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Lawrence Brown & Robert Greene discuss why Sanders is having trouble gaining support amongst black voters in the South

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. It’s the evening of Super Tuesday, and as we’re recording now, Donald Trump has won six states. He’s also projected to win Vermont, although it’s close. Kasich is just a couple of points behind. Ted Cruz is going to win two states, Oklahoma and Texas. Marc Rubio is projected to win Minnesota. Numbers for Alaska are not in yet. In the Democratic Party primary Hillary Clinton has won six states. She’s projected to win in Minnesota, currently leading in Massachusetts, but it’s too close to call. Bernie Sanders has won, he’s won in Vermont, as expected, but he’s also won in Oklahoma and right now he’s on track also to win in Colorado. So, Bernie Sanders is hanging around. The Clinton camp was hoping for a knockout punch on this Super Tuesday, but that ain’t happening. Now, to talk about all of this, and the significance of this historic, we’re told, historic Super Tuesday, joining us from Columbia, SC is Robert Greene. Robert Greene the second, I’m sorry. Robert’s a PhD student at the University of South Carolina’s history program. And also joining us now from Baltimore is Dr. Lawrence Brown. Lawrence is an activist, global health consultant and assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University. Thanks very much for joining me, gentlemen. ROBERT GREENE: Thank you for having me. LAWRENCE BROWN: Pleasure to be here. JAY: So we, I’ll go to you first, Lawrence. We’ve got kind of an ironic, weird situation, I think, of sorts. Donald Trump is certainly on track to become the Republican nominee. Now it’s very possible he won’t win 50 percent of the vote. There could be a brokered convention. There could be a kind of a coup at that convention, and maybe Trump won’t win. It’s a scenario, but as things are looking right now, Trump is winning the majority of the delegates in most of the primaries, and certainly looks like he is going to win the nomination on the face of it. Trump, who is an overt spokesman for a kind of pent-up rage and racism that much of the white, working population, white voters want to express. They want to attack Mexicans, they want to attack Muslims. He is not overtly racist about Black Americans, but certainly it seems to be not far below the surface. Hillary Clinton is winning the majority of the Black vote on the Democratic Party side, but Bernie Sanders is actually winning the majority of the white vote. In a general election, Bernie Sanders looks like he is actually a bigger threat, I don’t think just to Donald Trump. He polls well ahead of both of the other potential Republican candidates. Whether it’s Cruz or Rubio, he actually does better against them than Hillary Clinton does. How big a threat do people, you know, Black voters, Black working class, see the Republican Party and Trump? And if they do see them as such a big threat, why is Hillary Clinton doing so well amongst Black voters when Sanders would probably fend off the Republicans better, based on polling, at any rate? BROWN: Well, you know, I don’t think Black voters are really looking at what’s going on in the GOP right now. I think for the past eight years we’ve seen clearly what the GOP has been all about, the way they’ve said a lot of derogatory things and disrespectful things about President Obama. I think right now Black voters are squarely focused on what’s happening in the Democratic Party and really looking at two candidates and thinking about who they want to represent them. And I think it’s really overlooked the extent to which you have a person who is from the North–a white male in Bernie Sanders-that a lot of Black voters in the South aren’t very familiar with before this election, whereas Hillary Clinton [is] a southerner herself. In the heart of the Democratic Party the fastest, well, the most ardent voters in the Democratic Party are Black women, and I think you have a lot of Black women who were perhaps supporting Hillary before Barack Obama really began to take off as a candidate, and so now they have another chance to support her, and I think they want to see her through. JAY: Robert, you’re in South Carolina. You know, the Clinton record, if you look at the objective numbers, economic numbers, the Clinton presidency wasn’t particularly good for poor people. It wasn’t particularly good for Black, poor people. There’s nothing in Hillary’s record to see that she would do anything special to help poor Black people. She’s certainly been very closely associated with the defense of Wall Street and finance capital and so on. She’s been closely associated with the military-industrial complex and so on, and so on. How do they keep this [Clintonian] mythology going in the South like this? GREENE: THat’s a great question, and I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton and, of course, Bill Clinton are both known commodities. Now, the 1990s for African Americans, as you mentioned, were a decade of mixed economic impact. For some African Americans, especially those in the middle class, it was actually a rather [inaud.] decent decade. But for those who were poor, working class, a bit more difficult. I think the problem for this particular campaign, especially for Senator Sanders, is that since Secretary Clinton is better known, he has to fight an uphill battle with the African American community to become a better-known candidate. And while he has received some high profile endorsements, not just Killer Mike and Cornel West, but even here in South Carolina getting the backing of several key, Democratic legislators including Representative Joe Neal, he still had an uphill battle here in South Carolina. Ultimately, if he can’t find a way to figure this out across the country in terms of getting African American voters, he’s going to be in serious trouble down the road. JAY: And Lawrence, he certainly started pretty late reaching out, in terms of building relationships with Black American voters. Maybe he never thought he’d be in such a competitive position, but, you know, he has been around on the hill for years. He could have done this a lot sooner than he did. Is that part of the problem here? BROWN: Well, you know, I think we’re making a lot of our analysis about Black voters, but I think this election is more about he white, middle class, the disaffected, white, middle class. Researchers at Princeton, Ann Case and Angus Deaton, they looked at research showing that white, middle aged people are dying at a higher rate than they were before, a rising mortality rate declared to a declining mortality rate for Black and latinos. And so they basically found that much of the reason for this is what they called an ‘epidemic of pain.’ So suicides, alcohol abuse, and opioid abuse are behind a lot of these early deaths, so I think that in many ways what you have is on the left and the right, both Donald Trump… angry white vote. JAY: I’m sorry, Lawrence, we had a bit of a technical problem there. Just pick it up again a few words back. BROWN: Sure, you know, I think what we have here on both the left and the right is Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders trying to tap into the angry, white voter. Whereas on the right the angry, white voter is very much concerned about, you know, who’s invading the country, so you here this xenophobic language about Muslims and other groups. What you hear on the left, from Bernie Sanders, is a lot of anger about Wall Street. And so I think, you know what, unfortunately for Bernie Sanders, he’s been making these race-neutral arguments, or arguments about Wall Street which, on the whole, you know, when police are killing your children, when you have overt racism against the president, Wall Street is kind of an obtuse target for, I think, a lot of Black voters. BernieSanders, I think, could have come out a lot earlier and a lot stronger to make a race-conscious case that would have appealed, I think, to a larger percentage of Black voters, but because he’s targeting white voters, in large part, and winning in those states that have a larger white electorate, I think he made a certain tactical decision, but it’s going to end up costing him. JAY: Right. Robert, I think Lawrence makes a very important point, that the devastation of the white working class in America. I mean, in New Hampshire, even, one of the number one issues the electorates were talking about was heroin addiction. You go just outside Baltimore into some of the white towns like Winchester and other places, you talk to people and ask them, what’s the number one problem facing you? And it’s not, they actually don’t say unemployment. The number one thing they say is heroin addiction. The devastation of white workers, and then, there is a history of this, that the sort of liberal elite, when in power, which includes President Obama or President Clinton, they so fail to solve any of the basic problems facing white workers, it becomes a kind of easy target that the problem is this liberal elite, and that your real enemy is the other: not the system, not the people who have such concentrated ownership and power. You actually have a billionaire who’s able to divert people, this white anger right now towards Mexicans and Muslims, and any other day it would be Black Americans. GREENE: Yes, I think you’re right. And I think Dr. Brown is also correct that this working class, white vote is critically important for the 2016 campaign. This is a group that has been left behind in many ways by the Democratic Party. They, as you said, have been left behind by a liberal elite. But, they’re also, probably, increasingly frustrated by Republican Party leaders as well, which we’re seeing with the rise of Donald Trump. They’re not seeing the Republican Party really paying dividends on some of these culture war issues like abortion or gay marriage. And with the Democrats, of course, they’re seeing them not really catered to white, working class voters when it comes to economic issues. There’s, for the Democrats, a mixture of cultural liberalism and then a strong adherence to, for the most part, things like free trade. So that’s why I think Senator Sanders is doing so well, because he’s giving this economic populist message that is resonating with many disaffected, white voters. Now it remains to be seen if that message will spread to other groups, including African Americans and Latinos. And so far it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. JAY: Lawrence, you’re in Baltimore, and I think it’s probably similar in Baltimore as it is in many other areas of the South. I mean, Baltimore is in the South. The extent to which Hillary Clinton’s wrapped herself in the Obama flag, and people see Obama, I mean, the people I talk to, I’m in Baltimore, too. They see Baltimore, I’m sorry, President Obama, kind of as a victim of the system, that he would have done more if he could. It was, you know, the Republicans and the system that held him back. And he doesn’t really catch much blame for the fact that the situation for Black Americans, poor Black Americans, got worst over the last eight years. BROWN: Well, I mean, I think there’s some truth to that, but I think, you know, among 80, 90 percent of Black Americans, to attack President Obama is to attack Black America, and so I think that’s what Senator Sanders has failed to realize. Some of his comments come off as actually attacking one of the most amazing Black people to ever be, you know, to ever rise to power in this country. He literally became the first Black president of the United States. And I think, you know, the amount of love and affection that Black voters have for President Barack Obama cannot be denied, especially when you’ve seen the type of vitriol that he’s faced, not only in Congress, and with the oppositional party, but even if you look at 2010, the ‘blue dog’ Democrats in the 2014, the congressional elections, the way that the Democrats really sort of distanced themselves from Barack Obama. Hillary is hugging Barack Obama. Hillary is saying, Obama is my BFF. So I don’t think that Senator Sanders really understands the shrewd strategy that Hillary’s employing when she’s hugging up on Obama and he’s sort of saying, you know, I’m adhering to my principles, but Black voters are like, no, you need to pay some respect to our Brother Barack Obama. JAY: Well, he, I think he’s kind of caught a bit in a rock and a hard place. You know, he’s been praising President Obama’s role in the ’07-’08 crisis and bailing out, stopping the Great Recession from becoming the Great Depression and so on, but he’s a little bit cornered, because, you know, one of his main critiques on Hillary Clinton is she won’t pledge not to appoint a Wall Street team as her finance team. But, at the same time, that’s exactly what President Obama did when he dealt with the ’07-’08 crisis. He appointed a Wall Street team to be his finance team, and, frankly, you know, bailed out the big banks. And while he may have, temporarily, I would say, stopped the Great Recession from becoming the Great Depression, he did it in a way that was completely favorable to the big banks, and nobody, none of the big bankers, get prosecuted for outright fraud, and really, nothing’s been fixed in terms of the system. The oversight, Dodd Frank and such is swiss cheese, and all of this can happen again. So how does Sanders differentiate himself from Clinton policy without telling the truth about the limitations, if you want, failures, or whatever, of the Obama administration? But then if he does it he offends all the Black voters, as you were just saying. BROWN: Was that for me? [Laughs] JAY: It’s for either of you, whoever wants to jump in. Robert, what about you? GREENE: Well, I think that’s certainly the big problem senator sanders faces. I was just thinking that one of the things he could have done from the get-go is to make a case for, s you mentioned, for talking about how President Obama had some limitations when he first came into office, and how he, Senator Sanders, is trying to build upon what President Obama has left behind. but again, it is difficult to make a case, especially to African American voters who have a long history of political pragmatism. They may look at the country for the next four years and think to themselves, well, you know, Secretary Clinton might be our best option because she has a long political record of being in the mainstream. She maybe would get some things done with a Republican-led congress, whereas Senator Sanders’ ideas may sound good in theory, but [he’s kind of] unlikely to actually get anything done. So I think, for African American voters, it’s a case of balancing idealism and pragmatism: trying to figure out which candidate can best serve their needs in an otherwise hostile political climate. JAY: And there’s still some big states coming up, Lawrence, that have significant Black populations, primary states. Is there anything Sanders can do differently to break through? And, well, that’s the question. BROWN: Well, I don’t know. I mean, you look at some of the campaign surrogates that Senator Sanders was able to procure for his campaign, he was able to attract and attain the top critic within the Black community against Barack Obama, in professor Cornel West. He also was able to attract and bring on board a rapper named Killer Mike. Now, I love both of those brothers, but as a young, Black male from the South, or relatively young, what I can tell you is that I think maybe Black voters have a certain sensibility in the South, especially older Black voters, I don’t know how attracted they are to a rapper named Killer Mike. I don’t know that they’re too enamored with Dr. Cornel West right now. I mean, my grandmother, I don’t think that she’s particularly happy with either men, you know? And so, they made history, we made history with Barack Obama. I think older, Black women may want to make history again with Hillary Clinton. JAY: Robert, same question to you. GREENE: I think Dr. Brown has a good point there. And, in fact, I’d been a little surprised that the Senator Sanders campaign hasn’t pushed more to the forefront Nina Turner, a politician from Ohio who is an African-American woman. I’ve seen her actually speak in Columbia, and she’s given some powerful stump speeches on behalf of Sanders’ campaign. I think their best option from here on out if they African American voters, is to push Nina Turner more and more to the forefront, and say that Nina Turner’s story is the story of many African American women in this country. If they can do that they might have a chance. JAY: What about Michelle Alexander? She came out with a pretty scathing critique of Hillary and Bill Clinton. You know, she says she’s going to vote for Sanders. I don’t know, I have no idea whether she’ll actually go out and do anything more than that for Sanders, but has that had any impact, or will it have any impact? GREENE: I think Michelle Alexander would have more impact with the younger African American voters. Her book, “The New Jim Crow,” is one that’s often taught in college courses. It’s one that’s very popular among people on the left, especially African Americans who are concerned about the carceral state. So she could offer some leverage to the Sanders campaign [inaud.]. JAY: Lawrence, you’re saying that voters, Black voters, are really focused on the Democratic Party primaries right now, but people must be aware of the rise of Trump and this sort of, this kind of overt racism. Or not? I’m asking you, I guess. Is it not becoming a more serious issue, and are people taking it into their consideration? BROWN: Well, I think we have to make a distinction: Younger bBlack voters who are on Twitter, on Facebook, you know, we’re certainly seeing a lot of this stuff all the time. But again, in the South, and you’re looking at, you’re talking about my grandmother. She’s not on Twitter, she’s not on Facebook, she doesn’t watch cable news all the time. She’s looking at, you know, every now and again, “Oh, there’s Hillary,” and “Who’s Bernie?” You know, southern, Black people, where’s Bernie’s southern connection? I don’t think he has one. I mean, he worked with Dr. King in Chicago, and that’s great. But I do think, as southern, Black people, and maybe southerners to a large extent, really care more about relationships, care more about knowing who you are, care more about seeing you in their community, and we’re making all of these wonderful, academically powerful arguments, but I think what Senator Sanders hasn’t really paid attention to is relationships, and really just walking and talking and getting to know people. In the South I think that’s critically important, and a lot of people really don’t know him, and I think that’s going to be his greatest liability. JAY: All right, thank you, gentleman, for joining us. GREENE: Thank you. JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Dr. Lawrence Brown is an activist, global health consultant, and professor at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. He studies the role of racism, masculinity, and disinvested neighborhoods with regard to their impact on health. His research explores the intersection between history and public health.

Robert Greene is a Presidential Fellow and Ph.D. student specializing in 20th Century American history. Robert J. Greene is also a journalist decorated by the Georgia College Press Association. He currently works as a guest blogger for the award-winning U.S. Intellectual History Blog.