Progressive Democrats Struggle to Persuade Black Voters to Trust the Government

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and Rev Al Sharpton share the stage during the National Action Network Convention in New York, Friday, April 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Ten minutes into a small community meeting between black farmers from Southern Virginia and regional campaign staff for Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, an aide took the floor.

He was the only white person to speak in a room of older black voters seated in an old beauty salon. He stood, delivering an off-the-cuff pitch for Ms. Warren’s plan to help rural black America: proposals for new access to funding for black farmers, and to address discrimination in the United States Department of Agriculture. She understood the challenges black farmers faced, he said.

But he was cut off midsentence, before he could finish his appeal for their support. Instead, the black farmers had a message for him, and for Ms. Warren’s campaign. Plans and rhetoric are one thing, but to trust a candidate to deliver — or the government at all — is entirely another.

In a community all too familiar with legal discrimination and unequal access to public services, believing in “big, structural change,” as Ms. Warren likes to call it, is a gamble.

“No disrespect,” called out Lauren Hudson, a 62-year-old hemp farmer, “but there’s a whole different avenue when we go for funding versus when a white family goes for funding.”

Democratic candidates have come to understand that they need policies that target racial inequities, especially to win over black voters — a vital force in the Democratic primary. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont says single-payer health insurance will close disparities like the higher infant mortality rate in black families. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., released his Frederick Douglass Plan, which calls for overhauling the criminal justice system, health care equity, and education funding.

In addition to her proposals for black farmers, Ms. Warren has aimed to design her health care and education plans so that they take corrective steps to address historical inequality.

Still, even as the plans add up, black voters have largely not shown enthusiasm about these candidates, and the polling numbers have barely budged. According to a recent nationwide poll of black voters from The Washington Post and Ipsos, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. holds a significant edge, with the support of nearly 50 percent of respondents. Among black voters 65 and older, poll showed Mr. Biden ahead by 60 percentage points.

Mr. Sanders had 20 percent support, driven largely by his popularity with black voters under 35 years old. Ms. Warren was third in The Post’s poll, with 9 percent.

Over the course of her campaign, at events geared toward black voters, Ms. Warren often cites policy proposals such as investment in historically black colleges and new housing in formerly redlined communities. Crowds generally respond positively.

“I want a world where the color of your skin doesn’t matter, you get the same opportunities,” Ms. Warren said at an event over the weekend hosted with groups including the Iowa chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “We do not fix a system like this by pretending that race doesn’t matter.”

Mr. Sanders’s progress with black voters has been a mixed bag; he is beloved among younger voters and viewed with some suspicion by older ones, who largely supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and found his insurgent campaign to be harmful to her in the general election. Late last year, Mr. Sanders replaced his South Carolina state director, a sign of the campaign’s desire to shift his strategy for winning over black voters.

Mr. Biden’s candidacy is helped by several factors, including his widespread name recognition, public proximity to former President Barack Obama, and close relationship with black community leaders dating to his years in the Senate.

But in interviews with dozens of black voters in Virginia and South Carolina, another theme emerges: Mr. Biden is also ahead because his leading rivals have yet to wrestle with how their promises of structural change must overcome historical distrust of the government in black communities.

Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies race and electoral politics, said black skepticism in government stretches back decades, citing Booker T. Washington and his late 19th century and early 20th century argument for black self-help, rather than a focus on systemic discrimination. Black voters are often described as “moderates,” but Mr. Johnson said the voting choices are more nuanced than straightforward ideological choices.

Racism “contributes to black people’s lack of support for mass federal programs,” Mr. Johnson said. “There’s a sense that, if you prefer federal programs, that can be an admission that you can’t make it without white people or government.”

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Source: The New York Times