There was a little noted footnote to Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders big win in the Wisconsin primary buried deep in the final vote stats. Bernie actually bagged a far bigger percent of Black votes than expected. He got more than one-fourth of the Black vote. Now the reason that this got lost in the primary post-mortem is because Clinton as expected got 74 percent of the Black vote. So the 26 percent that Sanders got seemed paltry. The second reason it flew under the post-mortem radar scope is the by-now etched in stone campaign narrative that Hillary has an iron-clad lock on the Black vote, and that Bernie can only win young, white, left voters in "white" states.
The Clinton lock on the Black vote notion rests on some well-known and well-tuned reasons that go beyond the fact that she is married to Bill, and Bill's near universal past popularity with African-American voters has endowed her. She has a sterling track record and history in speaking out on civil rights, health care, poverty and women's issues. She has deep ties with legions of black elected officials and civil rights leaders. And she is the one Democrat who blacks, especially black women, say they personally admire. Clinton also learned the bitter lesson of her South Carolina primary loss to Obama in 2008 that did much to wreck her assumed easy glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination that year. This go round there has been a Hillary sighting at just about every Black college, Black legislative function, Black churches imaginable. She's met with Black Lives Matter activists at times and has done a public mea culpa for bill's hard-nosed criminal justice initiatives that have resulted in the astronomical swell in the number of Blacks in state and federal pens in America.
This seeming lovefest with Hillary at any other time would be more than enough for her to skate through a primary with little worry about being upended. And certainly without a seeming Johnny come lately challenger, the likes of Sanders from one of the whitest states in the union. And a man who has made clear during much of his Senate career and the embryonic stages of his presidential run that his first and last mantra will be chasing the Wall Street money lenders out of the public temples. This seemingly one-trick pony focus assured that Sanders would get almost zero traction and votes when he rolled his campaign to the South. And that's exactly how it played out. Clinton crushed him with the Black vote there.
But Sanders learned from this. He stepped up his game and has made a mighty effort to get visibility, traction, and endorsements from black organizations and elected officials wherever he can get them. He's publicly embraced a lot of what Black Lives Matter has said and advocated on curbing police violence, mass incarceration, and criminal justice system reform. He's lifted a page from the Clinton playbook with some Bernie sightings at Black churches and colleges. He even stopped the tap dance around the one question that more than a few Blacks have asked him: what does he think about reparations? At the Tindley Temple, a Black church in Philadelphia, Sanders didn't exactly embrace reparations, but he did concede that the federal government must make a massive effort to give poor Black communities the lion's share of financial aid and should formally apologize for slavery.
He's learned something else about race politics. It's fine to talk about smashing wealth and income inequality, but that doesn't do much when even black millionaires, business persons and professionals can be spread-eagled by police after a phony stop, or shadowed by store security in retail stores, or watch as cabs ignore their frantic signals to stop and breeze by them, or are excluded from contract bidding by the good ol' boy system. Having all the wealth in the world means nothing in the face of naked and raw racial degradation.
To make any headway with Black voters, Sanders will have to make the case, and make it repeatedly and convincingly, that fighting hard against wealth and income inequality must be squarely tied in with fighting just as hard against racial inequality.
The first hint that Sanders' halting efforts to break Clinton's iron-grip on Black voters paid some dividends came in the early March Michigan Democratic primary. Sanders got almost one-third of the Black vote in that primary. It did more than raise a few eyebrows. It was just enough to edge Sanders past Clinton and nab the win. It also did much more. It proved that in close contests in the Northern states with a significant percentage of Black votes, Sanders need not top Clinton's Black vote total. This won't happen. He just needs to slice into her percentage of the Black vote to be competitive, and as Michigan showed, to even defy the oddsmakers, and win.
Clinton has always understood that in a racially tense and polarized nation, race matters, and matters greatly. Sanders is now getting that. And he is actually bagging Black votes, and likely will continue to bag them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is From Sanders to Trump: A Guide to the 2016 Presidential Primary Battles (Amazon Kindle) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Saturdays 9:00 AM on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network