In early February, I traveled to Nashua, New Hampshire, to canvass for Bernie Sanders before the state’s primary. My partner and I spent six-hour days zig-zagging across icy streets, while cold rain poured sideways onto our faces. As we slogged through and kept knocking on doors, it didn’t take long for me—a first-generation, African American lesbian, traipsing through one of the whitest states in the country—to feel the weight of the work. Canvassing there meant daring to talk to mostly white, sometimes hostile, strangers about political action. I was a little terrified and really uncomfortable, but dead set on taking risks for a candidate I know is willing to take risks for someone like me.
As a black millennial, statistics show that I am two to three times more likely to live in poverty than my white peers (which would make it near impossible to pay off my $150,000 in student loan debt). I am trying to decide whether I want to bring children into a world where black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women—where, even if my kids could avoid being routed into the US criminal justice system, they would still be endangered by the devastating effects of climate change. I cried in a suburban home in New Hampshire as I listened to Bernie surrogate Dr. Cornel West and national Sanders campaign cochair Nina Turner preach to a living room full of my fellow volunteers. Both said Sanders’s movement follows the tradition of struggle for civil rights, women’s suffrage, LGBTQ rights, and labor rights. Add to that his unrelenting push for climate justice through the Green New Deal, immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, and demilitarization, and you get the only presidential candidate that makes sense to me.
Last week, I watched Joe Biden give a Super Tuesday victory speech peppered with his increasingly common fumbles and call his own agenda “bold…progressive…a vision.” He spoke from a rally in California, a state that Sanders won, and I knew that I was witnessing history repeat itself.
Biden’s big wins last night further reinforced that familiar lesson: A Democratic candidate can wrap the status quo in visionary rhetoric, with no negative electoral consequences in the primaries. The numerous black people that have been photographed waving Biden placards make great optics for the campaign, as a sampling of the “black vote” that Biden had just clinched. All this for a man whose “tough on crime” bill has disproportionately affected African Americans.
I am relatively new to the frenzy of electoral politics. The first two times I could vote for a president, in 2008 and 2012, I voted for Barack Obama. In 2016, I voted for Hillary Clinton—including in the primary. My parents, who are Nigerian immigrants, are loyal to the Clinton family and to the Democratic party; until recently, I based my preferences on their endorsement. Primaries, vote-splitting, the Electoral College, superdelegates, and the dreaded voter “blocs” of Latinos and blacks: All of these terms and concepts amount to a new language I am acquiring. It has been unsettling, realizing that my future is being gambled and traded like playing cards—and has been, without my knowledge, for some time now. The most infuriating part, for me, has been the mainstream media’s reduction and therefore erasure of black voters, whom it almost always depicts as a monolith.
While discussions of the “black vote” are far from new, it felt like we saw an uptick this election cycle after the South Carolina primary, where 61 percent of black voters went for Biden. (Though, notably, black voters under 45 split their vote between Biden and Sanders.) Multiple theories have been put forth regarding Biden’s firewall of black voters. Disgruntled voices in the Sanders camp concluded that Biden’s black supporters were “low-information” voters. The Nation’s Elie Mystal rejected this claim in a recent column, suggesting black elders make the “safe” and pragmatic choice of voting for a moderate Democrat because they don’t trust white folks to get behind a presidential candidate with even a whiff of revolutionary spirit; a Trump reelection in 2020 could evoke the racial terror of Jim Crow. Some pundits have laid claim to black peoples’ cumulative identity, positing that an overwhelmingly conservative and “risk-averse” voting bloc would never support a candidate like Bernie Sanders.
It is okay to label miscalculations for what they are. Making miscalculations is a thing that humans do. The black people who voted in the 2016 primary election, myself included, put their weight behind Hillary Clinton, and she still lost in the general. To tie all of black people’s choices to their trauma—or give a pass to the belief that black voters are omniscient—is to minimize their agency and their intentionality. But blaming older black voters for single-handedly ushering in an establishment candidate, as some have been quick to do, also takes responsibility away from the outside actors who play a part in swaying folks’ political opinions.
Black people’s reasons for supporting Biden are diverse, not singular. Whether folks would rather live with the devil they know, are party loyalists, or inherited their preferences (as I did in the past), it’s personal, and people are entitled to their choice. I also know that my support for Sanders is not an anomaly. Black activists groups including the Dream Defenders and the DSA Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus show that I am not the only one who supports his platform—that we won’t be cast off to what one MSNBC contributor called the island of misfit black girls.
Super Tuesday exit polls for Texas showed that 41 percent of black voters under the age of 30 supported Bernie, while 29 percent voted for Biden, who ultimately won. Exit polls in most Super Tuesday states did not have enough data to measure the breakdown of black supporters by age—but, without accounting for race, in seven of those 10 states, voters under 30 preferred Sanders over Biden.
At yesterday’s primary, exit polls in Michigan found that 72 percent of black voters ages 45 to 64 went for Biden (to Sanders’s 20 percent); in Missouri, polls showed that 82 percent of black voters in that same age group supported him (to Sanders’s 16 percent). Again, there wasn’t enough data in either state from younger black people to know which way they voted, but all voters under 45 went decisively for Sanders again.
It’s worth noting, too, that black people are just as susceptible to media manipulation and misinformation as anybody else—and the corporate media machine has been biased against Sanders since his 2016 run. Sanders has been rightfully criticized on some issues, such as when he dismissed legislation centered on reparations as “divisive” and politically infeasible. It was one example of his difficulty connecting economic justice to other issues like racial justice in an explicit manner, thus alienating voters of color. He has since changed his tone, pledging support for Representative Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill for a commission to study reparations; he has stated that as president, he would sign the bill into law. Nonetheless, if a figure is demonized and maligned on a regular basis—called a communist, cult leader, or feminist lite—that messaging is bound to set in somehow.
While canvassing in New Hampshire, my partner and I had a revelatory conversation with a white woman in her 70s who repeated MSNBC and CNN talking points without taking a breath: “Bernie’s people are like those MAGA hats…. Bernie is just too extreme. No one is going to go for his policies.” It was heartbreaking to hear her defeatist mentality and the conflation of righteous anger with trolling. The woman didn’t even have her TV on when she invited us into her home; she was waiting for her Social Security check to arrive so that she could pay for her recently shut-off cable. (The previous month, she’d chosen to pay for her medication instead.)
By the time we’d left—after making sure to discuss Sanders’s vow to expand Social Security and his disavowal of overzealous trolls—she was leaning strongly toward Sanders. Later, watching him win the New Hampshire primary felt especially sweet.
In 2018, the writer and public policy attorney Malaika Jabali reported that many black people in Milwaukee—one of the Great Migration destinations for those escaping the Jim Crow South—did not vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they did not care for either candidate (Bernie had won the state’s primary). As a follow-up to her article, Jabali made a short documentary called Left Out, in which she asked black voters and legislators in Milwaukee whether they thought that policies such as Medicare for All, student loan forgiveness, and tuition-free public college were too radical—and, not so surprisingly, she received a resounding no.
Jabali’s reporting goes a long way toward demystifying the phenomenon of low black voter turnout in a crucial Midwestern state: Voters who do not support the chosen candidate might just stay home. Either way, there is no way for a candidate to know what voters are thinking and feeling if they don’t ask them.
Misrepresentation can breed complacency, grinding the impulse to dissent into dust. That’s why discussions of the “black vote” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the media commentariat keeps perpetuating the narrative that black voters will always behave a certain way, there is less room for nuanced stories about the issues black voters really care about—or about their well-founded fears.