to talk about that.

And it’s not so much race or class, but it’s race and class. I’ve challenged, for instance, Bernie Sanders and all of the — Biden, all of them, as my sister said, to lead with a race analysis, but not about culture, but about real issues, and to deal with the issue of poverty and low wealth. Sixty-one percent of African Americans live in poverty and low wealth. That’s 26 million people. Thirty-seven percent of white people live in poverty and low wealth. That’s 66 million people. We will never have a political transformation in the calculus in this country until we deal with the issue of poverty — 140 million people, 43% of this nation.

Now, the issue of how we are treating African Americans. There’s all this talk about that African Americans are the heart, are the heart, are the heart of the party. They’re the firewall. They’re different things. Well, where was all the fervor to ensure that African Americans stayed on the stage? That’s an interesting issue. And if we are the heart and if 61% of African Americans are poor and low-wealth, why are most candidates only talking about — if they talk about poverty, they do it — in the Democrats, they use a pseudonym. Republicans racialize poverty. Democrats run from poverty. We talk about the working class, but not poverty. We looked at the issue of poverty in these states, and we said that the number of people who are poor and low-wealth in the Super Tuesday states, in the former Confederate states, far outweigh any margin of victory in Senate races or in presidential races. Why are we scared to say the issue? We will never move people until they hear themselves.

So here’s what I want to put out. If this is a serious conversation about African-American people, then why not every candidate put in writing how will that candidate in the future — not what they’ve done in the past; in the future — deal with the wealth gap, how will it close the wealth gap, how will it deal with the healthcare gap, how will they deal with racist voter suppression and gerrymandering and expanding access to the ballot, how will they deal with the disparate ecological issues in our communities, how will they deal with militarization in our communities, how will they deal with mass incarceration, resegregation of public schools, how will they increase the number of African Americans in the federal court appointees and increase the number of African Americans in the Senate, and what is the strategy to go after the Senate, that is truly holding up progress for poor and low-wealth people of every race, creed and color? Put it in writing and then change the next debate to be about nothing but the issue of systemic racism and poverty, and not just how racism affects black people, but how it undermines the democracy. For instance, every state that is a racist voter suppression state is also a state where once the people who use racist voter suppression get elected, they then block policies of living wages, block policies of healthcare, and end up hurting more white people, in terms of raw numbers, than black people. So let’s have a full, thorough-going debate on these issues. Every candidate needs to say, “My policies, this is how it’s going to impact the black community. This is how it’s going to impact the rural community. This is how it’s going to impact the Latino community.” Let’s move deep, deep, deep into policy and put that out there. And I believe if that happened, you would not just see a percentage of black votes turning out, that then folks say, well, they got 60% of a vote that may have been only 40% of the total black population, but we will see an increase in the number of participation and a building of alliances. But I also know, finally —

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got 10 seconds.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: — the political system is not going to do that. It’s going to take a movement. And that’s why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is engaged.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber, I want to thank you for being with us, with the Poor People’s Campaign, from North Carolina; historian Barbara Ransby, speaking to us from Illinois; and Elie Mystal of The Nation.

When we come back, we speak with the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. Stay with us.