Bernie Sanders and his supporters are uniquely positioned to advance a political revolution by doing the thing many Democrats won’t do: throwing down, in a real way, with people of color. Although for reasons relating to strategy, familiarity, and message, voters of color across the country chose Hillary Clinton over Sanders, much of the Democratic Party establishment has yet to reciprocate that loyalty in meaningful ways. Many Democratic leaders pay a lot of lip service to people of color, but the revenues rarely match the rhetoric. If Sanders focuses the forces and resources he’s accumulated in his historic campaign on supporting progressive leaders and organizations of color, he could upend progressive politics and significantly strengthen the cause of combating income and wealth inequality in America.
In perhaps one of history’s greater moments of poetic justice, the socialist candidate battling the billionaires actually has a formidable money machine that is unprecedented in progressive politics. To date, Sanders has raised $186 million dollars: 65 percent from “small donations” under $200 each, or—as Sanders loves to say—about $27 on average per donation. What he does with that machine could be revolutionary on a scale perhaps not ever seen before in US politics.
While much of the conversation about wealth inequality focuses on trends of the past 30 years, the roots of inequality in America stretch back more than 400 years to the arrival of the first English settlers on this continent. From the violent theft of land from indigenous inhabitants, to the creation of wealth by enslaved black bodies in chains, to the widespread and legal practice of racial discrimination in employment, hiring, lending, and housing up until 1964, economic inequity has gone hand in hand with racial discrimination and exploitation. Because of the connection between racial and economic exploitation, the struggles of people of color for equality have driven many of the most powerful periods of change in US history.
From participating in civil-rights struggles in the 1960s to being one of the few white politicians in America to endorse Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid, Bernie has been on the right side of history. Those who marched, sacrificed, and fought for civil rights and voting rights in the 1960s created the conditions for the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened the doors of civic participation and citizenship to tens of millions of people of color. That demographic revolution made it possible to elect and reelect a black man as president of a country that formerly held black folks in human bondage.
In 2012, people of color accounted for fully 46 percent of Democratic voters, yet the modern Democratic Party is appallingly slow to properly embrace and invest in the fastest-growing parts of the US population. This year, top party leaders abandoned or, worse, outright blocked progressive champions of color, such as Donna Edwards in her bid for the Maryland Senate seat and Lucy Flores in her Nevada congressional campaign. While some parts of the party infrastructure have taken positive steps in hiring people of color, the racial composition of those in the highest positions of leadership is not just striking, it’s evocative of apartheid South Africa where the people-of-color majority was restricted to lower-level jobs, while the positions of power were almost exclusively reserved for whites.
Sanders has already started to show what’s possible by marrying his movement with the moment of the browning of America. In Las Vegas, progressive Latina Lucy Flores grew up poor, ran with gangs in her teenage years, and was incarcerated at a young age before going on to become a lawyer and state legislator. Flores is running against a wealthy white woman who, up until April, had managed to significantly out-fundraise her. But then along came Bernie. Sanders’s campaign sent out a fundraising appeal on Flores’s behalf, and more than 32,000 donors responded, filling her coffers with more than $428,000 and instantly transforming the race. If she wins, which is now eminently possible, Flores will be one of the most progressive national Latina elected officials in the country.
Backing individual candidates of color like Flores could just be the beginning. One of the most significant legacies of Jesse Jackson’s 1980s presidential campaigns is that they catalyzed the careers of warriors for justice such as Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters who have championed justice and equality for the past quarter century. Sanders’s support of Flores; Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal, an Indian-American activist; and progressive New York activist Zephyr Teachout may also yield similarly promising results. And, looking ahead, his national surrogate Nina Turner, an African-American former state senator in Ohio, is poised to become the next mayor of Cleveland in 2017.
Elevating the right candidates into elected office is only part of the battle. Ultimately, the entire Democratic Party needs to be transformed. The only Democratic National Committee Chairperson of color in history has been Ron Brown, an African-American who came out of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign. After Howard Dean’s inspiring 2004 candidacy, Dean took control of the Democratic Party, appointing people of color to the very top leadership posts, and implementing the 50-state strategy. The Sanders movement can and should focus on pushing the party back towards the people by insisting on the hiring and promotion of leaders of color and a massive financial commitment to grassroots organizing and infrastructure, especially in the growing communities of color that make up nearly half of Democratic voters.
Approaching the end of the Obama era, the Democratic Party is at a crossroads. The Sanders campaign has already made history, and going forward, by doing what too many Democrats won’t, Sanders is poised to make a mark that lasts long beyond 2016, fosters truly revolutionary change, and moves the country closer to income and wealth equality.