Back when I was in grad school, a standard intellectual exercise was to debate whether the foremost cleavage in American society was race or class. Of course the two are linked and reality is complex, but endless hours were spent on these discussions, all across the country. It was a means of sharpening our minds and developing analytical skills.
But for African-Americans this is not theoretical, and it is clear where they stand. Race supersedes everything else as the leading factor that has shaped their lives, and this nation. At the Chicago Urban League in the 1980s I asked a departmental director, an executive and a woman of color, if she felt more strongly about her identity and struggles as a woman or a black person. After about 10 seconds thought, she replied that her identity was more linked to being a black than one based on gender; the choice for her was clear. Commenting on a different nexus, James Baldwin explained,
A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he's black or she's black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it's simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live.
And this creates a problem for Bernie Sanders. For his emphasis is just as definitive, and it is on the other side. Bernie has also made a decision from early on, and for him, class is the crucial issue in American society.
Let me be very, very clear: I am definitively not claiming that Sanders is biased or racially insensitive. His record is clear, of supporting racial justice going back to the 1960s, when he participated in the March on Washington. And many efforts since then.
Nevertheless, his great issue is still economic, not racial; it defines him. And for those who look at issues through another prism, that emphasis is not what they are looking for. A recent New York Times article analyzing the lack of excitement about Sanders in the black community argued that a leading reason for this phenomenon was that he comes from a state that is 95 percent white and has not built up a record of championing black causes. But without noticing it, the article's authors also showcased the priority of class over race. Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager, argued, "his message -- the need for more good-paying jobs, and opening up higher education regardless of wealth and family background -- will have strong appeal with African-Americans and other voters." Note the language: His candidate would knock down barriers based on "wealth and family background." Those stemming from race would drop as well, in the course of this struggle, but they would not be the primary focus. That won't fly among black voters, who see things very differently.
Yet Weaver accurately represents his candidates understanding of what challenges are most important in America today. According to the New York Times' article,
Mr. Sanders, in a recent interview, said he believed his call for a 'political revolution' to change an array of politics, such as ending tuition at public colleges, could win over black voters in the months ahead.
Clearly in Sanders' understanding of how the world works class trumps race, and blacks will recognize that over time. Except in reality they don't and they won't, because of their life experiences and history in the United States.
And that creates an enormous problem for the Sanders campaign. African-Americans are clearly one of the most important voting blocs in the Democratic coalition. Yet the first paragraph of the New York Times' article ended with, "Black voters have shown little interest in him (i.e. Sanders)."
And why should they? For both African-Americans and Bernie Sanders the games we played in grad school are quite real -- and defining -- and they have chosen opposite sides. Bernie Sanders is sincere and fighting many righteous fights, but for black voters he is on the wrong side of their fundamental sense of who they are in this country.