Race, Guns and Bernie

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22:  Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a Capitol Hill ral
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22: Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a Capitol Hill rally to introduce legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour July 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. Sanders said the U.S. federal government is the largest employer of minimum wage workers in the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Perhaps I should have called this piece, "Three Reasons I Will Be Inundated with Hate Mail."

It's a difficult situation, you see, born out of a seemingly endless series of tragedies: Black Lives Matter protesters commandeer the stage at Bernie Sanders events, in order to hold Sanders "accountable." Sanders fans shout them down, then harass BLM supporters on Twitter. BLM activists respond with hashtags like #BowDownBernie. The cause, some Sanders supporters believe, is somehow now less deserving of their support. On the other side, people decry the white supremacy of the left for expressing disdain for BLM's tactics. The activist faction of the left has split in two and neither side is looking good.

All of this begs the question: Why Sanders? Why not a more obvious target, like Martin O'Malley? I'm not in the business of telling people to ask, "Stop killing us," in a more friendly tone, but I do feel comfortable observing that calling out Bernie Sanders, of all people, on the issue of white supremacy feels a bit bizarre.

"He's never had a strong analysis that there is racism and white supremacy that is separate than the economic things that everyone experiences," one protester explained to MSNBC. Yet, Sanders was at the March on Washington and was arrested in 1962 for himself protesting segregation. I don't think he thought all that was about economics. And if you want his position on white supremacy, I don't think he'd mind my giving it to you: He's against it, and he isn't all talk.

That does not, however, mean that Sanders is an innocent when it comes to the frequency and ease with which black Americans are murdered.

Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be killed by firearms than white ones. Did you know that? Twice as likely. Implicit in every discussion of gun violence is our relative willingness to let black people die.

Of course, the factors that protesters have been highlighting at Sanders events also play an important role. Implied bias and conscious bigotry fueled by cultural and institutional racism are certainly factors when Americans decide who is and is not a threat worth shooting. And those problems absolutely need to be addressed. But people wouldn't have such an easy time killing black Americans if they weren't armed to the teeth. And everyone--including police officers--wouldn't be so frightened and trigger-happy if they didn't know there was a very good chance that anyone else could be, too. In an armed, paranoid culture, black people pay twice the cost in terms of lives lost.

And when it comes to the proliferation of arms on American streets, Bernie Sanders' record has been deeply disappointing. He voted against background checks and waiting periods again and again and again. He voted to allow guns on airplanes and AmTrak trains. He voted to allow the use of firearms in national parks. He voted to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits. He voted to make it harder to punish firearms dealers who broke the law. He voted to repeal the semi-automatic handgun ban in the District of Columbia, which (in case you haven't noticed,) is 50% black.

In his defense, his record is also more mixed than his critics give him credit for. For example, he voted for higher minimum sentencing for gun-related crimes and for the assault weapons ban. But it wasn't until about 2013, when Sanders began eyeing the 2016 nomination, that he became solidly in favor of common sense gun legislation.

If you doubt that this change of heart was anything other than pure politics, I refer you to what Sanders' chief of staff told reporters about his opposition to the Brady Bill back in 1991: "It's not inappropriate for a congressman to support a majority position, particularly on something Vermonters have been very clear about." At the time, the NRA had just taken out Sanders' opponent and black men were dying from gun violence at twice the rate they are now.

So, when this problem was two times worse than it is now, Bernie Sanders didn't care enough to vote his conscience. Or perhaps he merely felt unable, and that anyone elected in his place would have been even worse. I don't know. I just know that he didn't.

Yet, I've never been under the impression that Sanders has been targeted for being anything other than low-hanging fruit. He has a big audience and not much security. More importantly, he is desperately in need of minority voter support.

Before I go into some analysis, I want to suggest that those who get a case of blinding Internet rage whenever the reality of Sanders' prospects are discussed calmly click back over to that guy who literally tried to sell fantasy novels in his Rand Paul endorsement. He'll tell you what you want to hear. Things are about to get super stressful for you over here.

Recall that in 2008, when Obama clearly won the delegate count, Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote by about 270,000. That margin is pretty impressive when you consider the number of states that cast ballots after it had become clear that Obama would be getting the nomination. In terms of overall support, Bernie Sanders has a much steeper hill to climb than Obama. Hillary Clinton has more of that at this point in the election cycle than any other candidate of the modern era. It doesn't even compare to 2008. His ability to erode that, for a candidate as well-known as Clinton, is going to be limited.

But Clinton had several major disadvantages in 2008 when it came to delegates. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that people in Sanders' camp spend nights obsessing over them. Two large states that she carried were disqualified for holding their primaries at the wrong time. Obama carried super delegates, the elected elites who are allowed to cast a ballot for whomever they wish, by a nearly 2:1 margin. He out-organized her in caucuses. And he carried black voters, who live disproportionately in delegate-rich districts, by overwhelming margins.

To be clear: Bernie Sanders cannot replicate the unique conditions that allowed Obama to wring more delegates out of fewer voters than Clinton. He certainly can't disqualify two large, Clinton-voting states. Worse news for Sanders is that some of Obama's previous advantages are now Clinton's. Her 100% support among super delegates, as well as the sheer number of them to have announced at this point in the race, are not just a reversal of Obama's advantage, they're completely unprecedented. And her advantage among black voters is, at this point, even larger than Obama's was at the ballot box. Imagine roughly this map, with the south and every other state that hinged on minority turnout given to Clinton. Even in a close race, that is Sanders' best-case scenario. That is a bloodbath. And this race doesn't look even remotely close.

If he wants, however, to give Hillary Clinton ten very uncomfortable days next February, and then remain a presence by not flaming out entirely on Super Tuesday there are two options still on the table: caucus-stuffing (which can be done in the all-important Iowa,) and reversing Clinton's domination in the delegate-heavy minority districts (which could work in most every state).

In short, Bernie Sanders needs to increase his support among black voters by about 88 points, just to stay in the game. Right now, Black Lives Matter has his undivided attention.

If he had mine, I would use it to praise his commitment to economic equality and current willingness to address these issues. And then to make sure that other Democrats with presidential ambitions know that the records they leave today will matter down the road.