Hillary Clinton’s success at edging out Bernie Sanders in the Nevada caucuses and her strong footing going into South Carolina seemed to vindicate her argument that she’s the only serious Democratic primary candidate. Sure, Sanders won big in New Hampshire, but that’s a small, white state that was predisposed to vote for him, the senator from neighboring Vermont. Clinton’s the one, her supporters say, who can win the support of minorities, especially African Americans, and thus unite the party in the general election.
Sanders, a white man from a white state, has had to battle the concept that his focus on class issues is a way to skirt the thorny issues of structural racism and white supremacy. Clinton surely has black allies, including the academic Michael Eric Dyson and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, to argue this. But Sanders has plenty of prominent black support, from academic Cornel West to former NAACP leader Ben Jealous to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who criticized Sanders for not supporting reparations for slavery only to later admit that he would, in fact, be voting for him.
If Sanders is more progressive than Clinton on issues like mass incarceration, as civil rights author Michelle Alexander argues, then why do we keep hearing the accusation that Sanders is weak on race and incapable of winning minority voters? One explanation is the rift between “old left” socialists, who see everything through a class lens and argue that all our societal problems (including racial disparities) are the result of capitalism, and adherents to “new left” identity politics, who have developed a distrust of labor unions and white workers.
For Jews, who straddle both these camps, it’s inescapable that the criticism of Sanders will force a broader soul-searching in terms of the tattered political relationship that American Jews share with African Americans. Once sisters and brothers in arms in the campaign for civil rights, we now seem to live in different political worlds. The recently released photograph of Sanders resisting arrest during a civil rights demonstration should have reminded everyone of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The fact that many young Jews don’t know who these civil rights martyrs were is reason enough for us to ask: What happened to the famed black-Jewish alliance — and can Sanders revive it?
1963 arrest photo of young activist Bernie Sanders emerges from Chicago Tribune archives https://t.co/0zYArWlYwxpic.twitter.com/bnWonq0nwn— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) February 20, 2016
If you have to choose a historical marker for the beginning of the decline, the 1968 teachers strike in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn might be a good place to start. When Jewish teachers, who enjoyed the material benefits of public employment, went on strike, it was seen as a direct affront to the lower-class black parents living there. The strikes — and the tension — became citywide, and even impacted the black-Jewish alliance nationally. Both sides were accused of using bigotry during the fight, and the sore feelings lingered. Fast-forward a few years and you can see the rift grown wider: Jews moved up economically and socially, firmly marking themselves as middle class and beyond. Today, the issues of chronic unemployment and police violence — so tangible for African-American communities — can seem very foreign in the average Jewish suburb.
But things are changing in the United States, in part because the 2008 financial crisis has forced anyone who isn’t rich to notice that our system is economically unsustainable, as even middle-class people with good jobs find the price of housing and the cost of goods makes saving for the future nearly impossible. That’s an equalizing force — and it just might help Sanders bring African Americans and Jews closer together again.
“African Americans are on many issues no different than Latinos and whites. They want what [Sanders] is advocating for,” Jonathan Tasini, author of “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America,” told me. “The majority of Americans are where he is on Social Security, breaking up the big banks and raising the minimum wage.”
Tasini, who spoke by phone as he was leaving Nevada the day after caucuses, noted that the split among black voters in the primaries was mostly generational, as observers have said that the main divide between Sanders and Clinton is that Sanders is more attractive to younger voters. Older black voters, Tasini said, are attracted to Clinton because she represents a successful and strong Democratic Party, even if her husband’s presidency was marked by welfare reform and support for the death penalty. “Bernie’s going to do well among youth African Americans,” Tasini said. “The challenge will be with older African Americans.”
It’s been said among American socialists that even if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, his presence in this race can reestablish a progressive movement based on inequality and bring the call for higher wages, strong labor unions and funding public services and education out of the political margins. Certainly, anyone wondering what would become of Occupy Wall Street after police violently broke up the anti-bank encampments in the fall of 2011 can see how much of that anger and energy has been funneled into the Sanders campaign, which has a broader appeal than urban street protests.
“Speaking as a Jew, I always forget that Bernie’s Jewish,” Tasini said, laughing when asked how Sanders’s Jewishness affects his reception with black voters. “I think of him more in his politics.”
But the fact is that Sanders is straight out of central casting for the role of Jewish grandfather, and that shouldn’t be incidental to his politics. Even more than Joseph Lieberman in his failed run for the vice presidency in 2000, Sanders is going to be remembered for years to come as the Jew who got closest to the White House (assuming he doesn’t become the 45th president). For Jews on the progressive end of the spectrum, it will be his democratic socialism that becomes part of the face of Jewish politics, instead of, say, Congressman Eric Cantor’s ideological conservatism or the “Israel first” myopia of some American Zionists.
As more prominent African-American leaders back Sanders, and as he performs better than expected in the polls, he can propel Jewish politics back to the point where Jewish-black unity was much stronger. He should own this goal and emphasize it, not as a cynical ploy to win votes, but because this resuscitated unity would be a genuine representation of his political beliefs.
Ari Paul is a journalist in New York City who has covered politics for The Nation, The Guardian, VICE News, In These Times, the New York Observer, The Brooklyn Rail and many other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @AriPaul