Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is not entitled to black votes

The Democratic front-runner should stop taking African-American voters for granted

December 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

Conventional wisdom dictates that black voters love Hillary Clinton. But one recent poll has the Democratic presidential front-runner and former secretary of state down by 31 points among black Democrats since July.

Meanwhile, a frequent criticism of Clinton’s main rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is that he doesn’t know how to connect with black voters. According to political strategist Luther Smith, “Sanders’ attitude is … ‘I am talking about the kind of things I think should be important to you, and if I am saying the right things on those policy issues, then you should naturally gravitate towards me’ … That is not how most people operate, but that is definitely not how black people operate.”

While it is insulting to suggest that a candidate’s policy positions are irrelevant to black voters, it’s probably true that some portion of all voters prize style over substance.

But the assumption that Sanders can’t earn black votes is an example of the worst kind of smug, lazy political thinking. Clinton began a long campaign season with high polling numbers among black voters. But this has been driven at least in part by vastly higher name recognition than Sanders, which will not necessarily guarantee her the loyalty of black voters over time.

Black voters want what all voters want — access to education, health care and decent jobs. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has revealed that certain issues, such as guaranteeing basic physical safety and reforming the criminal justice system, are higher priorities for black voters than for other groups.

Sanders is a gruff, didactic 74-year-old white man who has lived in Vermont, a state that is only 1 percent black, for over 45 years. He’s never going to win on style. But the more people become familiar with him and his policy positions, the more popular he has and will become. Witness Sanders’ recent passionate endorsement from rapper Killer Mike in front of a raucous multiracial crowd in Atlanta, which immediately went viral. On the issues that matter most to black voters, Sanders has a much stronger record than Clinton.

Sanders, who has publicly opposed the death penalty throughout his congressional tenure, said a month ago, “It is time for the United States of America to join almost every other Western industrialized country on Earth in saying no to the death penalty.”

By contrast, Hillary Clinton said of the death penalty, which is disproportionately applied to black people, “I do not favor abolishing it ... because I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty, but I’d like to see those be very limited and rare, as opposed to what we’ve seen in most states.” In other words, we know that thousands of black men who may or may not have committed any crime have been and will be executed, but we should try to do it less often.

On the issues black voters care about, Hillary Clinton has nothing but overcautious rhetoric to offer.

On the absurd marijuana laws that have landed so many black men in jail and prison, Sanders said, “We need major changes in our criminal justice system, including changes in drug laws … Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That’s wrong. That has got to change.”

On the same topic, Clinton said, “I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today … I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research.” While Sanders decries the connection between bad marijuana laws and racial oppression, Clinton says we need to further investigate something about which there is already a mountain of sound research.

Sanders introduced legislation in July that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, saying, “It is a national disgrace that millions of full-time workers are living in poverty and millions more are forced to work two or three jobs just to pay their bills … A job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it.” Asked about the minimum wage, Clinton cautioned that “what you can do in LA or in New York may not work in other places.” Sanders believes that all workers are entitled to a living wage; Clinton believes in waiting and seeing.

On education, Sanders said, “We need to ensure that every young person in this country who wishes to go to college can get the education that he or she desires, without going into debt and regardless of his or her family’s income.” Clinton said, “I think it’s important for everybody to have some part of getting this accomplished … I would like students to work 10 hours a week.” Sanders says college should be free for those who want to go; Clinton says if you’re poor, you should have to work for it.

Sanders has a comprehensive plan to abolish private prisons. Clinton decided in late October to stop accepting donations from federally registered lobbyists or PACs for private prison companies.

During the second Democratic debate, Sanders turned to Clinton and said, “Ultimately, we have got to say as a nation, Secretary Clinton, ‘Is health care a right of all people, or is it not?’ I believe it is a right.” Clinton didn’t respond.

People who have an inconsistent record to defend often argue that the best leaders learn from their mistakes; they take in new information and change their positions accordingly. But the only new information Clinton has gathered that would explain why she has changed her mind on so many key issues, from incarceration to the Iraq War, is polling data. That’s following, not leading. Even the most charitable interpretation of Clinton’s many reversals reveals, at best, troublingly poor judgment.

Here’s the best dating advice I ever got: When a man tells you who he is, you better believe him. That applies equally well to politicians.

On the issues black voters care about, Clinton has nothing but overcautious rhetoric to offer. She is taking black voters for granted. Judging by the response to Killer Mike’s rally in Atlanta, I doubt they’ll let her.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter