Bernie Sanders Earns Support From Black Women Activists
Senator Bernie Sanders has attributed his success in the 2020 presidential campaign to his “multigenerational, multiracial coalition” of supporters. Sanders’s win in Iowa has been credited in part to his support among the minority and immigrant voters who turned out to the “satellite” caucuses set up for those who couldn’t make it to a regular caucus. In Nevada, he was buoyed by his strong backing among the state’s Latinx voters. And the campaign now heads to South Carolina, where Sanders has been chipping away at the support for former vice president Joe Biden among the state’s black voters.
Dream Defenders, a youth-led racial and economic justice organization, is one of several minority-led groups trying to make the case that an older white man is the best candidate to represent their interests. The group’s codirector Rachel Gilmer says that 90% of its membership voted to endorse Sanders and that she thinks the media’s focus on “Bernie bros” is part of an intentional “erasure” of the Vermont senator’s supporters of color.
Gilmer moderated the following conversation with four other black women activists — Combahee River Collective cofounder Barbara Smith, who helped coin the term “identity politics”; poet and organizer Aja Monet; climate activist Isra Hirsi; and mental health advocate Kenidra Woods — about their support for Sanders and “what it means to be a left black feminist in 2020.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachel Gilmer: As the founder of the radical black feminist organization the Combahee River Collective and one of the godmothers of black feminist thought, we’d love you to tell us what drew you to the Sanders campaign, and what would a Sanders presidency mean for black women and other women of color?
Barbara Smith: I supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, so this is not like new-new for me, and I've always been involved in left movements, progressive movements for fundamental social, political, and economic change. So I never thought there would be a candidacy for president of the United States that reflected those kinds of priorities. I really see Bernie Sanders. We're about the same age — we came of age in the 1960s, the 20th century. We're very active in student organizing and just had similar kinds of experiences, although we don't know each other personally. As I said, I never thought there would be an opportunity to work on a presidential campaign that embodied that intersectional perspective of the need to address race, class, gender, sexuality.
RG: Isra, can you tell us why you joined the Sanders campaign and why you think he's the best candidate for black women?
Isra Hirsi: I organize on climate because I want to not only fight for my own future but also fight for the lives that are currently being impacted right now. When it comes to the Sanders campaign, I see the senator as the climate candidate. One that listens to young people, as well as one with the most progressive and necessary climate plan. I think Sanders is the one that takes time to listen to youth climate groups like the Sunrise Movement and Youth Climate Strike and pays attention to what we have to say, and that is beyond enough for me to be an extreme supporter of the Sanders campaign.… I think when you have a candidate that has been focusing on these same issues and has been fighting the fight for decades, I think that shows that it's 100%.
RG: Aja, you’ve never endorsed a candidate for president before. Why Sanders?
Aja Monet: I support the movement to elect Bernie Sanders because I support the movement of poor and working-class men and women and children across this country. I think in every instance, our question should never be centered on who is a leader, but who are the people that are behind the leader and how do we serve those people. And so I think leadership is integral because we all need guidance in the midst of a struggle. But leadership, I see it as a diagnosis and not prescriptive. So I would say that Bernie Sanders is the people's diagnosis of capitalism and people are checking for how he looks more than how he's naming our suffering in this country.
If we think historically about the impact and the implications of capitalism, [it] is rooted in the commodification of human beings and people's bodies. Primarily the families of African people.
RG: Kenidra, how about you?
Kenidra Woods: I am a mental health advocate, and Bernie is so strong on mental health, and he has been saying that there is a crisis happening. People are not listening — most people just say, like...brush it off.... Some people want to say something. I feel like they're just not brave enough, and Bernie Sanders, he's that person that speaks up about it.... He [spoke about it with] Charlamagne Tha God from The Breakfast Club. He always talks about, ‘Oh, there should be more black nurses and black doctors and all these things in order to have cultural competence surrounding underserved communities.… His Medicare for all plan would help provide prescription drugs to 28 million [uninsured] Americans...and then the mental health services will be free of charge at the time of service, with no stress of copays.
RG: As black women who have been vocal about being supportive of Bernie Sanders, have you experienced pushback? What does that look like, how have these conversations gone, and what do you say to people who say an old white man can't possibly be the best person to represent the interests of black women?
IH: A lot of that stuff [on social media] is just more of — Bernie's not for black people and that he's only prioritizing himself and all this stuff. I guess the way that I see it and the way that I would respond to it, I would just be like, Bernie has been there for black people since day one, and Bernie hasn't done anything explicitly to prove that he is against black people. You know, he's pro–Medicare for all and getting rid of student debt...and all these things that are definitely going to support and improve black lives.
I think that Bernie hits all these points through such an intersectional scope through the policies that he's putting forward, things like Medicare for all, the Green New Deal.
AM: I haven't necessarily had an experience with explicit pushback. However, I think that there's within movement spaces and within our community, there is this kind of dichotomy between a Warren and a Sanders, and people are pitted against each other in a very unhealthy way. So I think I come into the conversation trying to stay rooted in what my values are and what I've experienced and why that's important in the conversation around, Are we about the movement of poor people and black people?
Capitalism to me does not care about how we are connected across our differences or even our sameness and it will use that in so much that it can exploit it. You know, identity, to me, does not put food on the table; it doesn't keep a roof over my head. My identity does not pay my bills or make sure that I go to school. Identity won't treat me in the hospital or take care of my root canal.
RG: Today, three billionaires own more wealth than half of the people in this country. More than 50% of homeless families are black. That’s why so many black people are finding a home in this campaign. Because people are realizing that Band-Aids aren’t solving the problem and that we need a total overhaul of our economic system. Every other candidate — even if they are a woman, or a person of color — celebrated that they are a capitalist. People are ready for something new. They don’t want the old version of capitalist exploitation with a new diverse face on it. They want a complete transformation of our system.... We have a candidate for president who wants to completely restructure our society in the image of working people. So what do you think the election coverage is actually getting wrong about this political moment we're in?
BS: Well, one thing that interests me about the media is they seem a bit freaked out by the fact that a Democratic socialist is now leading the campaign. He's a front-runner and one of the things...I've never heard a discussion about in the media is 'What is it about Bernie Sanders that people apparently like so much?’ They're always talking about how what he can't do and how this isn't going to happen or that's not going to happen and he can't possibly do this and he can't possibly do that.
There's never a conversation about what it is about that agenda that respects and that supports the majority of people in this nation who are working class, who are poor and who are struggling, who don't have the basic things that they need in order to have a decent human life. What is it about a person who is talking about changing that deprivation and having that freedom and justice for all through economic equality as opposed to the vast income inequality that we have now? What is it that people like about that? The media never talks about that; they're just running scared.
RG: When I think about the erasure, I think it’s partly they're trying to erase Bernie, but they're actually trying to erase the potential of a movement because even if Bernie Sanders does get elected, he's not going to be able to do all those things on his own. It’s actually the movement of working-class people rising up, and not just Bernie as an individual, that is most threatening to the status quo, to the existing social order that prioritizes big profits over the lives of people.
He talks about that a lot, like 'It’s not all about me, it’s about us.’ It's really going to be the grassroots movement that keeps organizing and putting pressure on Congress, that's going to win things like free college, and Medicare for all, and the Green New Deal, and an end to mass incarceration. And so I think this whole project by the Democratic establishment and the corporate media about saying that ‘Nobody likes Bernie Sanders’ or ‘A socialist couldn't possibly win the presidency’ is much more about erasing this whole grassroots movement and all the energy that people are feeling right now on the ground around his campaign than it is just about Bernie Sanders as an individual.
AM: I think it's also important to identify and articulate where most people are getting their news from because social media is not truly democratic. It's, as we know, owned, and major corporations have some strategy and some role in how that information is distributed. So I think I'm always skeptical also about the stories that are lifted up and told around this Bernie bro. I think we all have to have a healthy sense of skepticism when we're reading things on the internet.
I think Bernie Sanders is reminding us how we're connected as a movement, that we need to join together, and that we need to heal this trauma, this sickness that we're in together. We need to find a way to see across the differences in order to get to the solution.
RG: Kenidra, do you feel like people also have a little bit of healthy skepticism where they just don't trust white folks right now and there's a lot of hurt that is possibly a part of that?
KW: Absolutely. I feel like there is a thing of feeling let down by white people.... People, just in general, that I know personally are like 'Oh, how can he help us?’ And I'm just like, 'Wow, you haven't read his plans.’... So I've told them, ‘Do your research.’ I tell them, ‘Oh, he wants to tackle unemployment, he wants to tackle low wages and these student debts and all this other stuff.’ He's a man that's about his word."
RG: [Regarding] this question around healthy skepticism: Is there anything that Sanders could actually be doing better? Like what do we think his rough edges are?
KW: I don't know if y'all saw the video that went viral [from an October 2019 forum in South Carolina] when he was saying to a black boy what he would do if he was pulled over by a cop or something, and then he was just saying that he would abide by — go with what the cop is saying cause he don't want to get shot in the head or something like that. I guess that was kind of rude, I was like, ‘Wow. I don't know.’ Sometimes Bernie is super outspoken, and...it's not a bad thing to be as outspoken as he is, but it's like, what he said during that I was kind of taken aback by.
RG: Right. As if Black people can do anything that will prevent cops from killing us.
That was a moment that I also cringed and was definitely like, ‘We need to push him on his understanding.’ I mean he's a white guy from Vermont, and I think that definitely clouds his experience — like he's a product of his own experience. Isra, any thought on this one, where do you think Bernie Sanders could be doing better?
IH: I think all candidates could be doing a lot better. We can talk about these broad ideas of policy, but we don't know what that's going to look like when implemented. And I think that's something that the everyday American needs to know so they can truly understand what this idea of Medicare for All really is.... There's a really big — a lack of understanding of what things like the Green New Deal or Medicare for all, like [what] any of these policies really mean to the everyday American. Also what implementation looks like....like this idea of money, [of funding] all of these things are really scary to people.
AM: I'll say Bernie lacks a little bit of his understanding of the current moment we are in sometimes. I think he has a very good understanding of the politics, but the social skills are missing, a little. It's understandable, he's...it's kind of what he is.... It's a flaw but also one of his strong suits that he doesn't seem easily swayed by personality.
Yes, he has an understanding of the class but sometimes in his conversation around race, I don't think he uses the moment to really reflect deeply on how race impacts even his ability to be such a radical candidate in this moment. What it would look like for a young black woman to come up talking about socialist principles running for office, would be very different.... But I think he's got a lot better than where he was in 2016.
RG: I think Bernie has less comfort in talking about race period. And to me it's really wild because while the media is talking about his policies as race-neutral, they totally have a disproportionate impact on people of color. So, it's like if you eliminate all student debt, that's like over a trillion dollars. Black women have more student debt than anybody else. So that's like actually a black policy.
But he doesn't always talk about it that way.... It's not actually shifting the idea; it's shifting how he communicates the idea that would make such a huge difference in terms of people seeing themselves in the campaign.
AM: That's on us too. We have to let people understand [that] climate justice is a black issue; education is a black issue. All these things are our issues, but understanding the implications of how these show up and manifest in our lives is not always laid out. And I think to Isra's and Kenidra's point, I think there has to be more to "make it plain", as Malcolm X would say. Make it so plain that even a child could understand it, and that's how we organize. We have to be able to make things very easy for working-class folks to see, 'Oh wow, this is how it's going to work, and that's how it directly impacts my life.’
RG: I'd like to end by asking what a black feminist agenda looks like to each of you. So Barbara, you've talked a lot about the ways identity politics have been misunderstood. Could you share your thoughts?
BS: To me, a black feminist agenda is really about global justice and looking at any issue that destroys people's lives, that detracts from people's well-being, that hurts and harms people. So not having all these undeclared wars around the globe, to me that's a black feminist issue.... Anything that undermines the well-being of life on our planet is a black feminist issue.... Back in the day, we had to make it up from scraps — nobody was talking about black feminism.... But even today, this many decades later, it's really about human liberation and freedom, as far as I'm concerned.
I think that a black feminist agenda is highly compassionate, that it takes into account the micro and macro conditions that make life either wonderful or make it to hard to bear.
RG: Yeah, what you've said just about black feminism being a politic of solidarity is actually about the liberation of all people, and if we think about that this society is built on patriarchy and white supremacy, which is all about domination and destruction, black feminism is the antithesis of that, and it's about a world where people can live in harmony, compassion, see themselves in each other. I think that's really powerful.
IH: I think of everybody's freedom, and when we're talking about black feminism it's not just something that's just black women. It's also just black lives. It's feminism and liberation for everybody, and I think when it comes to advice for organizers, thinking through the lens of being unapologetically yourself and also existing through the framework of working towards the idea of fighting for freedom for everybody.
AM: June Jordan has this quote that I often refer to. She says, 'Sometimes I am the terrorist, I must disarm,’ and I think when we move from a place of self-determination, love, and introspection, we're no longer feeding for acknowledgment or superficial gestures of representation. We start to demand substance and seek connection based on a shared story, and solidarity, I think, is the greatest chance we have against false narratives and media manipulation. And so in order for justice and healing to take place, we have to name, as black women, we have to name the root of our sorrow and our suffering, and in naming them we can find agency and fellowship with others who have suffered and who have sorrow because our solidarity is about how we have endured together.
So the last thing I'll end with is Assata [Shakur], and she says that women can never be free in a country that is not free. And we can never be liberated in a country where the institutions that control our lives are protected. So we can't be free without our men and we can't be free as long as American government and capitalism remain as is. And I think that's why we have to come together as black feminists to really ignite the system and elect Bernie Sanders in this next presidential election.